Women who come to me have such a wide variety of issues they face. From a general feeling of being overlooked and ignored to much more serious issues of emotional and sometimes physical abuse.
And while their circumstances and backgrounds may differ, I’m always struck at the underlying theme that, through the tears, eventually emerges. I’m not sure I’ve sat through a single first session where she hasn’t said, sorrowfully, “I just don’t feel safe.” ?
As a man, I believe I know what not feeling safe is. When my employer is making staff-cuts, it doesn’t feel safe. When I’m out late at night, and I hear footsteps behind me – it doesn’t feel safe. And when my child needs medical attention quickly – it doesn’t feel safe.
But what women feel is, I sense, something totally different. It must be, because it is always accompanied by an avalanche of tears, and the underlying cry of “How come he can’t give me the love I need? Don’t I deserve kindness, too?” The powerful wave of sadness emanating from her is nothing like the fear I am familiar with. It is something much deeper, coming straight from her soul. It’s personal. So personal. It’s completely tied up with who she is, her worth as a person, as a woman, as a wife.
Perhaps one of my biggest challenges in working with couples is conveying to men the importance and significance of emotional safety. Some get it right away, but most don’t. And even for those who do, it’s impossible for us to fully empathize, to really understand, because it’s just not in our experience.
What we don’t understand is that without emotional safety, we are not even seeing the real woman, the real her. Because a woman cannot be real, without knowing that you are going to stick around when she shows you who she really is. When we threaten to leave, when we hold “divorce” over her head, we are forcing her to become something she is not: defensive, angry, afraid, withheld, cold, and insecure.
The irony is that while we wish (and complain that) she would show us love, affection and devotion the way we want, when we undermine her emotional security, we are pushing her away and forcing her to act like somebody she isn’t. It’s not fair – to her or to ourselves – as we never allow the relationship to even get off the ground. We never give true love a real chance.
Thankfully, men are fully capable at excelling at things we don’t fully understand or grasp. We are experts at doing what it takes, even if difficult and confusing. Wonderful, actually.
3 Steps to Creating Emotional Safety
The emotional safety, so crucial for women to open up and let you in, is based on three factors: Appreciation, Kindness & Relationship security.
Appreciation is the means through which you let your wife know that you see her. And not just what she does for you or others, but actually, see who she is – on the inside:
I notice how you listen so patiently to our son when he tells you about his day. This reminds me, again, of how kind, loving and responsible you are. So glad you’re my wife, and the mommy of my children.
When we acknowledge and honor her positive character and behavior, we convey to her that our eyes only see the good. While we notice her struggles and imperfections, we only see and honor her strengths and good qualities. That in our eyes, our definition of her is her at her best.
Kindness is the means through which you let your wife know how much you value her. Doing an act of kindness says “You are important to me. You are worth my time, my money, my effort, my everything.”
Kindness is the way which we say “I love you” through action instead of only through words.
Consistent, unconditional kindness is so important to weave through the fabric of your relationship, and takes on significant, deep meaning for years to come. Even your small actions build a legacy of relationship mentorship for future generations. I will never forget my father bringing my mother breakfast in bed, for my first 18 years of life. Buttering her toast, just right, with a side of cheese. Climbing the stairs, plate in one hand, coffee in the other, and placing it gently at her side, in bed as she awoke.
His demonstration of love & kindness enabled me to carry on his tradition, and my five boys have all watched me make my wife breakfast for many years. That’s three generations of “I love you” in action, not just words.
When all is said and done, though, the third and most important key to emotional safety, by far, is relationship security. This cannot be stressed enough, as a woman who senses her relationship is at risk can never open her heart to intimacy. Those two things are polar opposites that never meet. Threatening divorce, walking-out, or consistently repeating the mantra that “this will never work” is the equivalent of taking a sledge-hammer to your relationship. If you want any meaningful change, and meaningful growth and connection, a woman must feel that you will never leave her side, ever. That her mistakes and failures will never turn you off, and that her best is the only best you ever want.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t get your needs met, or that you do whatever she says, or that you settle for lackluster effort. I have plenty of blog posts on setting boundaries, and requesting change. But what this does mean is that while building and creating a relationship, with all its challenges and disagreements and fights, never does she feel that the relationship itself is in question. Otherwise, she shuts down, and the whole relationship then shuts down.
Perhaps it is because, as men, we are so familiar with being on different teams, having winners and losers, and gangs of friends that the unity that women crave is so foreign. But in her eyes, we are always on the same team. And in a loving relationship, there are no losers, because when you win, she feels the happiest. And, of course, you are her best friend whom she trusts more than anybody. When we fully embrace this perspective, and create the emotional safety she needs, we finally meet the person we love and have been waiting for the whole time.
The good news is that, in truth, when she opens up and shows you her real self, she’s way better than you even imagined. ❤️