What Is Emotional Intimacy?
Cultivating emotional intimacy in marriage makes me think of a road trip. Having a destination is essential, but the journey is where adventure lies. My wife and I love a good road trip. I could tell you countless stories of getting lost, taking detours, traffic jams, and discovering beauty along the way.
Marriage is a lot like a road trip. Some days are blue skies and sunshine, driving through the countryside with the wind in your hair and music cranked loud. Other days are roadblocks, traffic jams, and detours. When you head out, you never know what lies ahead. The road you travel won’t always be easy, but the journey is where your marriage is strengthened and thrives.
The journey begins the day you say, “I do.” It won’t always be easy, but all the bumps in the road help the two of you grow closer. When you tackle all those hazards together, hand in hand, it strengthens your connection.
Researchers at Cornell University found that the most successful marriages involve communication, knowledge, and commitment.¹ Those three components are vital to a happy, healthy marriage. They also contribute to building emotional intimacy in your relationship.
What is emotional intimacy in marriage?
It’s the ongoing, intentional process of fully knowing your spouse and being fully known by your spouse. Intimacy is often equated with sex, but it’s so much more than that. There are actually five types of intimacy: emotional, intellectual, experiential, spiritual and sexual. For right now, let’s focus on emotional intimacy because it’s crucial to the other types. Emotional intimacy is the “glue” of all relationships.²
Emotional intimacy is understanding what’s happening inside your spouse (and feeling like they understand you the same way). It’s knowing all their feelings, hopes, dreams, vulnerabilities, fears, motivations, and desires. It’s gaining a better sense of what drives or moves your spouse, what interests and intrigues, and enthralls and enchants that person you’ve committed yourself to. Emotional intimacy is simply growing deeper in your understanding of your mate.
Emotional intimacy requires couples to take on the role of a compassionate detective – an invested student of each other. Developing emotional intimacy is a continual process of learning, understanding, and empathizing with who your spouse is on the inside. Both men and women view emotional connection as crucial to a long-term, healthy relationship.³
So, what does emotional intimacy look like in marriage?
I’m glad you asked!
Here’s what people in marriages with strong emotional intimacy may say:
It feels like I’m heard whenever we talk, even if we disagree.
When we’re together, we’re not just two people in the same room; we really connect.
They don’t try to fix things when I’m explaining a problem unless I ask for it; they simply listen to try and understand what I’m feeling.
When we have a disagreement, it doesn’t feel like we’re on opposing sides necessarily; it feels like we’re on the same side trying to solve the same problem.
We’re busy, but we make time to spend with each other. That’s important to us.
Couples with emotional intimacy…
- Have a stronger sense of trust and security. Knowing and being known chips away at the need to wonder how much you can rely on your partner to be on your team. You can feel safe, secure, and accepted just by being yourself.
- Are more accepting of each other’s faults. Understanding who your spouse is gives you a better appreciation and compassion for them. It’s beautiful when that’s a two-way street in a relationship.
- Have a stronger physical intimacy. Emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy have a substantial effect on each other.
How do you build emotional intimacy?
Emotional intimacy needs to be foundational to your marriage. All the other types of intimacy need this foundation to thrive. Here are a few ways to build that foundation:
- Communicate daily.
- Express appreciation for your spouse.
- Be curious about your mate.
- Make yourself emotionally available.
- Be vulnerable.
Check out this article for some exercises to strengthen emotional intimacy in your marriage.
Marriage is a beautiful journey. One day, you’ll look back and take joy in the detours and roadblocks because those things strengthened your emotional intimacy. Enjoy the journey and take every turn hand in hand with your spouse.
Help! Our Intimacy is Gone – First Things First
7 Questions Every Couple Needs to Ask Each Other to Improve Their Sex Life – First Things First
¹Cornell University. “Love, factually: Gerontologist finds the formula to a happy marriage.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 June 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150617134613.htm>
²Gaia, A. Celeste. “Understanding Emotional Intimacy: A Review of Conceptualization, Assessment and the Role of Gender.” International Social Science Review, vol. 77, no. 3/4, 2002, pp. 151–70. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41887101. Accessed 27 May 2022.
