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This Is How To Feel Emotionally Safe In Your Relationship

"Safe" is something all of us should require in our relationship. Emotionally safe included.

Love & Relationships

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

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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

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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

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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

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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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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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