My wife, Jenni, is a master at avoiding emotionally unsafe situations. When we were first married, I often wanted to talk to her (lecture might be a better word here) about a few things she needed to work on to make our marriage better. To my dismay, she didn't care to listen and would move from room to room to escape. Though the following story might seem light-hearted at first, it shows the lack of safety in our early marriage, primarily because of my lack of understanding about how healthy relationships work.
During one of our "discussions," Jenni locked herself in the bathroom. I was fine with that since her action resulted in my having a captive audience. So I sat on the floor and loudly rambled on about what I wanted her to do to change. After a while, I noticed it was particularly quiet on the other side of the door. Then I heard a noise from the driveway: Our car had started.
Only then did I realize Jenni had planned ahead by placing the car keys in the bathroom. She had climbed out the window to get away from me.
After the jolts of anger and humiliation dissipated, I realized my wife did not feel safe with me when I went into lecture mode. My words were beating her down.
Jenni's actions taught me about the life-giving principle of emotional safety and how if it's neglected, individuals and marriages suffer.
Creating emotional safety
I’ve counseled thousands of couples and I want to be clear: In cases of physical or emotional abuse, you should leave the dangerous environment and take your children with you. Ask questions later and sort through the incident(s) with the counsel of a licensed professional and, if warranted, legal counsel and the police.
This article is about emotional safety. Without creating safety, spouses who try to communicate within the marriage sphere will get emotionally bruised. Feelings will be hurt. People will become angry and start a reaction cycle. Two adults trying to figure out their longings, desires, fears and emotions need a caring relationship in which to process them. Here are a few tips to creating a communication environment that produces intimacy rather than animosity:
The personal journey
When Jenni retreated to safety, I initially thought that was her problem. I would rehearse in my mind what I was going to tell her she needed to do to improve our marriage. I felt that I would be unhappy unless she changed. But gradually I realized that I had to take control of my thoughts, beliefs, feelings and behavior.
It was a revelation to me that I could control my feelings and actions. I could change how I showed up in the marriage relationship. This concept empowers a spouse who feels trapped by the other’s behavior. It allows a person to move toward healing and maturity whether his or her spouse chooses to.
If your spouse says sarcastic things, you can still respond with kindness, for example. I was sad that Jenni didn’t want to talk to me, but I wasn’t stuck.
The marriage journey
Each spouse is responsible to journey alongside his or her mate and to support and encourage him or her. But here’s the reality: To participate directly in your spouse’s journey always requires his or her invitation and cooperation.
I learned that leaving a conversation had to be safe for Jenni if she was to participate in the marriage journey. If she didn’t feel respected or cared for — for whatever reason (and she was the judge) — the conversation needed to end without recrimination.
If you ask something of your spouse, "no" has to be an acceptable response. For example, if you ask him or her to not yell, your spouse may say "no" and begin to shout. Then you leave. Your spouse can raise his or her voice, but you don't have to listen.
If you sense your spouse isn’t feeling safe when he or she interacts with you, find out what changes would make a difference. This takes patience and practice. Begin by discussing something simple, like which garbage disposal to purchase or where and what time to have a date. After the discussion, ask your spouse how he or she felt about the process. Look for ways to improve the discussions, always seeking your spouse’s best interests.
Eventually the only place where Jenni agreed to speak to me about anything of importance was in the library, an environment where both of us had to keep our voices down. Once a week, we met for two hours out in the open, and we brought our laptops. We began creating a safe space by keying messages back and forth. If Jenni wrote something, I would summarize it in my own words and send it back so that we both knew I had heard her. She would do the same for me. Those boundaries had to be set in order not to harm each other emotionally. And it assured each of us was heard and cared for. Over the years we've come to a place where we don’t have to go to the library or climb out of windows. All Jenni has to do now is wrinkle her nose, and I know that I have to back away from an idea and listen to her.Robert S. Paul, licensed professional counselor, is vice president of the Focus on the Family Marriage Institute. He is the director and creator of the Hope Restored marriage intensive counseling program and is a co-author of The DNA of Relationships for Couples.
Do you know of a marriage in crisis? Learn more about Focus on the Family’s marriage intensives by visiting HopeRestored.com.