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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Holding A Safe Place

Holding A Safe Place

“There is so much I want to tell my wife,” James said. He stroked his graying beard, looking away reflectively, staring out the windows of The Marriage Recovery Center.

We decided to meet with James, a fifty-year old man, individually, sensing that he was holding back from sharing with his wife of twenty-five years.

Sitting with his wife, Jan, an excitable woman who could do more than hold her own, James seemed cautious, withholding. Now alone with us he blurted out his feelings.

“I can’t keep up with her,” he continued. “Everything I say she has a comeback for. I have to think three steps ahead of whatever we talk about it. If I say X, I’ve got to plan on her saying Y, and then so on. It’s exhausting and I’ve pretty much decided not to share my thoughts and feelings with her.”

“But where has that gotten you?” I asked.

“Alone and very sad,” he said. “But if I share these feelings with her, she’ll have something to say about it. I’ll feel even worse. So I have two crummy options.”

“You sound frightened,” I said.

“Nah,” he said firmly. “I’m not afraid of anything. I just know my wife. She may seem like a sensitive, caring woman—and don’t get me wrong, she can be—but she’s also tough as nails.”

“Well, you say you’re not frightened,” I said. “And I’m not suggesting you’re afraid of her physically. But I wonder if you feel overwhelmed by her? I wonder if you two have failed to create and hold a safe place to share feelings.”

“I wouldn’t know what feeling safe feels like,” he said. “To be fair, she may feel the same thing. I probably have a comeback for anything she says as well.”

“That would be common, James,” I said. “Most couples don’t recognize the importance of ‘holding a safe place,’ where either can share whatever they think, respectfully, without fear of criticism.”

“Nope,” he said. “We don’t do that. If I felt safe there would be a lot more I would share with her. I’ll bet she has a lot more she would share with me as well. We probably wouldn’t be in such sad shape if we had a policy of creating and holding a safe place for each other.”

With that I shared more with James about what ‘holding a safe place’ looks like, and agreed we would share this information with Jan when we resumed our couples work.

First, feeling safe is a requirement for all of us. Couples must realize, and affirm, the importance of feeling safe. This is not optional, but rather a requirement for intimacy. We will never share fully if we don’t feel safe, and therefore couples must make this a priority in their relationship.

Second, creating safety does not come naturally. Creating safety takes work. Creating safety comes when two people are intentional about creating it. It takes the cooperation of both to create an environment of safety in their marriage.

Third, creating safety comes from creating a safe place. Safety is a ‘space’ where we can share what we think—respectfully—without fear of reprisal or reprimand. We are able to have a differing point of view without fear of condemnation, shaming or ridicule. In fact, our point of view is encouraged and valued. Our mate cares about and wants to know what we think.

Fourth, creating safety involves cultivating trust and emotional availability. Safety involves knowing that we can count on each other to be there for us. We know our mate cares about what we think and will ask questions to probe further into us. They want to connect with us and will make it safe for us to reveal our innermost feelings and thoughts. Safety also involves emotionally connecting to what we reveal.   

Finally, creating safety involves holding onto this place of mutual vulnerability and sensitivity. Emotional dancing involves seeing this ‘safe space’ as sacred; we know we are asking a lot of our mate and they are asking a lot of us. There is tremendous risk involved, and we never want to take this risk for granted. We ‘hold’ this safe place, protecting it as a sacred meeting place.

The story of Hosea captures much of what I’m saying in the article on safety. Consider this verse and the goal it has for emotional safety in marriage: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (Hosea 2:19). Imagine a marriage free from judgment, where both people feel completely free to be vulnerable with each other.

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Publication date: May 20, 2013