“Sweetheart, that’s not safe. Be careful. You might hurt yourself.”
I, along with countless other parents, have said many variations of the above statement. As a parent, one of your main jobs is to keep your little one safe. You point out the things that may be a danger- the sharp edges, the deep holes, the hot surfaces. Sometimes kids instinctively know what is safe and what is not safe, but often they have to be taught either from their own life experience (yep, the stove is hot) or from someone who has already walked the path. That is how children learn what is safe.
Adults aren’t much different. Only in adulthood, hot stoves and riding too fast on our bikes aren’t the only causes for concern. Relationships can be the real danger lurking around the corner, and they can do all sorts of damage to our hearts and minds. In adulthood, are hearts can be as easily broken as our wrists and ankles. To heal our hearts and to protect them, we need to know what is emotionally safe and unsafe. It seems like this would be common sense, but in reality it can be very difficult to know what is safe and unsafe behavior in a relationship. Love has a funny way of disguising the unsafe people in our lives. So we end up wondering Is this normal? and staying way too long in drama filled relationships only to find our hearts tattered and our voices silenced.
Do you know what makes a relationship emotionally unsafe? Do you know when you are in an emotionally unsafe relationship? If you find yourself feeling that you’ve lost your sense of self, are always walking on eggshells, or wondering if a relationship is supposed to be this stressful, then chances are you are not experiencing the safety and security you need and deserve in your relationship. Here are six characteristics I have observed in my years as a therapist that create an unsafe environment in a relationship.
- “Me?? What about you?”- Defensiveness
We all get defensive, but defensiveness in a relationship blocks any vulnerable communication. It is difficult to share anything with someone who reacts defensively. Such a reaction immediately changes the course of the conversation. Defensive people need to be right, which also creates a power struggle in the relationship. If the defensive person needs to be right, then you are wrong… you are always wrong. This is so dangerous to our sense of self because it leads to doubting our own thoughts and feelings. We lost touch with our intuition and gut. When we have been in relationship with a defensive person too long, we eventually stop speaking up and are riddled with self doubt.
- “You think your day was bad. My day was much worse!” Lack of empathy/always making it about them
It is hard to feel emotionally safe enough to be vulnerable in a relationship if the other person is always making it about them. This can occur in a variety of way- the person doesn’t give empathy but instead one-ups your experience, he takes on your emotion and makes your experience about him, she always focuses on her life without learning and knowing more about you. For example, let’s say you try to share something that is going on with you- you’re feeling sad, you’re frustrated with work- and then your loved one may talk about how much worse his situation is than yours OR he may become annoyed with your emotional expression. This type of pattern of communication leaves little room for sharing and vulnerability. When you are on the receiving end of this dance, it can feel like there is no room for your feelings or experiences because it always comes back to the other person. Overtime, we share less and less of ourselves because we are afraid what we say 1.) is going to be dismissed, 2.) is going to be twisted, or 3.) it is once again going to be about the other person.
- “You didn’t ask so I didn’t think I needed to tell you the whole story.”- Dishonesty
Unsafe people in relationships often don’t see the danger in dishonesty/half truths. They may say they didn’t tell you because they were trying to protect you or didn’t want to make you mad. And then when the truth is revealed, they will often minimize the event writing it off as “no big deal” or “you’re overreacting which is why I didn’t want to tell you in the first place.” These types of rationalizations for dishonesty are highly controlling and manipulative, and they put you back in the position of feeling you are wrong for being upset that the person you care about withheld information from you.
- “I apologized! What more do you want?”- Apologizing without action to back it up
Apologies are important but meaningless if they aren’t backed up with a change in behavior. An unsafe person may apologize but they will be reluctant to follow through with changing the behavior that caused the hurt in the first place. A healthy apology is one in which the wrongdoer acknowledges her actions, how her actions impacted you, and follows that up with committed behavior change. This sustained (that is a key word… one week is not sustained, by the way) change in behavior shows there is true recognition of the harm done. It is the changed behavior that rebuilds the trust that was broken.
- “You should trust me!”- Demanding trust rather than earning it
Where there is drama and unsafety in a relationship, you are also going to find broken trust. The two just seem to go together. In repairing a relationship, you must repair the trust, but trust CAN ONLY be repaired with time. An apology is a step towards repairing trust but it does not/should not completely restore trust. Feeling entitled to someone’s trust is an indicator that the person is not willing to do the long, hard work to rebuild trust. If entitled trust is an issue in your relationship, ask yourself shouldn’t the person who is demanding your trust be more concerned about why there is a lack of trust (in other words, why you feel unsafe around them) rather than immediately wanting your trust back.
6. “If you weren’t the way you are, I wouldn’t act this way!”- Holding others responsible for thoughts, feelings, actions
Unsafe people often do not take responsibility for themselves. Instead, they blame others for their feelings, thoughts, and actions. If you would just do this or that, THEN I wouldn’t get angry, have to have a drink, etc. When the unsafe person blames you for their actions, this creates yet another cycle of guilt and manipulation. Over time you begin to believe that the other person’s anger, drinking, feelings, etc. are your fault in some way, and if you just do this or don’t say that, then everything will be okay. You begin to feel responsible for the other person’s emotions and you work harder and harder to keep the peace. This pattern is the ultimate control and manipulation tool. It is how you find yourself walking on eggshells no longer knowing who you really are.
See, that’s the dangerous thing about an emotionally unsafe relationship. Yes, it’s stressful. Yes, it’s hurtful. But the long term danger is that you lose you. You lose your voice. You lose sense of your needs, likes, dislikes. The relationship, and trying to keep the peace, trying to be who the other person finds acceptable so that you can win his/her approval, buries your true self.
On the other hand, emotionally safe relationships invite us to be all that we were created to be. They are equal and reciprocal in terms of their love and care for one another. Vulnerability is a strength rather than a liability. In an emotionally safe relationship, you feel known and seen… you feel it is safe to be known and seen rather than thinking you need to be someone else.
It is so easy to stumble into an unsafe relationship. Many of us have done it. Like we said earlier, love blinds us. Love blinds us because we innately want to love and be loved. And that is a good thing! It is a good thing to want love in your life. But inviting love into your life at the cost of your own self and voice is a dangerous exchange. Like hot stoves when we were little, we end up learning about unsafe relationships either through experience or trusting someone who can see more than we can.
If you find yourself wondering Is this normal? Is this right? or wondering if there is something wrong with you, you deserve to start rediscovering who you really are separate from whom your relationship has convinced you that you are. You deserve to share your story and let someone come alongside you to speak truth and love into you life. You deserve a safe, reciprocal, life-giving relationship. You deserve healthy love.