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Being a Safe Container for Your Mate

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, Marriage Recovery Center
  • Updated Jun 22, 2009
Being a Safe Container for Your Mate


Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question t

Have you ever poured water into a container already filled to the brim? Doing so, of course, leads to spilled liquid and lots of frustration. You have a mess to clean up.

Feelings are much the same. They need a safe landing place, and when we try to force them into a crowded space, they spill over recklessly, often creating chaos. Let me offer an example from my life. 

Recently Christie felt overwhelmed by the prospect of preparing our house for sale. Clearing out years of clutter from our garage, lining up painters, contractors and finally a realtor, proved taxing on her. At the same time, our son was graduating from medical school and getting married. Needless to say, she felt overwhelmed.

“I don’t feel like we’ve spent any quality time together lately,” she said to me one evening, irritated and feeling abandoned.

“What?” I responded defensively. “We just spent last weekend together.” I was annoyed with her feelings, and felt criticized.

“That was one day, and it seems like we’ve been busy coming and going. I want quiet time with you.”

“But, we’ve had quiet time,” I continued, still trying to dissuade her from her feelings. Sensing my defensiveness and inability to contain her feelings, she continued trying to get me to hear her.

“All I want you to do is listen to me,” she said, her irritation mounting. “And stop being defensive. I need you to listen to my feelings.” 

Catching my breath, and sensing the importance of what she was saying, I slowed the process. I listened as she shared more of her feelings of disconnection from me, wanting more support and attention. Additionally, I had not provided a safe container for her feelings, and in fact gave her the impression that I was unable to fully contain her feelings. 

Christie and I had a few very awkward and difficult moments. I felt ambivalence—of course I wanted to be available to her and her feelings. At the same time, I didn’t want to hear criticism and wanted my point of view to be heard. I didn’t want to hear about ways I was failing to be an effective husband. Yet, when I slowed the process, and remembered the importance of being a container for her feelings, I tended to her. I was wise enough to know that defensiveness can stop feelings for the moment, but don’t really solve the problem.  

Such is the way with feelings: you can stuff them down, but can’t make them go away! You can give your mate the clear impression that you cannot tolerate their feelings, but their feelings, and the issues that give rise to those feelings, won’t naturally go away. So, what are you to do?

First, prepare to listen to your mate. It is often difficult to listen to painful information. None of us want to hear bad news, and our mate’s unhappiness with us can be viewed as ‘bad news.’ Preparing yourself to hear it can make it easier to listen to their feelings.

Second, remind yourself this is an opportunity to heal challenges in your relationship. Every challenge is a new opportunity to heal troubling issues. These issues will not naturally go away, and bringing these issues out in the open affords you the opportunity to discuss thorny issues.

Third, create a safe container for their feelings. You cannot be defensive, have your own agenda, and be completely available to your mate. Practice setting aside your thoughts and feelings and listen to your mate’s feelings and thoughts on a particular issue. For this moment, ‘it’s all about them.’

Fourth, empathize with your mate. Nothing is so healing as accurate empathy. When we listen to our mate, setting aside our feelings so we can empathize with their pain, our mate senses our caring and shares even more with us. We can ‘be with them,’ and this provides an incredible sense of connection.

Fifth, remind yourself that ‘It’s not all about you.’ All of Christie’s pain and unhappiness was not about me. Even if she were to say it was about me, our thoughts and feelings are often mixed with historical issues. We bring family of origin issues to nearly every encounter. When we keep that in mind, it’s easier to be an empty container for our mate’s feelings.

Finally, seek solutions. Having set aside your agenda, empathized with your mate’s feelings, reminding yourself ‘it’s not all about you,’ you’re able to really care about what is happening with your mate. You can then ask the all important question, ‘what can I do for you?’ Not pushing them to ‘get over their problem,’ you sit with them, own your part of the problem and provide the safe container that brings deeper healing.

Are you ready to be a safe container for your mate’s feelings? Can you set your agenda aside to really listen to them? Can you listen to difficult feedback, reminding yourself ‘it’s not all personal?’ Their feelings are a composite of issues about you and old issues from their past. Keep those issues clear in your mind and you’ll be able to successfully move through problems, growing in the process.

Would you like to learn more being a safe container for your mate’s feelings? Please feel free to contact me for further information or advice on Marriage Intensives or consultations on what may be needed to save your marriage.


Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.