Updated: Jul 26, 2021
What affects our sense of safety in romantic relationships?
Can we develop relational safety?
Relational safety reflects our experience in a specific relationship and echoes whether this partnership provides a space in which we can be emotionally open, intimate and find a space to be honestly heard. When considering relational safety, romantic relationships are seen as more challenging compared to other types of relationships such as parent – child, for example. The reason for this complication is the ease by which romantic relationships can be dissolved by one partner’s unwillingness to commit and in addition, the way prior relational experiences (e.g. other important attachments - such as the relationships we had with our parents or previous romantic relationships) affect one’s expectations, way of thinking and behaviour in a relationship.
In trying to understand the components of relational safety, one can fall back on Bowlby’s attachment theory (1988), which presumes that a safe relationship provides a secure base and a protective haven. That is, a secure base reflects a relationship which can become a supportive backup when exploring new challenges and opportunities, whereas the protective haven relates to a partner’s role as a source of comfort and reassurance. Summing up, safety in a romantic relationship is drawn from the experience of being consistently supported, encouraged, understood, and soothed; components which require a repetition over time for safety to be established (Duemmler & Kobak, 2001).
Another key component upon which to build a safe relationship is showing commitment. Although it is difficult to discern how committed a partner may be, there are behaviours and attitudes that could operate as signals to this and are often noticed and sometimes even ‘tested’ in romantic relationships (Kelley, 1983). Being trustworthy, emotionally, and physically available can be examples of such signs of commitment.
Commitment, support, and provision of emotional comfort are all key components that create relational safety and can be cultivated and developed in many ways including those described below:
Justin has been in an intimate relationship for several months yet feels that he and his partner view the handling of their shared finances in very different ways. Every time they attempt to discuss the topic, they end up arguing. In fact, Justin finds himself trapped. In trying to explain his point of view, his partner interrupts him to state the unreasonableness of Justin’s position.
This is a common occurrence in couple communication. The difference in perspective and opinion results in a limited space for sharing ideas, thoughts, and points of view. The goal of convincing another, proving that ‘I am right’ feels more important than listening to our partner. In fact, the feeling of righteousness jeopardizes relational connection and leads to alienation.
As a good exercise, practice listening to your partner's point of view for at least five minutes a day, simply to relate back to them your understanding of their perspective (avoid judging or correcting them, even if you find yourself disagreeing).
When Veronica feels stressed or upset due to something that happened at the office or even due to a relational conflict, she can become very emotionally distressed. Veronica’s emotional sensitivity is nothing uncommon or problematic. What becomes a problem is the way she demands from her partner to resolve her emotional distress and when he falls short of this expectation, her demandingness for emotional relief can take the form of aggression, judgmental communication, or even risky impulsivity. Although a partner’s role includes being emotionally supportive, this does not mean that they also have the capacity to take away our emotional pain.
Partners who recognize that ‘support’ does not mean ‘resolve’ do much better in communicating their distress and experiencing emotional validation and empathy from each other. Indeed, one of the key skills to bring in a relationship include ways to soothe and to support our own selves with understanding and kindness. Veronica’s relationship would benefit from her developing skills of soothing herself during emotionally challenging times while turning to her relationship as another, but not the only, emotional buffer.
Try this out – when you feel emotionally upset, before turning to your partner, spend five minutes writing down your own thoughts and feelings and identify at least one thing that you can do to soothe yourself (e.g., a hot/cold shower, exercise, a creative activity). Then, go to your partner for additional support.
Jane understands that her partner, like herself, and all of humanity will sometimes mess up. In recognizing this, she is more willing to be supportive and offer emotional and active help to her partner rather than criticize them (e.g. Christodoulou et al., 2021). This compassionate stance allows for the partner to feel freer to be genuine in the relationship, be more connected and even talk about errors and grow from them.
To practice this skill, you may ask your partner to play a game of skill (e.g. a board game) and notice mistakes that you both make. In those moments, try to catch yourself before becoming critical and deliberately cultivate a stance of understanding and acceptance of these errors by saying ‘we both make mistakes, it is part of the game’ or ‘mistakes, help us learn the game’.
Awareness of old relational templates
A few years ago Sam came out of an abusive relationship where being heard and respected was nonexistent. Sam allowed for the passing of time and eventually entered a new relationship. In this new relationship Sam was being overly cautious and hypervigilant, filtering the new partner’s behaviour and reaching conclusions on how to behave and speak. Soon, Sam started feeling disconnected and resentful towards the new partner, wondering whether signs of repression were again surfacing.
Sam’s story is not uncommon, past experiences and ways of relating can affect our relational habits as well as our fears and expectations. Perhaps Sam was fearful of being judged again or even abandoned and so tried to behave in ways that felt more acceptable to the partner. Unfortunately, the cost was that Sam was unable to truly connect with the new partner and explore whether bidirectional acceptance existed in the new relationship.
A useful activity is to chart out your own relational story. This includes considering what you have learnt to expect from others from your parental and previous romantic relationships. How do you behave in a relationship because of those expectations? Having an insight to these patterns could help you avoid pitfalls in future partnerships.
A key point to remember is that the formation of a safe relationship is not straightforward and often requires awareness of our thoughts and behaviours, our intentions and expectations, as well as ways of uncovering and settling our needs – this last point, is firstly a personal and secondly, a relational task.
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Christodoulou, V., Elia, C., Hadjisavvas, S. (2021). Self-compassion components and prosocial behaviour. [Manuscript in preparation].
Duemmler, S. L., & Kobak, R. (2001). The development of commitment and attachment in dating relationships: Attachment security as relationship construct. Journal of Adolescence, 24(3), 401–415. https://doi.org/10.1006/jado.2001.0406
Kelley, H. H., Berscheid, E., Christensen, A., Harvey, J. H., Huston, T. L., Levinger, G.,
McClintock, E., Peplau, L. A., & Peterson, D. R. (1983). Close relationships. New York: Freeman.
About the Author:
A highly experienced (+12 years) and considerate psychologist who strives to work with her clients to help them develop a more connected and personally meaningful life. She is trained in cognitive behavioural and person-centred approaches.
Book an online appointment: firstname.lastname@example.org
Services offered: individual, couple therapy, group work
Self-development exercises: Dr Vasiliki Christodoulou on YouTube