³Wade, TJ and Mogilski, J. (2018) Emotional Accessibility Is More Important Than Sexual Accessibility in Evaluating Romantic Relationships – Especially for Women: A Conjoint Analysis. Front. Psychol. 9:632. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00632
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***
What To Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy
You want your spouse to be fully present with you in your feelings, thoughts and situations in life. But what happens when they don’t show empathy? You probably feel alone, unimportant and misunderstood. You’ve opened up, but your spouse seems unable or uninterested in responding in an empathetic way. So, what do you do when your spouse lacks empathy?
First, my heart goes out to anyone married to a spouse who indeed lacks empathy. This is a hard road.
Let’s begin by establishing what we mean by the word empathy. According to Harvard psychologist Susan David, “Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.”
The term empathy has evolved and has recently exploded in popularity.
That’s great, but it can be confusing if it’s not clearly defined. In Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, researcher Brené Brown describes two types of empathy:
- Cognitive Empathy is sometimes called perspective-taking or mentalizing. It’s the ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! It’s completely understandable to feel betrayed. I get you.”
- Affective Empathy is often called experience-sharing. It is one person’s emotional attunement with another’s experience. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! I feel that sting of betrayal. I feel you.”
Your spouse is the one person you hope will get you and feel you. Why? So they can be there for you. (In whatever way you need them to be.)
Simple phrases like, I get you, I feel you, and I’m here for you, are gestures toward empathy. When they’re sincere, they mean I. Am. With. You. You are not alone. But empathy doesn’t stop there. Empathy isn’t complete without action.
Empathy should lead your spouse to put self aside, be present in your story and absorb it. They understand, believe and validate it and you… they don’t judge, criticize or dismiss it and you. (And they definitely don’t make it about them.) Empathy is the catalyst to respond with appropriate, compassionate actions.
How to Respond vs. React
Telling your spouse they’re not empathetic is probably not gonna help. It’s more of a label when you actually need their labor. You need them to do the relationship work to get outside of themself and be considerate of you.
You may be able to help your spouse who lacks empathy by fine-tuning your communication. Be clear and direct about what you need. Invite them into your story. Frame the conversation by saying things like, “At the moment, I’m not looking for you to judge me, give me advice, or share your opinion. I need to feel heard and understood.”
Pause. Reframe. Rephrase. “I need you to be present with me.”
Begin your statements (like the ones below) with “I need you to…”
- Understand how I feel and care about my feelings.
- Listen to what I’m thinking and consider my thoughts.
- Hear me and care. I need to know I have your full attention.
- Support me and be my partner in this situation.
- Understand this part of me I’m trying to share with you.
- Understand how important this is to me.
Empathetic conversations can lead to tangible, actionable things for a caring spouse. You can set measurable goals around these statements. Often, we can address a lack of empathy with better communication. There is help and hope to improve communication so you feel heard and understood.
But what if this doesn’t snap my spouse out of themself and into being present with me?
Why isn’t your spouse empathetic even when you ask them to try to empathize with you? There can be a variety of reasons. We don’t fully understand why some people are more empathetic than others or why some people have little to no empathy. But there are indications that a person can learn to be more empathetic.
Here are a few things you can do:
1. Model empathy for your spouse.
Make empathetic statements “out loud” and do empathy work “out in the open” where your spouse can see it. For example:
- Help me understand how it felt to get that raise at work…
- Sarah, how did it feel when Hunter wouldn’t share his toys?
- Imagine what it must be like to lose everything as those people on the news did.
- Amanda, I’m not going to offer unsolicited advice. I just want to sit with you as you go through this difficult time. You tell me what you need.
2. Practice talking about emotions with your spouse.
Try books, games, apps, and websites with “get to know you” questions and conversation starters. This can be a helpful practice for discussing your interior lives. Make it a “Judgment-Free Zone” and a safe sharing space.
3. When your spouse does express empathy, acknowledge it and thank them for it.
Hard Relationships. Hard Choices.
Living with a spouse who isn’t empathetic can be draining and demanding. Because your spouse lacks empathy, they might be critical, cruel, or unforgiving. They may react with anger when they feel like you are being “too sensitive.” They could be oblivious to how their behavior affects you, or be unresponsive to your needs.
Unfortunately, this might be your reality. It’s one thing to be patient with the change process and support growth in your spouse. It’s quite another to be hurting all the time and in over your head.
