Emotional Safety in a Troubled Marriage

thoughtful concerned woman with man blurred in background
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My husband, Bruce, was entertaining a group of colleagues at his company's Christmas party, playing an impromptu and comical role as Redneck Santa. He was distributing gift certificates and gag gifts to people in the audience, and the scene was jovial. But when Bruce picked up the Cold Stone Creamery certificate to give away to someone in the crowd, he lightheartedly commented that it reminded him of his wife in bed. I couldn't believe what was happening. The thoughts racing through my brain were something like His wife in bed? Are you kidding me? I couldn't believe he could be so insensitive to me — to us! I was mortified.

From my perspective, Bruce had just insinuated to a crowd of a few hundred people that I had some kind of sexual problem. I was shocked and numb. Humiliation and feelings of being poorly portrayed were part of an orchestra of painful emotions playing in my spirit throughout the rest of the evening. I was hurt.

Bruce, on the other hand, was completely unaware. His comedic comment was simply referring to the fact that I am typically colder than he is. When I snuggle up to him at night, he can feel like he's hugging a Popsicle.

I didn’t know what to do with my pain after the Christmas party nightmare, so I criticized and blamed Bruce for how I felt. I wanted him to hear loud and clear that I believed he did something terribly wrong to me — and to our relationship. Unfortunately, I didn't exactly clarify how I felt after the party; I simply accused Bruce and thought that he should know what I was feeling. As a result, I became emotionally unsafe for both of us.

The Christmas party conflict was only one example of the ongoing pain in my marriage, and I concluded that if Bruce would only be more sensitive, stop criticizing and quit telling me what to think and how to feel, then we might experience some understanding in our relationship. From my perspective, my husband was the barrier standing in the way of a fulfilling relationship.

Recognizing our need for help

It's been more than a decade since Bruce and I were in that rocky season of our married life. The cycle in our relationship had become all too familiar: blaming, criticizing, complaining, retreating to pout and shutting down with no resolution. Conflict simmered beneath the surface of our relationship, and we were getting nowhere. I was unaware of the real issues in my marriage and I avoided conflict as much as possible. I did not know what was at the heart of our disconnection, so I blamed Bruce and found myself missing the opportunity for both personal and relational growth.

During this season of desperation, I realized we needed help. Bruce and I attended an event hosted by the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute (FMI), and real change began to happen in our relationship. I gained insight into my own heart and learned how to communicate in a way that was safe for both of us. Our exposure to the program's marriage principles influenced us to the point that our marriage began to slowly get on the right path.

Bruce and I have now been married for 31 years, and I enjoy serving couples as a therapist at the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute. Focus' Hope Restored: A Marriage Intensive Experience offers all-inclusive intensive counseling over a period of several days. My involvement with FMI has been both personal and professional, and I like knowing that we all have the power to create emotional safety amid a troubled marriage.

Here are some of the things I learned then — and help other couples learn today:

Understanding our yards

During our marriage struggles, my perspective changed when I realized that how I feel is my responsibility, and what I do with those feelings is within my realm of control — regardless of what my husband does or does not do. For too long my focus had been in the wrong place. I was trying to change Bruce, and that had become exasperating because I didn't have — would never have — power to do that.

One foundational teaching from FMI helped me understand that how I choose to think, feel, believe and behave is all inside my "yard." The term "yard" helps to separate my responsibilities, the things over which I actually have control, from my husband's responsibilities. Although I can influence my husband, I cannot control him or what is in his yard (his emotions, thoughts, beliefs and actions). In trying to create the safety I wanted and needed, I had been focused on Bruce's words, attitudes and actions, instead of my own, creating an unsafe emotional place that left me feeling trapped.

With God's help, I now understand more about myself, my responsibilities in my marriage relationship, and my need to more intently attend to my own yard. This understanding has in turn proven to be the starting point for creating personal safety and health in my marriage relationship. As I become more emotionally safe, I've even begun to see my husband in a new light, making me more curious and caring about his heart.

Creating emotional safety

If you find yourself struggling with marriage issues and the need to understand your own yard, I'd recommend you first consider your own need for emotional safety both personally and relationally.

Emotional safety is a foundational concern in communicating with openness and vulnerability. There are important contributing factors to emotional safety, and a lot of them are within your power to incorporate into your marriage relationship. Consider the following:

1. You can be safe with yourself. That is, you can believe that you are worthy of time and attention and that you are emotionally aware — even if your spouse seems insecure in the moment. Staying connected to your own heart from day to day and proactively caring for your emotional well-being can be a big step toward emotional safety. In addition, owning the responsibility for what you think, feel, believe and do will give clarity to your boundaries. Please keep in mind that if you are in an abusive relationship, seeking help and safety is not only healthy for you, it’s in the best interest of everyone involved.

2. You can adopt an attitude of curiosity. You can ask your spouse: "What are you feeling?" "What are you thinking?" "How are your emotions and thoughts connected to what you are doing?" Staying curious, particularly in the midst of painful emotions, will provide an opportunity for you to grow from your circumstances. 

3. You can be a trustworthy person. If your mate feels accepted and cared for, in spite of his or her faults, you prove that you are trustworthy and create a better atmosphere for healthy communication and connection. Trustworthiness includes being attentive to the influence you have in the relationship, while letting go of the responsibility for what your mate thinks, feels, believes or chooses to do.

Taking responsibility for a better marriage

The writer of Proverbs 4:23 tells us, "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life." Whatever issues you're currently experiencing, the underlying problems of fear, unmet desires and misplaced expectations often fuel the fires of other emotions. It's essential then, that you start paying attention to how you feel and realize that your emotions exist to give you important information about yourself. Remember, emotions are not intrinsically good or bad, they just feel good or bad as you experience them.

But what about the emotions you feel when your spouse says or does something hurtful? Taking responsibility in that situation means first asking yourself, What's going on in my heart? It means slowing down and taking the time to get a grip on your fears and unmet desires. When an event happens that leaves you hurting and wounded, like my Christmas party conflict did for me, a good way to start is by taking some time to gain perspective so you can attend to the wound. Then, when you at least have some healing around the wound, you will be in a much better place to calmly address what has happened with your spouse. Personal responsibility is a challenging concept to grasp, and communication can be a difficult skill to master, but your marriage deserves both.

If you feel trapped in emotional pain or in a struggling relationship, there is always hope. Acknowledge that you can attend to your own emotions and seek help from a friend, a pastor or a counselor so you can do the work that is necessary to thrive in your marriage.

If, like Bruce and me, you see your need for more intensive help, you might want to consider Hope Restored: A Marriage Intensive Experience. Thousands of marriages, with situations as complex and painful as yours, have been transformed through the help of professionals who understand where you are right now and care deeply about where you and your spouse wind up in the future.

For more information visit HopeRestored.com.

Vicki Morgan is a provisionally licensed professional counselor with the state of Missouri and a marriage-intensive therapist at the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute.

© 2016 Vicki Morgan. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com

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