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Creating a Safe Place for Feelings to Land

  • Dr. David Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2010 23 Feb
Creating a Safe Place for Feelings to Land

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"I've been tiptoeing around my husband for so long, I'm not sure I know how I feel anymore."

The woman's statement caught me off guard. Was it possible to be such a people-pleaser that you could lose sight of how you felt about certain matters? Could you be such a conflict-avoider that you became unaware of even doing it?

Such seemed to be the case for Amanda, the forty-year old woman who came to see me for counseling with her husband, Phil. Married for twenty years, they were working on developing more effective communication, and Amanda's aversion to conflict became today's topic.

"I want her to share more with me," Phil said firmly. "I feel abandoned when she withdraws from me, and I know something's wrong."

"How do you know something is wrong?" I asked Phil.

"It's really not that hard to tell," he said. "She becomes quiet and kind of avoids me. When I ask her if there is anything wrong she usually says ‘no,' but I can tell that's not the case."

I looked over to Amanda to shed some light on the problem.

"He may want me to talk," she said, "but I'm not sure he really wants to hear what's wrong. He usually becomes defensive when I bring up a problem, especially if it has to do with him. So, I'm in a tough spot."

Phil shrugged his shoulders.

"I'm not sure what else I can do," he said with exasperation. "I ask her what's wrong. I tell her I want to know what's bothering her. What else can I do?"

"Great question, Phil," I said. "We often want our mate to talk to us. We sure don't want them to withdraw from us. But, do we really want to know what they think? Do we want to know what they're thinking if it means something critical about us? Usually not. So, we give our mates mixed messages."

"I want a safe place for my feelings to land," Amanda said. "I want to know that Phil cares about my feelings, and that he'll take them seriously. I want to know he won't get defensive if I say something critical about him. I need to know that he'll not only listen to what I have to say, but he will take an active interest in what I'm saying."

Phil and Amanda are part of a large number of couples who guard their feelings excessively with one another. Why? Because, it's no fun to hear something critical, and subsequently we send messages telling our mate to keep their feelings to themselves. Rarely do we take necessary steps to create a safe place for feelings to land.

What does this require of us? What is needed to create an environment where our mate won't shrink from sharing feelings? How can we help them be open and honest with us, which is necessary to keep our marriage healthy? Here are some ideas couples have shared with me: 

First, be aware of the message you're sending to your mate about feelings. We broadcast a message to our mate about whether we want to hear their thoughts, or if we want them to keep their opinion and feelings to themselves. What message are you sending?

Second, you can make it uncomfortable for your mate to share feelings, but you won't stop them from having them. In other words, you can invite their perspective and feelings, or you can criticize them for their point of view. If you are overly defensive, they will decide it's not safe to share feelings, and they will withhold that information. They will stop sharing with you and your intimacy (into-me-see) will suffer.

Third, non-defensively listening to your mate, allowing them to share their point of view no matter how uncomfortable, is one of the greatest gifts you can give. Invite feedback, creating a safe place for your mate's feelings to land. Welcome information, even if it is uncomfortable.

Ask your mate to share in as gentle a manner possible, but do invite them to share. Welcome this information as a gift that helps you and your marriage in the long run.

Fourth, creating a safe place for feelings can be considered an act of hospitality. Scripture tells us that we are to "practice hospitality without grumbling." (1 Peter 4:9) Isn't listening to another share their feelings an aspect of hospitality? Isn't caring about what your mate thinks and feels an aspect of welcoming him or her? If we are to welcome strangers, how much more should we welcome and create safety for the person we are married to?

Fifth, listen attentively. Show an interest in what your mate feels and thinks. Care about their point of view. Encourage them to share and then reflect that you understand what they're saying. Turn off the television, make good eye contact and paraphrase what they've said. Ask questions. Listen for what is not being said, and even help them say what they're trying to say.

Finally, validate what they're saying. As uncomfortable as it may be, look for the kernel of truth in what they're saying. Imagine a basket sitting in front of you where their feelings can land. You can sort through their feelings and thoughts as they talk, guarding against taking everything as ‘the truth.' This is their point of view and doesn't necessarily mean it's completely accurate. Consider, however, that there is likely some truth in what they're saying, and let them know it.

Remember: you have an obligation to be a good listener to your mate. This is part of being a ‘helpmate' and will either bring you closer to your mate or create incredible distance. Creating a safe place for your mate's feelings to land will bring beautiful friendship and intimacy. You'll learn more about your mate and yourself. Letting your mate know you can be influenced is one of the greatest gifts you can give. 

Please share your thoughts on this topic of safety in sharing feelings. What have you learned about creating safety in marriage?

February 23, 2010

David Hawkins, Pd.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, Saying It So He'll Listen, and  When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. 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.