Here are things to consider:
1. It’s not your job to “fix” your spouse.
Several factors can contribute to someone’s inability to empathize. Genetics. Socialization. Childhood trauma. Your spouse may have grown up in a family that suppressed emotions. You can support and encourage your spouse if they’re trying to grow in this area. But this may be an issue they need to work through. You also need to recognize if they’re not trying to grow in this area.
2. Seek professional help.
Diagnosable disorders may play a significant part in why your spouse lacks empathy (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or Borderline Personality Disorder, etc.). Know when to bring in the professionals. But remember: Your spouse may not change.
And if abuse is going on, it may not be a safe relationship for you to stay in. Your safety and mental health are important.
**Constant criticism, mocking, and devaluing your thoughts and feelings are forms of emotional abuse, and if your spouse is completely unwilling to get help to change their behavior, that’s not ok. Understand what abuse is in all of its forms. [See below for The Domestic Violence Hotline number.]
3. Find validation from within and from other supportive people in your life.
It can take quite a bit of time for your spouse to hone their empathy skills. It’s a process that will have ups and downs. You can’t allow your self-worth to be tied up in their ability to empathize with you; it should come from within. Practice self-acceptance and self-care, and in the meantime, turn to trusted friends you can share your thoughts and feelings with. And there’s no shame in seeking a counselor for yourself, either.
Life is certainly not easy with a spouse who lacks empathy. You can do several things to improve the situation. But you also need to recognize when those things aren’t working. Many people have successfully maintained their marriage knowing that their spouse may have many positive traits, but being empathetic is not one of them. You can set boundaries with your spouse and still get your need for empathy met in other healthy ways.
At the end of the day, we all want to be heard and understood without judgment. And chances are, you both want your marriage to be a safe space to share your thoughts and feelings. Fine-tune your communication around what empathy looks like in your relationship. Practice talking about feelings. Dig deeper into understanding and believing in each other. Recognize and appreciate any progress toward more empathy – it’s a process that will bring you closer together in the end.
*Special thanks to my colleague, Tamara Slocum, for her insights/contributions to this piece.
Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience
8 Steps to Better Communication Today
Empathy Definition | What Is Empathy
The Surprising History of Empathy | Psychology Today
The Secret to a Happy Relationship Is Empathy | Psychology Today
What to Do If You or a Loved One Lack Empathy
Why Should I Consider Counseling? – First Things First
How to Find a Counselor Who Will Fight for Your Marriage – First Things First
How to Crack the Code of Men’s Feelings | Psychology Today
Keys to Effective Communication in Marriage – First Things First
Why Some People Have a Lack of Empathy (And How to Deal with Them) – Lifehack
**Domestic Violence Hotline
Do you feel safe? For a free, confidential, and clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here, or contact the Domestic Violence Hotline, 24/7, at 1−800−799−7233.
6 Things You Can Do to Help a Child Who Is Grieving the Death of a Parent
Death is often a difficult topic to discuss. It’s even more challenging to consider how you can help a child through the death of a parent. No matter what age, the death of a parent shifts your foundation. Therefore, it’s even more critical to find ways to support and help a child grieving the death of a parent.
Parents provide safety and security for their children. After a parent dies, the child’s needs may vary according to their age, maturity, and personality. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to grief. These children have unique needs that should be met.
Here are 6 things you can do to help a child who is grieving the death of a parent:
1. Be aware of your own grief and emotions.
It’s not easy to help a child through grief if you don’t acknowledge and work through your own. Grief is the process through which you deal with a loss. In this case, a friend or loved one died and left a child or children behind. Recognizing this allows you to process your grief so you don’t unintentionally make this loss only about you.
2. Be careful how you communicate with the child.
Because people tend to be uncomfortable talking about death, they often use well-intentioned phrases that do more harm than good. Sayings like:
“They are in a better place.”
“They just went to sleep.”
“One day, you will get over this.”
While you may mean well, think carefully about saying something just to say something. You may even need to listen more than you talk.
3. Be prepared for the child to express a variety of behaviors.
Children can display so many emotions after their parent dies, including fear, sadness, or anger. They may experience separation anxiety when away from the surviving parent or caregivers. Additionally, they may experience the following regressive behaviors, including using baby talk, bedwetting, or waking in the middle of the night. Stomachaches may become common complaints. Eating habits may change also. It’s essential to be aware of the frequency and intensity of any behavioral changes.
