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Healthy Relationships: Assessing the Emotional Safety

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(This is an article I wrote recently, I'd love some feedback...)


Couples seek relationship counseling for numerous reasons. As a professional who works with many different couples with a variety of issues, I’ve identified one similar thread that runs through all of them. Their relationships lack in varying degrees of “emotional safety.” Typically, the couples who present as the most hostile, distant, angry, disengaged or otherwise dysfunctional are the least emotionally safe together. Even people who come for counseling who have less glaring issues can benefit from a tune-up in this area.


So what is “emotional safety” in a relationship? I define this as the level of comfort both people feel with each other. There are six aspects in which to assess the emotional safety in a relationship. They are respect, feeling heard, understanding, validation, empathy and love. How can one assess their own relationship based on this paradigm? When working with couples, I often ask each partner to rate, from zero to ten, (zero being “never” and ten being “all the time”) how much they feel each of the six mentioned aspects of emotional safety from their partner. I chart it out with each person’s name written on the top of a piece of paper with a column under each. Then on the left side I list the six aspects with rows next to them.


1) Respect How much do each of them feel respected by their partner? People who report low levels of respect often experience criticism or judgment from the other.


2) Feeling Heard How much does their partner listen to them? Those who don’t feel heard complain of being ignored, tuned out or talked over by the other.


3) Understood How much do each of them feel understood by their partner? People with low levels of understanding from the other report frustration around their partner not getting them or twisting their words into an entirely different meaning.


4) Validation How much do they each feel validated by each other? Low levels of validation are problematic to any relationship in that one or both don’t feel that their partner gets what they’re saying. Its one step beyond understanding and it doesn’t require the partner to necessarily agree with them.


5) Empathy How much do they each feel the other can be empathetic with them? A low number on this is the most toxic of the six aspects in that a lack of empathy in a relationship means a lack of attunement to the others emotions. The partner experiencing a lack of empathy can experience a great deal of sadness or anger. “You don’t care how I feel.”


6) Love: How much do they feel loved by each other? This encapsulates and reflects the state of the previous five. Couples who report low levels of feeling loved by the other typically have low numbers in the other aspects.


Doing this type of charting makes it easy to compare and contrast how each person feels in the relationship. This tool is very helpful to anyone wanting to assess their own level of emotional safety. Be aware that it might bring up a lot for both partners. If the topic proves to cause too much emotional reactivity then a trained therapist can help flesh out the results and provide a roadmap to make changes. In my work, I find that it often involves altering communication styles, behavior modification and exploration of both partner’s families of origin. The greatest evidence of change in the relationship are these numbers going up – and they can!

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That's really good, and I definitely agree with all points made. It hits the mark, without getting too confusing or going too in-depth.


Yours is a career that I have been considering pursuing. How do you like it? What are some challenges of your internship? What type of person do you think is suited to a career in family/marriage counselling? How long have you been in school, and what level of education do you need to be fully qualified as a counsellor? If you could answer those q's for me, I'd greatly appreciate it. Feel free to answer here, or to PM me

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This is interesting. I personally feel some varying degree of dissatisfaction in each of these areas you are describing in my current relationship.


All except for one: the one about feeling loved. I have no doubt in my heart or my mind that my girlfriend absolutely loves me 100% with all of her heart.


I think that the area where we run into roadblocks is due to different methods or styles of showing our love as well as differing past experiences in regards to relationships.


We are currently seeing a counselor in order to help us get better at strengthening the connection in the areas that need to be due to the fact that we both realize that we do really love each other and want to stay together and be as happy and functional as possible.


Just wanted to comment on my experience as it relates to this topic.


Thanks, great post!

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I'm glad you like it...and found it an easy read. It's a really useful way for me to begin to conceptualize a couple. There are obviously other areas to look at but if that foundation is shaky then the rest tends to be as well.


I absolutely LOVE my career. It's extremely rewarding but also challenging. My story is a little unique actually...I started out in an entirely differerent career! I was in the movie industry working as an Assistant Director in movies and television for about 8 years. Long story short, it wasn't meant for me. I became very unhappy working the rediculous number of hours I was (up to 16+), dealing with egos and politics but more importantly struggling to have/maintain relationships due to me disappearing for so long on shows. Anyway, I went back to school and got a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology and started collecting the 3000 clinical hours needed for my internship. In order to be licensed in California, there are 2 tests you must pass - I'm through one of them. I had a baby in between! I'll be taking my second soon.


I believe to be a good therapist/counselor you should really care about people for one - and enjoy the process of helping them through their "stuff." One difficult aspect is not getting too emotionally wrapped up in other people's stories. It takes time and practice to put a protective shield up around yourself. If you took in everyone's pain, it would be pretty hard.


Hope this was helpful!

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Thanks for the comment! Good luck working through it all with your counselor! If you both are willing to engage in the process and accept some responsibility for what goes on between you - you have a great shot!


Thank you! Yes, you are posting in the right place. If you click on the "quote" button in the lower right hand corner, it will make the post you are replying to appear within your post.

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Thank you so much for this idea. We have been married for 11 years and though alot has happened (which I'm sure is true for all married couples) we have fought through it and made it despite the issues, but lately things have been a bit tougher. It's amazing that you put those things on the list, because that is pretty much what our problems are. I know that my husband cannot feel respected because 2-5 are the things I have a problem with and if you don't feel heard, understood, valid, or like your partner is empathetic towards you then you will lash out and say things that are disrespectful and in turn they will feel disrespected and unfortunately unloved. I am hoping that this tool will help us, but he has a problem being vocal. He crawls into a shell and no one can drag him out of it. I am a little afraid that the whole idea of this exercise will be embarrassing to him. Any advice?

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Your welcome! Isn't it amazing what kind of power each one of areas of emotional safety holds in whether people feel connected or not??


As far as presenting it to him, maybe instead of presenting it as an "excercise" you could just tell him you were reading something about relationship assessments and want to ask him a few questions. I know it can be difficult when your partner tends to hide out emotionally - kind of like a turtle bringing his head under his shell! Tell him it's really important to you check in with him about how he's feeling with you - and you the same. Good luck!

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Hi Lisa


This seems an excellent way to do a safety self assessment.


Its straight forward, in plain english, and really seems to hit the core of most issues.


A concise way to quickly look at issues that couples dont often think about or choose not to discuss.


I will try it with my relationship!


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