Experts Greg Smalley and Shawn Stover explain that, “Contrary to what many people think, the opposite of love is not hate — it’s fear.” And fear “erodes trust, openness, and vulnerability. Fear makes a marriage feel unsafe.”
The most extreme cause of relationship fear is physical abuse. Smalley and Stover note, however, that relationship safety requires more than being safe from physical harm, it also requires emotional safety. Real intimacy develops only when couples feel completely safe to open their hearts to each other, without worry about being hurt.
Smalley and Stover provide examples of how emotional safety is undermined in marriage:
•Constant criticism or put-downs.
•Lies, deceptions and secrets.
•Hurtful jokes, mocking or sarcastic comments at your expense.
•Sharing private information with others without your consent.
•Repeatedly bringing up past mistakes.
•Repeatedly breaking promises.
•Brushing your needs aside as unimportant.
Smalley and Stover explain that creating a safe environment in your marriage starts with your attitude and actions.
People protect their valuables. The more valuable something is, the more it’s protected.
The same is true with people and relationships: The more we value them, the more we try to keep them safe. If you value your spouse, your spouse will feel emotionally safe.
Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is value. If you want your spouse to be valuable in your life, you have to decide he or she is valuable. Valuing your spouse involves making a conscious decision. Think of it as giving the gift of honor “whether or not they like it, want it or deserve it.” It’s a decision you control, your spouse has no say in it; it cannot be “purchased by their behavior or be contingent on our emotions.”
Creating safety in your relationship also involves treating your spouse in ways that show she or he is valuable. Smalley and Stover explain that people feel safe when their spouse “handles their hearts (their deepest feelings, thoughts and desires) with genuine interest, curiosity, honor and care.”
The more you treat your spouse as worthy, the more likely that he or she will become someone worth being with. By encouraging, building up and treating him or her with decency, you’ll bring out the best in your spouse.
Smalley and Stover provide a number of examples of ways of building a safe relationship:
•Don’t judge your spouse’s feelings or innermost thoughts, needs and desires.
•Give your spouse your full attention when talking.
•Keep a track record of the good things about your spouse, but not the bad things.
•Let your spouse influence your decisions.
•Keep your promises.
•Don’t keep secrets.
•Have fun and laugh together a lot.
•Affirm and compliment your spouse.
Smalley and Stover warn that “walls are built by people who feel threatened.” If a wall is separating you from your spouse, no matter who built it, take steps to increase the trust and safety quotient of your marriage.
Don’t try to tear down the walls. That will make matters worse. The only person who can take down a wall is the person who put it up. And that person will only do that after he or she feels safe.