4. Be age-appropriately honest with them.
Children often have questions after the death of a parent. How did it happen? Is it gonna happen to you? Is it gonna happen to them? First, talk with their surviving parent to find out what they shared with the child. That can prepare you to answer questions within the framework they’ve established. Honesty is vital. Your honest answers help rebuild trust and security. In your desire to help, consistency and reliability are essential, too. You want to under-promise and over-deliver rather than over-promise and underdeliver. Do everything you can to follow through with what you say you will do.
5. Be award that grief is an ongoing process.
Many people come around in the immediate aftermath. However, the kids will need you for the long haul. The hard truth is that a child never gets over the death of a parent or stops grieving their loss, though the experience of grief may morph over time. Kids may seem to bounce back from the loss. As a result, we want to believe that children are resilient and won’t be affected long-term. As comforting as this might sound, unfortunately, it’s not true. The intensity may lessen over time, but the parent they lost won’t be there for life milestones (i.e., Birthdays, Holidays, Proms, Graduations, Weddings).
6. Be proactive in helping the child find ways to remember their parent.
Some people think that remembering a parent who died causes children pain. Attempting to minimize the pain, people often decide to remove photos or rarely mention or discuss the parent. On the contrary, remembering helps with the grieving process. Memories give a child a picture of who their parent was, what they liked, and how they lived.
Losing a parent can be one of the most challenging things a child (or even an adult) can experience. The adults in the child’s life are essential to help them grieve in a healthy way. As you journey with them, be a listening ear, a safe place to land, and a consistent presence in their lives.
Other helpful resources:
6 Things You Need to Know About Grief
Nobody likes grief. Or, at least I haven’t met anyone yet who does. Maybe it’s because we know grief is the process someone goes through to work through any kind of loss. And no one likes to lose things or people they love.
Unfortunately, every one of us will go through it. And if you already have, chances are you will again. I don’t mean to be a downer. It’s just that life is full of losses, whether it’s a job, the end of a relationship, a kid leaving for college, or the death of someone you love. But, there is hope.
Fact is, grief is necessary. It’s what allows us to walk through all the emotions that come with a loss and continue to be healthy individuals. It’s painful, uncomfortable, sometimes dreadful. But in the long run, it does what it’s supposed to do: It helps you work through the loss.
Here are some things you need to know about grief to understand this process better.
1. Grief runs a course, but it’s not the same for everyone.
No one grieves in the same way. There are no predictable steps or stages. In general, the shock and emotions that come with grief should move from more intense and frequent to less over time. But the pace can vary from person to person.
2. When a loss first happens, presence is the best support.
You may know what it’s like to feel the shock of a significant loss. You often can’t think straight. Things people say go in one ear and out the other. I can’t remember a single thing anyone said to me at my dad’s funeral; I put on a happy face, but my brain was a fog. However, I do remember who was there at my side. Presence is a strong source of support.
3. Some people have a more complicated reaction to a loss.
The researchers call it complicated grief. It’s when strong grief responses – those intense emotions, the effects of shock – persist over a long time without letting up. More problematic issues can arise from this, like depression or a deep sense of loneliness. Lots of factors play into why this happens. A professional therapist or a grief support group can help a great deal with complicated grief.
4. Emotional health before a loss can determine the grief process.
Research gives a strong indication that the more emotionally healthy you are, the less likely you are to experience complicated grief. Those prone to high anxiety, depression, loneliness, or unresolved relational issues often have a more challenging time with a loss. Staying emotionally healthy and being intentional with self-care is an excellent preventative measure for when loss hits.
5. Grief may not go away.
What I mean is, years down the road, something may spark a memory of who or what you lost, causing an emotional response. This is normal and healthy. Don’t judge it or yourself negatively. It’s simply part of the process.
6. Grief changes a person, and that can be a good thing.
Going through grief usually causes you to consider your perspectives on life and death, your values, and what you put meaning behind. It clarifies what’s important and prompts different behavior on the other side of the loss. At its most ideal, grief leads to growth.
You may be working through grief at the moment or know someone who is. It’s been helpful for me to remember that there is hope in grief. You can recover from a loss. The shock and pain aren’t forever. And even though things may never go back to “normal,” life will function again as you grow from your grief.
