The core of relationship problems: It’s all about safety
Safety and trust in relationships go hand-in-hand; safety lays the foundation for trust, trust over time morphs into safety. Have safety and trust and you relax and lean into the relationship. You’re not afraid to say what is on your mind, to talk about what bothers you. This is intimacy in action. Without them you pull back, shut down, walk on eggshells, get angry.
But even in good relationships trust and safety can be fragile things and can easily get derailed. Sometimes by unexplained or unexpected behavior. Affairs come to mind. Trust is suddenly shattered and though the hurtful conversations after often center on the details of sex outside the relationship, the real problem is less about sex and more about understanding how your partner did what you always thought he would never do.
Other times safety is shaken by sudden changes in emotions – the out-of-the-blue explosive alcohol-induced rant that shakes you to your bones, or flares of real mental health issues, such as mania, where your partner is no longer herself and goes on and on about seeing God.
Incidents like these can be devastating but for most of us, fortunately, not very common. In everyday life, the derailing of safety is usually much more subtle, not with the big but the small. Here are the usual culprits:
Criticism. You should have called your brother sooner, you shouldn’t leave your clothes on the floor, you put too much salt in the stew, you can’t leave your shoes by the front door. It’s about shoulds and rules and doing something wrong even if you felt your effort was good, your intent noble. The scolding mother or father wagging the finger, the seeing the negative rather than anything positive. Under these conditions, you begin to feel like a 10 year old, and you automatically react like a 10 year old — you walk on eggshells, withdraw, get angry.
Safety goes away because you can’t trust that your partner is in your corner, that whatever you do isn’t good enough.
Anger. Criticism ramped up – the raw emotion and feeling literally scolded and emotionally abused, and in more extreme forms, physically abused.
Safety. There is none. Survival, ducking and weaving, trying to stay out of trouble.
Micromanaged. Feels like criticism at times when there is an angry edge, but more often micromanaging is about hovering, suffocation: Here’s what I would suggest, why don’t you try this, what I would say is this. Advice not asked for, suggestions not wanted. You feel controlled, maybe again like the 10 year old. Men, in particular have a difficult time with this.
Safety goes away because you feel like you are not seen as a capable adult, that you are not heard, that anything you say only sets off another round of advice.
Lack of appreciation. Close cousin to criticism, but the hard edge is replaced by absence. The big fancy dinner that you slave over isn’t criticized as much as ignored. Your efforts go unnoticed or the quick feedback is “not bad”. You constantly do a lot and not much comes back to you in terms of compliments or gratitude.
Safety goes away because you begin to feel invisible, that what you do doesn’t matter, and over time you don’t matter. This is less about feeling afraid and more about a lack of a meaningfulness; there is nothing to motivate you to give your best to the relationship.
Neglected. Another cousin to the others but feels different: It’s not only that your partner doesn’t notice, but pulls back. There is not that strong wall of anger and disapproval, but there is a wall nonetheless, and your partner doesn’t care. The huff, the days of silence, the isolation and loneliness. Just as men as sensitive to the micromanagement, many women are sensitive to neglect.
Safety goes away because there is no connection to sustain you, the relationship isn’t important. You fear that speaking up will only create more isolation and neglect.
All of these, of course, are in the eyes of beholder and are usually tied to childhood wounds (see my previous article on Why You Tolerate What You Hate…). If one does speak up it’s easy for the conversation to turn to defensiveness or into an argument about whose reality is right – I’m not critical, I’m only trying to be helpful; I’m not micromanaging but making suggestions that might be helpful because I worry or care; I’m not angry, I’m just passionate, if I talk above a whisper you hear it as anger; I’m not unappreciative, you never hear my compliments, you’re too needy; I’m not neglecting you, I’m preoccupied with important things, you are too dependent and too sensitive.
These go nowhere. If you care about your partner you don’t defend yourself and argue back over whose reality is right, but instead together try and fix the problem. You would want him or her to do the same to you.
But wait there’s more…. Negative Loops
But we’re not done. The derailing process often gets worse because any of the above safety-saboteurs set off the infamous negative loop. The sensitivity of one sets off the other. The classic is where one partner feels neglected, gets angry which sets off the other withdrawing which increases the other feeling more neglected and getting more angry…ad infinitum. Or one partner feels unappreciated, withdraws, the other interprets it as criticism, and gets angry, in turn stirring the other’s feeling on not being appreciated. A variety of permutations. You get the idea. The outcome is a circular loop of ever-increasing hurt.
The Way Out
How to get back to safety? Obviously you can’t by doing more of the same or hoping that things will magically get better. Some guidelines:
Know your sensitivities. Which of the one or two of the list are you most sensitive to? This is good to know. Realizing when your sensitivities are being triggered and possibly leading to an overreaction is even better. If you can catch it, you have the opportunity to step back, slow down, try and put in the situation in a better perspective. The starting point is not about the other guy, but about you dealing with old wounds in a different way.
Be assertive rather than withdrawing, walking on eggshells or getting angry. Once you can slow down and stop running on those little-kid feelings, you have the opportunity to handle this as an adult in a more rational…adult way. Rather than pulling back, trying harder or blowing up, speak up — with assertiveness and emotional calm, using your emotions as information about what you need, rather than something to ruminate about or discharge. Pretend you’re at work expressing a grievance to your boss or coworker.
Realize it’s not about all about you but the other guy coping. Criticism and micromanaging are usually about anxiety – I get anxious when things aren’t going the way I need them to be and I get rattled and get annoyed; I control as a way of coping with my usually ongoing anxiety and knowing what to expect helps me feel less upset. Similarly, I get angry when frightened or feel out of control; I become unappreciative or withdraw when mentally absorbed, depressed, or out of sorts. This putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes can help change the old story that you’ve undoubtedly been telling yourself; it allows you to move towards compassion rather than staying stuck in victimization or resentment.
That said, changing your perspective doesn’t mean that you should learn to accept mistreatment. Abuse at some level is abuse, neglect is neglect regardless of the underlying sources, and you don’t want to rationalize tolerating it — to do so is to again slip into the little-kid mind rather than adopting the adult mind. As an adult you want to step back and realize what is the best you can do.
The best you can do is try to be understanding about what may be under the surface without sacrificing yourself, and then take clear action to help the other understand what you need, break the negative loop with or without professional help and support, and if necessary, get out.
So the big questions: How safe do you feel? What can make it better?