Every time someone interviews me on what I find to be essential to a relationship, the first word that I bring up isn't love, respect or reciprocity. Through personal experience, observation of friends and couples I've worked with, and just life in general, I think what is most important is safety. It's essential that all of us make sure that we are with someone who is safe and that we are someone who another could consider safe to be with.
I'm telling you, "safe" is the kind of word that is totally underrated. I think a part of it is because, whenever it comes up, physical safety is what tends to come to mind. And so, to hear me say that you should look for someone who doesn't put your physical safety in jeopardy, an immediate "duh" is the response (or, at least I hope that it is). But hear me when I say this—I have never had a man even raise his hand to me; that doesn't mean that I haven't been with someone who isn't unsafe before. Know what else? I've never raised my hand to a man either. I can still admit that I've been an unsafe woman, though—just in a different kind of way.
To be safe is to be "secure from liability to harm, injury, danger, or risk". To be safe is about "involving little or no risk of mishap, error, etc." too. And while no one is perfect—not by a long shot—we all should strive to be the kind of individuals who aren't out here hurting someone or constantly causing errors that end up putting others in harm's way.
That's why I think it's imperative that, when it comes to discussing what it means to be and feel safe in a relationship, the definitions need to go way beyond the physical. Today, I'm tackling the importance of emotional safety. If you're curious about what an emotionally safe relationship should look like, here is a pretty good place to start.
You Listen to Each Other
I promise you, the older (and hopefully wiser) that I get, the more a quote by a theologian named Paul Tillich resonates—"The first duty of love is to listen." I think it means a lot to me because listening isn't just hearing what someone is saying. A good listener listens without giving into distractions. A good listener doesn't interrupt while you're talking. A good listener asks questions for the sake of getting clarity. A good listener retains what is said. A good listener doesn't derail or deflect. A good listener stays on topic until the matter is resolved. A good listener will strive to sympathize and, when necessary, empathize with where you are coming from. A good listener pays close attention and is extremely attentive.
The reason why, above all else, I choose to share that listening is a sign of being emotionally safe is because, when two people make a point to fully engage one another by listening, they show that they deeply care about each other's thoughts, needs and emotions. Personally, I'm not sure if it gets any safer than that.
What You Both Share Remains Between the Two of You
Proverbs 17:9 (NKJV) says "He who covers a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates friends." What's dope about this particular Scripture is it doesn't say that keeping stuff to one's self keeps the drama down (although it does). No, it states that when you're not out here putting things on blast, the motive is really about love. I totally agree because something I have learned to give more and expect more is confidentiality. My relationships are safer, both ways, because of it.
When you are in a relationship with someone (especially if it's serious), they should be able to feel like they can come to you with all of who they are. They should also believe that they can come to you with just about anything without having to worry about your friends knowing, your mama (or their mama) finding out or that some slick version of what was shared will show up in a Facebook group or sub-tweeted on Twitter. Also, if two people are really respectful of one another, this will remain the case, even if they should happen to part ways at some point.
To be accepted is beautiful. To know that you've got a safe place to share all of who you are is rare, sacred and something to profoundly cherish. It's one of the best types of safeness. It really and truly is.
Dependence Trumps Vulnerability
Whenever I'm in a session with a couple, something that I share with them is I'm actually not a huge fan of the word "vulnerable". Meaning, I don't think it's something that should apply to two people who have been in a platonic or romantic situation for a while; I think it's more appropriate for new situations and circumstances. The reason why I say that is because vulnerable means "capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt, as by a weapon" and "open to moral attack, criticism, temptation, etc." Although none of us are perfect and we do run the risk of these things happening with just about anyone, who wants to be in a long-term relationship when you're worried that you'll be wounded or hurt or attacked and criticized all of the time?
That's why I encourage couples to go with the word "dependent" more often. To be dependent is to "rely on someone or something else for aid, support, etc." Hey, if you've got a problem relying on your partner to have your back, I've gotta wonder why you're in the relationship in the first place.
You Each Take Ownership for Your Own Actions
Here is one of the most underrated indications of being in an emotionally safe relationship. If you are someone (or you're with someone) who can always point out others' issues, faults and areas of weakness but somehow, you are never able to see your own, you are an unsafe individual. Why do I say that? Because someone who is self-aware enough to take responsibility for their downfalls or offenses, is personally accountable enough to acknowledge how they can better themselves and grow, and is willing to hear you out when you bring certain issues to their attention—they are someone who is constantly on the path of personal growth and evolution.
