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Embracing the Safe Zone of Intimate Relationships

Embracing the Safe Zone of Intimate Relationships

As human beings we need emotional intimacy perhaps just as we do food and shelter. We seek that emotional closeness in relationships to fulfill and be fulfilled – to establish and experience a sense of human connection and permanence. Emotionally intimate relationships satisfy our desire for companionship that nourishes love and safety in an otherwise unpredictable world.

Safety in particular proves to be vital in an intimate relationship: Without it, love is restrained. Yet at the same time, we can prevent or discourage that safety even when we're not aware.

At Empowered Life Therapy, we work with many different individuals from Oswego, Aurora, Plainfield and Naperville (IL). While each seeking marriage or couples counseling is unique, most are also alike in wishing to overcome barriers that block the bridge between partners.

Marriage & Couples Counseling: Safety Is Built into Our Brain

What makes intimate relationships powerful is also what makes them complex. This is because they call for a risk that is exhilarating and anxiety-inducing at once.

Many of us in Oswego, Aurora, Plainfield and Naperville can move through life showing only a part of ourselves, such as the one that gets us through the day's demands and lets us interact only as needed with others.

Most of us also have a deeper self – a real self – that, by varying degrees, we stow away, guard and hesitate to fully reveal. That is the part that can struggle, fear, think, dream, doubt, create, act quirky and feel both joy and pain.

In a truly connected relationship, that real person is unafraid to emerge because of a special bond that's been formed. Vulnerability is freed by a sense of safety.

Such safety within vulnerability involves more than our conscious awareness: It is also wired into our neural circuitry.

In his polyvagal theory, neuroscience expert Stephen Porges, Ph.D., puts forth that our bodies react in physiological and neurobiological ways to heightened stress, especially when it involves perceived harm or danger.

Porges explains how our autonomic nervous system regulates safety, trust and intimacy through a secondary system he calls the social engagement system. Within this subsystem, our senses constantly interpret external stimuli to inform our brain whether the current situation or environment is safe or hazardous.

Our emotional vulnerability factors into this network. When we perceive that our partner is subjecting us to a stressor such as lying, rejection, harsh words or indifference, new neural pathways will form.

If those pathways multiply, they can make our innate fight-or-flight response shift into overdrive and malfunction. They may also conceivably bring us to an immobilizing freeze reaction, which is our much more primal reaction in the face of possible danger.

Repetitive fight, flight and freeze responses can also trigger physiological reactions such as high blood pressure, headaches, stomach aches and insomnia. These in turn continue telling our inner network that something is wrong or unsafe, thus barring the door to the part of our nervous system that gives us clearance to be vulnerable.

Conversely, when we perceive emotional safety with a partner often, our social engagement system will send us "go" signals to listen, empathize, connect and collaborate. It will also flash the green light for us to feel proactive, creative and determined.

Marriage & Couples Counseling: What Makes Safety Elusive?

Our vulnerability in a relationship and our responses to it can be understood. If so, why then can we struggle or even fail to maintain a steady safe space with a partner? Why can't we manage conflict in a healthy way without winners and losers?

Particular factors are often at play. One, as many of us know, is that life can be stressful. We absorb that stress, and unless we have a sufficient outlet for it, we tend to release it upon and around those we least should. Our partner can simply be a casualty of being too close to the fallout.

Another aspect is how we have learned to cope with conflict and stress in our lives (or not), especially during our developmental years. If we grew up with a domineering, addicted or emotionally unavailable parent, or with friends or family who discouraged or dampened personal expression, our comfort with vulnerability can often be reduced.

We also occupy a cultural sphere in which we have many channels for expressing ourselves, but the same access exposes us to a much wider court of faceless opinion, feedback and sometimes even abuse. Whether at home, at school, at work or in public, we can remain conditioned to avoid revealing who we really are because it is not safe.

