Building a healthy relationship takes a lot of work. All intimate partnerships, for example, require traits like trust, respect, empathy, and teamwork. But at the root of all those things is something much more important. For any intimate relationship to survive and grow, there has to be a shared sense of emotional safety.
According to Kiara Luna, a mental health counselor in Connecticut, emotional safety is when one partner feels confident enough to show their real selves to the other partner because they know their vulnerability won’t be received with judgment or criticism. Emotional safety means your partner is comfortable with showing you their inner world, and that they trust you will always be there — even when things get messy.
No intimate relationship can thrive without that sense of safety — because without it, a relationship is fundamentally absent of trust. “If your partner doesn’t feel comfortable connecting with you at a more intimate level emotionally, emotional distance will occur, which could ultimately lead to many different problem areas in the relationship,” Luna says.
That’s not to say emotional safety means total serenity. Couples who feel emotionally safe with one another have arguments, obviously. The difference, according to Luna: Instead of creating distance, conflicts bring them closer because they share their feelings and repair the problem.
“These couples tend to show empathy and understanding for one another and feel validated when expressing their needs,” she says. “On the other hand, when emotional safety is not present, there’s a constant fear about what can or can’t be said.” Over time, that fear can lead to resentment — and more conflicts.
Luckily, it’s often not too late to rebuild emotional safety when it’s absent a relationship. Here’s how to restore emotional safety with your partner when it’s been lost.
1. Acknowledge the Issue
If there isn’t a sense of emotional safety in your relationship, the first thing to do is acknowledge its absence. “Consider if there was ever emotional safety within this relationship, or if something has changed,” recommends Saba Lurie, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. Either way, lovingly bring up what you’ve noticed to your partner. Let them know you want to feel totally safe being yourself, and that you want to create the same opportunity for them. Hopefully, they’ll share your sentiment and desire to restore the safety you’re both missing out on — and you can hold one another accountable as you rebuild.
2. Do Your Part
Once you’ve identified that you don’t feel that sense of safety with your partner, look inside yourself. Is this an isolated incidence in this relationship, or is the lack of emotional safety a trend in relationships across the board? If you realize you might be part of the problem, you have a responsibility to do the work. Lurie suggests finding out why intimacy is challenging for you — you can pinpoint where the patterns originated with a therapist — and then work to break down some of those barriers. If your partner’s sharing the struggle, they might want to do the same thing.
3. Validate Your Partner’s Experience
One way Luna works with her clients to reintroduce emotional safety to a relationship: encouraging them to validate their partner. If you feel like you’ll be met by criticism or anger, it’s hard to open up about your feelings. Practice building empathy in your relationship by validating your partner’s experience when they open up. Your partner’s anxiety, anger, or sadness may not match your experience, but that doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t true for them.
Validation can be as simple as truly listening when your partner opens up and letting them know their emotion makes sense (even if you don’t understand it). Instead of questioning their perspective, let them know you’re there to support them through it.
4. Be Curious About the “Why”
It’s easy to make negative assumptions about your partner, especially if they’ve hurt you. But judgments won’t get you very far in building emotional safety, because your partner won’t feel validated. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, encourages curiosity about your partner’s behavior and the “why” behind it. “In many relationships, there is a race to occupy the victim role,” she says. “Instead of looking for ways your partner is slighting you, try to understand where they are coming from and consider their perspective.”
For example, if you’re struggling to feel connected with your partner because they always prioritize work over the relationship, think about what’s driving their behavior. Maybe they’re avoiding vulnerability because they’ve been wounded in the past, or maybe they’re seeking a feeling of success or validation they’re not getting from the relationship.
Either way: Try to understand what’s behind the behavior — and better yet, ask. Communicating your desire for more emotional intimacy is a great step toward building it.
5. Seek Out Support
According to Derek Bacharach, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, how a couple rebuilds emotional safety depends on how long it’s been gone. While acknowledging your desire to restore emotional safety — and taking steps to do so — can go a long way, sometimes, you’ll need a bit of extra support. Bacharach suggests enlisting the help of a couples therapist to work on whatever issues are standing in the way of vulnerability and connection in your relationship.
It can be hard to ask for help, and rebuilding vulnerability and connection will take some time. Assuming you both want to grow, restoring trust with your partner — and modeling the importance of emotional safety to your kids — is worth the investment.