Other helpful resources:
How to Help Someone Who Is Grieving the Death of a Spouse
Supporting a friend who’s grieving the death of a loved one is often awkward. When they are mourning the passing of their spouse, it’s especially tough. What do you say? What can you do? How do you provide support without being intrusive, offensive, or just saying the wrong things? While there is no pain like losing one’s husband or wife, knowing some things about the grieving process can inform you how you can help someone grieving the death of a spouse.
Remember what grief is.
Grief is usually associated with pain, and nobody wants to see their friend hurting. So we typically respond (often subconsciously) with the hope of taking away the pain. I think that’s why many people try to say comforting things that turn out to be awkward. They’re trying to alleviate the pain that simply cannot be alleviated at that time. It’s the necessary process of working through a loss. A person who experiences loss has to grieve because that’s how you work through the loss. Remember that every person grieves at their own pace, in their own time, in different waves and intensities of emotions. Supporting someone who’s grieving the death of their spouse means walking with them in their grief at their pace.
Sometimes your silent presence is the only support your friend needs at the time, especially at the beginning of the loss.
Often, grieving family members are in a state of shock the first couple of weeks (and sometimes longer). When my dad passed away, I honestly can’t remember anything that was said to me at the funeral. But I do remember who was there by my side, and it still means the world to me today. Presence often speaks volumes.
In the following weeks and months, be proactive to reach out.
After a week or so, people distant from the loss have moved on, unaware that the grieving spouse is far from it. This is when they may find themselves most alone, ironically, when they are more open (and less in shock) to talk with others. Continue to check in with your friend regularly. Set a reminder on your phone. This could be a good time to ask how they are holding up, how they’ve been feeling, and what you can do to help (questions that typically don’t make much sense in the first few days of the loss).
Understand a person who loses their spouse will always be in some state of grief. It doesn’t mean they’ll always feel pain.
But they’ll be processing life without this person for as long as they live. Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries will always prompt memories. A song, a scene on TV, or a particular meal will cause emotions to well up, even years down the road. As a friend, be conscious of this. Don’t be afraid to ask about what these things meant to them and their spouse. Allow them to share as much as they’d like. Processing loss is often done through these kinds of situations, memories, or objects.
Finally, remember: grief is uncomfortable. The process is rarely easy. And it’s going to be uncomfortable for you, the friend who wants to help. Supporting your friend means wading into the discomfort and the pain with them, sometimes in silence and sometimes with encouragement, knowing that the process is healthy and intensity won’t last. That is being truly helpful, and I commend you for your loyalty to your grieving friend who is dealing with the death of their spouse.
Other blogs you might find helpful:
4 Ways to Help Your Child Deal With Anger
Eight years ago, my wife and I embarked on a journey. A journey with no map, no guidebook, and filled with mystery and surprise. A journey of blazing our own trails. You may know this journey… it’s called parenting.
Now, here we are with two curious, fun-loving adventurers, one 8 and one 5. Both of them are full of life and laughter and a full range of emotions. This stage of parenting brings a new element: navigating those emotions. The dirty diapers and potty training are gone; we live in a world of attitudes. Any other elementary-age parents out there feel me? I wasn’t ready for this.
One of the more challenging emotions to address has been anger. How do I help my child navigate being angry? How do I help them express their anger? Do I want them to be angry?
Before I go further, let me say this slowly and clearly: Anger is normal. There is nothing wrong with being angry. It’s what we do with anger that matters. Anger often reveals our passions and sense of justice. We just can’t let it control us. [Read Why Anger Isn’t Good or Bad for more on this]
Now that we’ve got that clear, here are four ways you can help your child deal with anger:
Teach them about their feelings.
Our kids are constantly learning. From day one, they are discovering a new world with new sights and sounds. Feelings and emotions are no different. They learn happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and joy. Our job as parents is to help them learn these emotions and name them. They may not know how to express what they feel, but we can give them the words.
When they’re mad or upset, help them investigate why they feel that way. As you both discover the expressions of their emotions, name them. Give them words like sad, mad, happy, disappointed, maybe even hangry (my kids get angry).
Model how to handle anger in a healthy way.
Kids are sponges. They watch and listen. You may have heard it said, “More is caught than taught.” That’s parenting gold right there. Researchers have found that much of what we learn comes through social interactions. This is called the social learning theory.
What it means is, how you handle anger directly influences how your child handles it.
