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Lessons From the End of a Marriage

A “How to Thrive” Guide After Divorce

The Importance of Feeling Safe in a Relationship

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When you don’t feel safe in a relationship, your focus shifts from connection to protection.

Instead of turning towards your partner, you’re turning inward or turning away in an attempt to avoid a sense of increasing danger.

And relationship safety is often misunderstood. We tend to oversimplify the state; believing that as long as physical threats are not present, there is no reason to not feel safe (yet there are many ways that we can feel emotionally unsafe in relationships). Additionally, we often dismiss or misinterpret feeling a lack of safety in a relationship. We may chalk it up to our own insecurities or blame it on anxiety arising from within.

You also may be unintentionally behaving in a way that lessens your partner’s sense of safety in the relationship. And so that disconnect or tension that you may sensing could be their attempt to protect themselves.

What Does Not Feeling Safe in a Relationship Look Like?

  • Not knowing what to expect from day to day or moment to moment.
  • A hesitancy to initiate affection or intimacy because of a pattern of rejection.
  • Biting your tongue out of a fear of the repercussions of speaking your truth.
  • Your emotions being mocked or dismissed.
  • Always being asked to change your appearance or demeanor in order to be accepted.
  • A feeling of walking on eggshells because of repeated emotional outbursts or unexpected and over-the-top reactions.
  • Intimacy and connection are used as both reward and punishment – if you’re “good,” you get attention and if you’re “bad,” it’s withheld.
  • A feeling that you have to put on a front or hide certain aspects of yourself in order to avoid rejection or ridicule.
  • Your partner frequently threatens to leave or divorce.

What Characteristics Make People Feel Safe in a Relationship?

Physical

Your partner doesn’t hit you, hold you down or use their body to intimidate you. You don’t expect a physical altercation and you don’t flinch when they reach towards you. If you are hurt or ill, they will attend to your physical needs. If you reach towards them, they accept your touch. Any physical rejection is done with kindness and not blame or shame and sexual activities are never forced or coerced.

Consistency

You generally know what to expect from your partner and your relationship. Their actions and reactions are familiar and somewhat predictable. Additionally, except in extreme cases, emotional responses are not over-the-top and are appropriate for the situation.

Authenticity

You feel like you can be you. The real you. You don’t feel like you have to hide or pretend in order to be accepted. You can speak the hard truths without fear of overreaction or detonation. You also trust that your partner is revealing their true nature and that they are not holding back anything of importance. An authentic relationship is not always happy, but it’s also not hiding anything.

Vulnerability

You can be weak without fear of being taken advantage of. You can reveal your fears and insecurities without ridicule or emotional blackmail. You feel like it’s okay to not be okay and that a temporary state will not become a permanent point of contention.

Acceptance

You feel listened to. Valued and valuable. Your partner doesn’t try to change you or frequently compare you to others. Criticisms are aimed at your behaviors rather than at your core self. They accept you as you are, not as they want you to be. Any requests or encouragement towards change is both fair and approached with your wellbeing in mind.

The Link Between Relationship Safety and Anxiety or Insecurity

Our primary relationships often set the tone for the rest of our experiences. We expect to be able to come home and relax our guard, to be authentic without the risk of excess judgement or the fear of being taken advantage of. To be our best, we need our relationships to be our stable ground from which we grow into the rest of our lives.

And so when home is more unpredictable wobble board than sanctuary, the effects extend outwards. Much like an infant with an insecure attachment to a parent shows less confidence in exploring the world, an adult that doesn’t feel safe in their primary relationship may hesitate to to take risks or be prone to excess worry.

Of course, not all anxiety or insecurity is relationship-based. Yet if your symptoms increase when you’re around your partner or are primarily present at home, this may the root cause of your stress. Also pay attention to a lasting sense of “walking on eggshells.” This feeling is common during times of stress or transition, but if it continues, it indicates that you are afraid of triggering a reaction.

Often people are surprised when they feel calmer and more confident when a significant relationship ends. But it’s not surprising at all when they never felt safe within that relationship.

How Past Betrayal and/or Abandonment Impact Relationship Safety

Part of the trauma of both betrayal and abandonment is that they destroy any sense of safety. And those effects are lasting, even following you into a new relationship. This is especially true if you felt safe and secure until the moment you realized that the firm ground was instead an illusion crafted to keep you unsuspecting.

A sense of safety is related to trust, yet it is also its own domain. Trust comes down to believing that your partner’s actions align with their words. Safety also relies on a sense of consistency and acceptance. And both obviously suffer after betrayal or rejection.

If you have experienced this kind of relationship trauma, it will be some time before you feel steady again, no matter how secure your footing. Part of the healing process is learning what is a true danger and what is merely a malfunctioning alarm.

The Limitations of a Safe Relationship

There is no such thing as a fail-proof relationship. It is impossible to be involved with another person and never feel hurt or disappointed. Feeling safe in a relationship does not mean that your emotions will never be bruised. Instead, it comes down to trusting that your partner will never internally seek to harm you and if they do misstep, they will take responsibility for their part in the transgression.

The Powerful Benefits of Feeling Safe in a Relationship

Safety is a primary need. Without a sense of safety, much of your energy is extended towards being ready to run, hide or fight if needed. And when that need is met, your energy is freed towards growth and you feel securely anchored enough to take risks in other areas.

When at their best, our relationships give us both the firm ground on which to stand and the encouragement to extend beyond our perceived limitations.

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