Creating a Safe Place for Emotions
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | May 15, 2020 (edited January 14, 2022)
Emotional intimate partners share in the world of feelings, honoring and exploring each other's internal worlds.
We are emotional beings. When we contact the world, the sea of stimuli stirs our soul. Felt experience is personal—emotions reside in the core of our being. Without feeling, life fades into nothingness—bland and immemorable. Intimate relationships share these private emotional wonders. Emotional communion enhances feelings of belonging and assists in regulating emotions. Emotional intimacy is a partnership of feeling.
Emotions are a complex bundle of biological stimulation and interpretive language. Robert Augustus Masters in his fabulous book Emotional Intimacy describes emotions as “ever-moving wonders, bringing together physiology, feeling, cognition, and conditioning, allowing us to connect and communicate in more ways than we can imagine. The more deeply we know our emotions, the deeper and more fulfilling our lives will be” (2013, location 287) Lisa Barret adds, “Emotions are meaning. They explain your interoceptive changes and corresponding affective feelings, in relation to the situation. They are a prescription for action” (2018, p. 126).
"Even though intimacy is important in a relationship, it can be frightening. After all, it involves a lot of vulnerability and trust."
We soothe the negative and magnify the positive when we share emotions with receptive others. Expressing emotions can bridge the gulfs of separateness, establishing trust. But there is a paradox. Expression isn’t without risk, expressing emotions invites exploitation and potential rejection. Two primary goals for wellness collide.
Our goal of interpersonal connection slams into the need to protect against harm. Personal revelations invite intimacy and the possibility of rejection. Closeness may contribute or subtract from wellbeing completely dependent on the decency and receptivity of our partner.
Emotional Intimacy is perceived safety that allows for sharing of emotions, and exposing vulnerabilities in a relationship.
Protecting and Sharing
Basically, we should share when safe but protect when dangerous. Easy, right? The concept is simple, but the practice is complex. Hazardous others craftily disguise themselves as something they are not, coaxing trust but reacting with indifference. Our predictions fail. We share when we shouldn’t and protect when we should. We dangerously invite ridicule and rejection or sorrowfully miss grand opportunities for belonging.
"Relationships that lack emotional intimacy are often characterized by a lack of trust, poor communication, secrets, and hidden emotions."
By Wayne Parker | verywellmind
John Gottman, the relationship guru and director of the famous love labs at the University of Washington, suggests, “We need to feel safe enough to allow our partner to do the soothing that we are incapable of at the moment” (2011, location 2338). We are social beings, intimately connected, welcoming social resources to regulate powerful emotions of living. Emotional sharing is the glue of intimacy—but only when given from a position of safety.
A child constantly rebuffed adapts, adopting protections. While a critical caregiver gives feedback to a child from a variety of verbal and nonverbal communications, the harsh message is the same, “your emotions don’t matter.” This lesson follows the hapless child into adulthood. Fearful children become fearful adults, burying emotions to protect against disabling attacks.
"Ultimately, emotional intimacy creates a deep sense of security within your relationship and an ability to be wholly yourself — warts and all — without feeling as if you risk the relationship itself."
Wendy Rose Gould
The secure relationship, while desired, remains allusive. Through habitual protections, the wholeness of the self is fractured—an essential part of being is lost. The protecting adult’s fear of rejection dominates when desire for connection emerge.
Murray, Holmes and Collins write, “Given the personal pain of romantic rejection, people should be motivated to think and behave in ways to minimize dependence on a partner.” They continue, “However, people need to risk substantial dependence to establish the kind of satisfying relationship that can fulfill basic needs for belonging or connectedness” (2006).
This is the ultimate dilemma, where the stakes are high and risks substantial, opposing benefits seemingly battle for supremacy. While emotional expression is crucial for intimacy, it is also ripe with vulnerability. Partners hoping for closeness must establish a safe environment that diminishes this nasty paradox. We must protect openness, sharing and healing with compassionate reception. This builds trust, and trust mediates the fear, welcoming greater closeness.
Masters wrote, “Through mutually sharing and exploring our emotions with another. . . we generate a powerfully alive, emotionally rich ‘we space’ for further relational exploration and deepening” (2013 location 828).
"Being vulnerable is like opening up a side door in the castle wall and letting someone else in. It’s a way of signaling that you trust them, and usually it helps the other person feel like they can trust you in return."
Kevin Jiang | Greatest
Gottman expands on the importance of emotional sharing, “There are few gifts a couple can give each other greater than the joy that comes from feeling known and understood” (2015, p. 51). Gottman explains that this process is achieved through love maps. We keep detailed information about our partner. When we maintain and update the love map with rich detailed information about our partner, we not only show love, but we build fortitude. “Couples who have detailed love maps of each other’s world are far better prepared to cope with stressful events and conflict” (p. 49).