If someone cuts me off in traffic, I get mad. Just being real. I often don’t want to say nice things about said person. (Confession is good for the soul; glad I got that out there.) I’m conscious of this in myself, so when it happens and my kids see me mad, I tell them that I’m frustrated and why. And I own my actions or feelings.
It’s healthy for us to express what makes us angry so our kids can learn how to handle the same emotions. Now, we don’t have to express all of our frustrations to them. There are plenty of adult problems that our kids need to be protected from. But we can define some of our frustrations, how they make us feel, and why.
They are watching and listening anyway, so take the opportunity to teach.
Help them communicate their feelings.
When we help our child name their emotions, we are helping them communicate what is going on inside. If my kids are angry, I don’t want them to throw a tantrum or become overly upset because things didn’t go their way. I want them to be able to express what they’re feeling and act appropriately. This goes back to modeling. Remember, they’re watching.
Make a plan to handle anger.
Anger is normal, but what we do with anger matters. If you want to help your child manage their anger, it might be a good idea to make a plan before they get angry. Trying to make a plan while they’re dealing with the emotion won’t work. Here are some thoughts on what could be part of your plan:
- Engage in a calming activity (coloring, reading, taking a walk).
- Take a “time in.” When they feel frustrated, take a few minutes to calm down. Reflect on what they think or feel and calm down before speaking or doing something. Remember, this isn’t a punishment.
- Take deep breaths or count to 10.
Once they have calmed down, talk through the situation and their responses. Acknowledge and applaud them for handling the situation. It’s important to recognize what goes well. A wise man once told me, “What gets recognized gets repeated.”
It’s healthy for children (and adults) to express and feel their emotions. It’s our job to teach them to do this in a healthy way.
If you feel your child’s anger is increasing despite your best efforts, consult their pediatrician. We want to do everything in our power to help our children be successful and develop into extraordinary adults.
Other helpful blogs:
4 Things to Know About Emotional Safety
What is emotional safety?
Emotional safety. Does that sound like a lofty concept? Let’s break it down. Emotional is defined as relating to one’s feelings. Safety means keeping yourself or others free from harm. So, put them together, and what does emotional safety mean? When you’re emotionally safe, you’ve removed yourself as a barrier to others freely being themselves. Recent neurobiology research by Dr. Stephen Porges reveals that emotional safety is one of the most important aspects of connection in a relationship.
Here are some things to know about emotional safety.
Emotional safety comes from within. It starts with you. It consists of identifying your feelings and being able to feel them.
Emotional safety means revealing your true self to another person. It is expressing who you are, including your hurts, fears, and dreams. It’s expressing yourself authentically, sharing dissatisfaction, fears, and insecurities, and having a conversation without it blowing up into an argument. It’s sharing without fear of shaming, yelling, or rejection.
We all need at least one person with whom we can be ourselves.
Ideally, marriage is a safe space for you and your spouse to reveal your true selves. Parenthood allows you to create a safe environment for your children to grow and learn who they are as individuals. And friendship is a space where you can be the most real you.
Why does emotional safety matter?
Emotional safety is essential in any relationship, whether romantic, family, friends, or co-workers.
When we trust that someone else can see, hear, and understand us, we relax more with them. We open up about who we are and feel connected. Emotional safety is reciprocal. When we are safe for someone else, we deepen our relationship.
When you feel emotionally safe, you are more likely to be your best self and contribute to your greatest ability. You are free to dream, collaborate, create, share, and express yourself. When we open up and do this in a safe environment, we invite others to do the same.
In relationships, we need to feel safe before we can be vulnerable. Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.” Safety creates a foundation for intimacy and closeness.
How do you build & keep emotional safety?
Now, we have a good idea of what emotional safety is. We can examine our relationships and see where it exists. But, how do we build it if it doesn’t exist?
The foundation is trust. We can’t feel safe with someone if we don’t trust them. Building emotional safety requires building and keeping trust. Trust is a two-way street. It’s built with honesty, credibility, communication, and authenticity.
Another important piece of emotional safety is recognizing what not to do in relationships. We may not be aware of the subtle ways we cause harm with sarcasm, blaming, or shaming others. Instead, traits like respect, kindness, and appreciation foster safety.
Here are some actions you can take to maintain emotional safety:
- Be consistent. Be there for your spouse, child, friend, or co-worker. When you are consistently present, others see you as reliable and trustworthy.