Meanwhile, someone who is always defensive, finds a way to play the victim and/or somehow turns everything that they do wrong into being everyone else's fault (including yours)—they are emotionally immature, highly-manipulative and, quite frankly, not even close to being ready for a grown-folks type of relationship. And a healthy adult who is trying to make it work with an immature, insecure and potentially toxic one? C'mon now. Y'all already know that's the perfect recipe for an unsafe situation.
Love Languages Are Spoken Fluently
The picture right above this point breaks down what the five love languages are. The reason why they make the list is because anyone who knows their partner's primary love language, they are someone who really wants their partner to feel loved by them in the most impactful way possible. That kind of laser focus should get major props from us all.
Along these lines, two synonyms for the word "safe" are "preserved" and "maintained". I know quite a few people who claim to love one another. Still, they're constantly complaining about their needs not being met. When your partner knows how to make you feel loved and then they actually put that knowledge into action, they are basically saying "I love you so much that I want to do all that I can to preserve and maintain our relationship." Someone who loves like this is someone you can feel truly safe with, don't you think?
Apologies Aren't a Problem
I'm just gonna shoot this one straight.
Someone who refuses to apologize for what they've done wrong is someone who is mad prideful. How can you truly feel safe with an individual who isn't the opposite of prideful which is humble?
Because just think about it, it really does take some heartfelt humility to admit when you've messed up and then to apologize for it. Actually, not just apologize, but to then put forth some real effort to not do what you needed to apologize for again in the future.
While we're on the topic of pride, prideful people aren't emotionally safe individuals across the board because that trait tends to spill over into other areas and situations. A prideful person thinks they are always right. A prideful person isn't good at taking advice or asking for help. A prideful person tends to be quite critical while, at the same time, abhors constructive criticism. A prideful person has authority issues. A prideful person justifies everything they do—even when it is dead wrong. A prideful person wants fans more than true friends. Please tell me how in the world you can feel emotionally safe with someone like this?
Positive Energy Is Consistent
I remember watching a throwback episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 and one of the characters saying, "My mom always said that if you're always up, you must be on something." To a large extent, I agree. It's important to say that out the gate because it's darn near impossible to have positive energy all of the time. But what you can do is not be on an emotional roller coaster of pessimism and doom—or allow someone else to put you on one. You can choose to be the kind of person who is more optimistic than not, who is more solutions-oriented than problems-driven, and who tries to bring more joy and peace into your relationship than sadness and stress.
In the article "11 Ways To Bring Positive Energy Into Your Life", the author talks about the fact that positive energy has a direct impact on our health, the quality of our relationships and our ability to reach our personal goals. They also shared that some of the ways to go about harnessing positive energy is to let go of the past, to live in a spirit of gratitude, to love and accept yourself, to not dwell on negative stuff (something that I'll add here is also not to dwell on stuff that you can't change as well) and to laugh as often as possible.
Two people who are intentional about living their life this way? Not only are they an emotionally safe haven for one another, they are pretty close to being an unstoppable pair too.
Love and Respect Go Hand in Hand
If you are currently engaged, a book that I recommend adding to your couple's collection isLove & Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs. There's a Scripture in the Bible that says, "Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband." (Ephesians 5:33—NKJV) How this all breaks down is pretty much an article on its own.
For now, I'll say that it's a reminder that women are more "wired" to feel loved; men are more "wired" to feel respected. This and love languages have something in common. When it comes to both, where a lot of us mess up is we give more of what we want than what our partner actually needs.
As far as respecting men goes, respect is about esteem. When I think about what our Black men go through on a daily basis, simply because of the color of their skin, that is enough to motivate me to esteem and affirm them any and every chance that I get. Because if there is any place where they should feel safe, seen and acknowledged (in public and in private), it's from a sistah. Black men feel our love by how we respect (esteem) them.
And fellas, if you're looking in on this, if you're a Black man—your mama's a Black woman. That should be enough of a reason to treat Black women, especially the one you are seeing, like she is to be honored, cherished and adored. We as Black women feel respected by how well we are loved.
Two people who have love and respect constantly present in the life that they share with one another—they are the poster children for what it means to be in a truly emotionally safe relationship. If that is you, congrats. Please hold on to what you've got. It's super special. Safe relationships always are. If that's not you, well, you've got some serious stuff to think about, don't you? You are far too precious to not be in a safe relationship; emotionally safe included.
Want more stories like this? Sign up for our newsletter here and check out the related reads below:
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