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What Does It Take to Create an Emotional Safety Zone for You and Your Partner?

Where are the “emotional safety zones” in your life? 

These are relationships where you can express difficult emotions without fear of rejection. You may have experienced this with close family members, tight-knit friends, or even communities like a church, sangha, or group therapy.

But perhaps the most important person you can share a safety zone with is your spouse or romantic partner. After all, they are who most of us are coming home to at the end of the day — both physically and emotionally. 

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to interact in ways that make you and your partner feel anything but safe with each other.

Emotional Earthquakes Interrupt Emotional Safety

As your relationship progresses, you may notice that one or both of you erupt with intense emotions at surprising moments. Prompting events could be large (moving in together) or small (forgetting to pick up milk). 

In response, you might pull away, fight back, or shut down. Later, you might regret this unsupportive reaction.

Does this predict something ominous about your relationship? No!

Most of us learned less-than-healthy emotional skills as we grew up. It’s only natural that we carry these tendencies into our closest relationships.

Rather than judge yourselves, approach skills like an athlete. It comes down to training! 

Sending, Receiving, and Containment

Successful containment is the key skill for a shared emotional safety zone with your partner.

“Containment” creates an intentional space for emotional expression. This direct and compassionate approach cancels out the need to repress or divert issues. Instead, you can just deal with them. Imagine that!

In a containment session, the emotionally charged partner becomes the “sender.” The other partner agrees to be the “receiver” or “container.”

Safety Agreements

Perhaps you already feel your pulse rising as you anticipate the volley of emotional accusations from sender to receiver.

Let us be clear: containment is not intended to invite a free-for-all. 

You and your partner must commit to rules based on mutual respect and love before moving forward.

You can find this list in the Imago workbook Getting the Love You Want:

  • No blind-siding. Containment sessions are by appointment only.
  • No avoiding. The receiving partner grants an appointment as soon as they can.
  • No checking out. Both partners stay present until conclusion. That means no phones.
  • No physical harm to either partner. Nobody has the right to act in an abusive way.
  • No property damage. See above.

That’s a clear enough outline of what not to do. But what actions can you take in a containment session? 

If You’re the Sender…

  • Describe behaviors that upset you. Be specific.
  • Build statements from your own experience. It helps to start the sentence with “I.” (i.e. “I feel unheard” rather than “You never listen.”)
  • Express your emotions rather than criticizing your partner in character or motivation.

If You’re the Receiver…

  • Listen with empathy.
  • Visualize your partner as a wounded child instead of the current, upset adult.
  • Receive what’s being said.
  • Remember this to calm your defenses: your behavior triggered your partner’s wound. Their reaction relates to their childhood far more than you.

Play the Long Game When It Comes to Emotional Safety

The rewards of an emotional safety zone blossom over time, like a well-tended garden. 

Some you’ll feel more immediately than others. When strong emotions arise, you’ll know what to do instead of stewing in tension. 

In the long run, handling conflict builds trust. You’ll get to relax and enjoy your time together.

If you struggle in this exercise, remember that athletes excel with the right coach. Contact a professional for containment sessions. A counselor can hold secure emotional space while you and your partner find your own safe harbor.


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Copyright @2020 Dana Cole, LMFT