Many of us believe that we should strive have a safe relationship with those we love.
But what does safety mean?
I often hear answers such as:
- “My partner should always respect me”
- “My friend should never hurt me”
- “My partner should always meet my needs”
- “My friend should love me as I am”
- “My partner should never consider leaving me”
- “My friend should never challenge me”
- “My partner should not change from being the person I fell in love with”
- “My friend should always agree with me”
Having someone always be there to support us and meet our needs sounds wonderful. However, holding that to be ideal behavior in a relationship has significant downsides. “Safe” is not always a great thing.
- If I can’t say what I really feel about something important because I might hurt you, how might this limit intimacy in our relationship?
- If we have a commitment to “always meet each other’s needs”, what happens when what you want is different from what I want?
- Do we want to put limits on whether you and I can change or grow, because your change or my growth might disrupt our relationship?
Maintaining safety in a relationship is tricky; ironically, it can lead to increased silence and distance. For example, offering consistent respect seems like a given, until your partner does something that you do not respect. In order to be respectful, do you then keep silent, which may create distance between the two of you? Or do you speak up, and risk hurting your partner and possibly being criticized for your candor?
Establishing what safety means for you and the person you love can be extremely challenging, but also extremely rewarding.
When I work with people in this area, I encourage them to take responsibility for meeting their own needs; to ask their partners for what they want; and I help them to develop flexibility and resilience, so that they can deal with being disappointed at times. None of us always get everything we want!
Usually, people find that this is tough work, but well worth it, because it results in relationships that are stronger, more honest, and more intimate (but possibly less “safe”).
Here’s an example from my practice:
Bill* was angry because he felt that Joe wasn’t being much of a companion to him.
“He doesn’t care about things that are very important to me. Why am I in this relationship, since I always have to do things on my own?”
To Bill, a safe relationship meant one where he and his partner did things that he enjoyed, together.
But Joe had no interest in two of Bill’s favorite hobbies—moviegoing and hiking.
Exploring Bill’s reactions, we found that he didn’t like going to movies alone because doing so made him feel like a “loser”. One solution would have been for Bill to go to the movies with friends. Instead, Bill chose to confront his fears, soothe himself, and get comfortable going to the movies on his own.
Hiking was a different story. Bill explained to Joe that he very much wanted to share with him the beauty and serenity he encountered on his hikes.
I wondered what was behind Joe’s unwillingness to participate. Did he have a true aversion to these activities, or was he making a statement about his own ability to be flexible?
As it turned out, Joe did not consider himself at all athletic and had no hiking experience. Nevertheless, he worked to stretch beyond his own idea of being safe in his relationship (which had meant adhering to familiar, comfortable routines), and ultimately joined Bill on the trail.
Examining their own beliefs about safety, Bill and Joe both found ways to soothe their own fears, face challenges, and grow closer.
Pretty cool. I love the way that our relationships can help us to become stronger people.
If you’re interested in transcending your own fears and limitations in your relationship, feel free to contact me. I’ll be glad to help you.
*All names and identifying details changed.