- Listen actively. Listen to learn, not to respond. I often struggle with this. We have to slow down and listen.
- Be curious, not judgmental. Be interested in what the other person is interested in. Ask questions.
- Lead with empathy and compassion. Feel what they feel and genuinely care about who they are and what they believe.
What happens if emotional safety isn’t there?
A lack of emotional safety leads to disconnection. Disconnection is a massive threat to a relationship. When we feel disconnected, we begin to feel lonely and distant, and the relationship can start to crumble.
If you feel disconnected from someone, try to find out what’s going on. It could be you. It could be them. If you can, talk about it and make a plan to rebuild your connection.
Take steps today to create emotional safety in at least one of your relationships. Start by seeing if you’re in tune with your own emotions. If you are, make sure you’re maintaining it well. We all need emotional safety in our relationships.
Other helpful blogs:
How to Be an Emotionally Safe Parent
I was 5 and mad at my mom. I forget why. But I do remember I was packing my bags and hitting the road. In a rockstar parenting move, my unshakable mother began packing sandwiches for me to take on my run-away trip.
“Whhattt?” you may scream. “How could she?? That’s so… mean… insensitive… emotionally unsafe!”
Emotionally Safe. What does that even mean, anyway?
For some, it means parenting so that their kids never think badly of them and try to run away. (Spoiler alert: That’s impossible.)
For others, it means they try to never be angry — even when their kid draws dinosaurs on the white couch with permanent markers. (Honestly, if you have children — why have white furniture??)
So let me offer you a working definition:
Emotional safety means parenting in a way that your child feels safe enough to be themselves.
That’s it. It’s not rocket science. Kids who are safe to be themselves may be, well, quirky. They’re encouraged to explore who they are, to formulate their world. They dress themselves (sometimes weirdly). They use their imagination (again, often weird). They’re on the road to discovering their personality, likes and dislikes, sense of humor, fashion, and overall mojo.
Now, emotional safety doesn’t mean parents don’t set boundaries for their child. And it doesn’t mean kids may not experience sadness, or disappointment, or anxiety. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll never be angry or hurt by them, or not pack sandwiches when they want to run away. That’s just real life.
So how can you go about helping your kids feel emotionally safe?
Research can give us a little insight into this. (Hang with me here — I promise it won’t be a term paper.)
Psychologist Don Catherall says a person (like your child) needs two things to feel emotionally safe with someone (like you, the parent):
One: To feel a healthy sense of connection to the person.
And two: To develop a healthy sense of security in themselves.
In other words, your child needs to feel close to you and (at least to be developing the skills) to feel good about themselves.
This means developing an appropriately close relationship with your child while giving them opportunities to build self-confidence. Ironically, building self-confidence often involves doing things without you. Notice the balance?
Here’s another way to look at it:
Some researchers say the healthiest families strike a balance with a couple of tensions:
1. Constant over-attachment versus total disconnection.
The need to feel overly-involved in every single aspect of their child’s life can quickly become what researchers call “enmeshment.” Parents can’t separate their child’s emotions from their own. Boundaries are unclear. It’s a false sense of emotional safety which, in reality, focuses on the parent’s unhealthy need to be connected or overprotective. Disconnection is the polar opposite, of course. Neither extreme fosters real emotional safety.
2. A rigid, overly-structured family environment versus one that is absolutely chaotic without rules or boundaries.
Too many parents buckle under the need for their kids to like them. As a result, they compromise rules and structure in an attempt to offer emotional safety. On the flip side, others go overboard with stringent rules, consequences, and schedules. Unfortunately, either extreme tends to have the opposite outcome.
The main point: Emotionally safe kids thrive when there’s a balance.
Want to be an emotionally safe parent?
Be the parent, not the friend. Stay connected, but don’t smother. Build confidence in your child. Challenge them to go beyond what they think they’re able to do. Set boundaries. Own your emotions and let them experience theirs.
Fortunately, my 5-year-old self didn’t make it past the mailbox with my bologna sandwiches. And my mom never faltered with her parenting techniques, even if I wasn’t happy about it. She was savvy enough to understand that it was okay for me to be upset. She didn’t need to overreact, and I would eventually make my way back, knowing a little more about my weird self, emotionally safe and all.