According to Daniel Siegel, our sense of belonging grows with increased emotional attunement. “Feeling felt,” Siegel explains, “is the subjective experience of mental state attunement” (2015, location 4107). Emotional attunement is a couple’s ability to observe internal emotions through verbal and non-verbal signals. The constant flow of information creates detailed love maps.
We want to be understood. “. . .People want others to comprehend as they do themselves do their needs, abilities, traits, wishes, beliefs, and preferences” (Reis, H., Lemay, E., & Finkenauer, C., 2017). Shared understanding is a task, accomplished with effort, not a magical gift. Knowledge of each other flows from mindful attention to words, actions, and expressions, leading to a mutual trust of understanding. We feel felt and this will “. . .bolster confidence or trust” (2017).
Improve Emotional Intimacy:
Receptivity and perception of receptivity are not identical. Scholars emphasize the importance of perceptive receptivity for openness and sharing. However, if the perception is based on faulty grounds, the intimacy may be challenged with future disappointment. We need a “tolerably accurate reflection” of reality (Bowlby, 1973, p. 202).
When we believe our partner is receptive, the intensity and frequency of emotional sharing increases (Ruan, Reis et al. 2020). These predictions, whether right or wrong, play a critical role. “Evolutionary and attachment theorist assume that perceived responsiveness to need is the sine qua non of satisfying interpersonal relationships” (Murray, S., Holmes, J., & Collins, N. 2006).
According to Ruan, Reis et al. (2020), the perception of safety relies on three primary components. First, a caring component, believing our partner is responsive to our needs, and will be supportive—not exploitive. Second, we need understanding. We believe our partner is knowledgeable enough to respond appropriately to our self-defined needs and preferences. Third, we need our emotions validated. We must believe our partner will accept the legitimacy of our feelings.
"Usually (emotional intimacy) involves a feeling of safety and having your inner thoughts and feelings known and accepted."
Suzannah Weiss | Bustle
Creating Emotionally Safe Environments
As partners, we can go awry, destroying perceptions of safety and limiting emotional expressions. We must remain mindfully aware of our reactions at critical moments. We routinely encounter opportunities to build trust. Gottman calls these “sliding-door” moments. He explains, “Sliding-door moments. . . are very small moments in which a need is expressed and the responsiveness of one’s partner is a test of trust. In these moments we test whether we can trust that our partner will turn toward our expressed need” (2011, location 3353).
When we perceive a partner is unresponsive to our needs, we fear rejection, destabilizing our psychological balance (Murray, S., Holmes, J., & Collins, N. 2006). A healthy response recognizes and validates emotion as appropriate.
Returning to Murray, Holmes and Collins research, they suggest we have an internal regulation system to gauge risks while still pursuing the goal of belonging. “The central assumption of the model is that negotiating interdependent life requires a cognitive, affective, and behavioral regulatory system for resolving the conflict between the goals of self-protection and relationship promotion.” The goal of this system is to optimize safety in our relationship environment. They explain this evaluative system in dynamic constantly balancing risk and reward (2006).
Our private worlds are complex; but also, beautiful. As we explore the awe of our internal landscape, basking in the wonder, we also seek safe places to share the amazing feelings of life where the whole of our being is received and honored. Next to the experience of feeling is the experience of feeling felt. Emotional Intimacy provides the security where beauty is shared, and sorrows lightened. Here in ‘we space’ we find both security and belonging.
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Barrett, L. (2018). How Emotions Are Made. Mariner Books; Reprint edition.
Bowlby, J. (1973) Attachment and Loss: Vol. 2 Separation Anxiety and Anger. Basic Books; 1 edition
Gottman, J. M. (2011) The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples 1st Edition. W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition.
Gottman, J. M., Silver, N. (2015) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert. Harmony; Revised ed. Edition.
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown Spark; 1st edition.
Masters, R. A. (2013) Emotional Intimacy: A Comprehensive Guide for Connecting with the Power of Your Emotions.
Murray, S., Holmes, J., & Collins, N. (2006). Optimizing Assurance: The Risk Regulation System in Relationships. Psychological Bulletin, 132(5), 641-666.
Reis, H., Lemay, E., & Finkenauer, C. (2017). Toward understanding understanding: The importance of feeling understood in relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 11(3).
Ruan, Y., Reis, H., Clark, M., Hirsch, J., & Bink, B. (2020). Can I Tell You How I Feel? Perceived Partner Responsiveness Encourages Emotional Expression. Emotion, 20(3), 329-342.
Siegel, D. J. (2015) The Developing Mind, Second Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; Second edition