In addition, where some might view vulnerability as a strength, others may perceive it as a weakness or deficiency. Men in particular can sometimes feel this way, especially when out in the world we might still often hear that men should not show emotion. Mentally adjusting to that circumstance typically involves reinforcing emotional barriers.

We're also only gliding over the basics here. When we add the era of AI, social media, changing gender roles, still-adjusting income equality and 24/7 access to distraction and temptation, the borders of relational safe space become even more imperiled.

Marriage & Couples Counseling: Clearing the Way for Wonderful Safety

When we're young and pursuing feelings of dopamine-infused romantic love, we might equate a "safe" person with a boring one. As we endure those experiences – what goes up almost always must come down – we find out in our own ways that we cannot evade the need for emotional safety regardless of how little we're aiming for it.

This becomes all the more relevant when we catch ourselves conveying the opposite of safety in how we speak, act and appear. We raise our voice, roll our eyes, cut the other person off or dismiss the point being made. This in turn pushes social engagement system control buttons to disengage, defend and crawl back into emotional isolation.

But here's the inspiring truth: We can reverse such tendencies and, in doing so, celebrate our significant other for the safety they represent while we too build it up with our love, hope, compassion and trust.

Perhaps your relationship is in a good place, one that's only occasionally disrupted by the weight of the day. Or, maybe it's been dodging the hail of rocks and stones from emotional disrepair. Either way, you can continue to direct the path traveled together to a safer space that draws you together and keeps you there.

A lasting, fulfilling connection will sustain itself when both partners can share anything from seemingly minor worries to the deepest concerns and anxieties without fear of belittling, rebuke or reprisal.

Both of you can help guide the relationship by approaching communication with the following mindset.

Commit to being present. When your partner asks for your attention or wants to talk, pause from what you are doing and give them your ear. If you are truly occupied, let them know you are interested and give them a specific time – soon – when the two of you can have the conversation. Also do not multitask or accept distractions during the discussion. That also means putting down and, if necessary, silencing the phone.

Let them have their say. Unfortunately, in many public exchanges, particularly in the media, people increasingly talk over one another, often with rising voices to gain greater command. In a relationship, such forms of communication are a major barrier to intimacy. If your partner has something to say, have the patience and presence of mind to let them finish or at least have adequate time or space to make their point. This becomes especially crucial when you are addressing a painful or sensitive topic.

Remember your social engagement system. If you sense signals such as anger, pain or accusation, your subconscious brain will be lighting firecrackers. Keep that in mind. If your partner is venting or passionately speaking about something, maintaining conscious presence will help remove the match from your fireworks and your partner's.

Ask meaningful questions and value proper silence. Once our partner has spoken, we can often choose one of two roads: deny or counter what they said, or reinforce the safe space by asking how we can help support, improve or change the situation. There might also be times when nothing more needs to be said. Our role in safety in the moment might be just to listen.

Understand and respect your partner's patterns and triggers. Most people tend to become more predictable the longer we know them. For example, perhaps your partner is usually carrying stress when they get home from work but then it dissipates as the evening settles in. By eight o'clock, maybe they're even relaxed and smiling.

Recognize the right times and places to have important interaction that exposes vulnerabilities. Similarly, if you know what exactly can set your partner off, resist the natural impulse to aim for that trigger, especially if the exchange is escalating toward a win-or-lose scenario. The short-term "victory" will only create less long-term safety.

Marriage & Couples Counseling Near Me: Contact Us Today

Intimate relationships are meant to be a beautiful, nurturing and empowering part of our lives. We truly can enjoy ever-growing strength, peace and safety when we recognize how to manage ourselves within those relationships while adapting to and with our partner in constructive, healthy ways.

Empowered Life Therapy believes in the power of emotional safety and vulnerability within committed relationships. If you have questions about maintaining a safe, healthy relationship or feel you would benefit from caring support, contact us today at (630) 842-6585 to learn more about our "marriage and couples counseling near me" for Oswego, Aurora, Plainfield and Naperville (IL). We welcome people of all ages and backgrounds.

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