By Debby Gullery
“Many people will not be honest because they fear loss of intimacy and togetherness. In reality, honesty brings people closer together, for it will strengthen their identities. The more you realize your separate identities, the closer you can become. Telling loved ones what is really on your mind and telling others what you really think is the foundation of love.” – Henry Cloud
When I ask people what the most important ingredient for good communication is, they almost always say “being a good listener”, and I agree that it is very important. But what I’ve come to understand, through my own marriage and with all the couples I’ve had the pleasure to teach and coach, is that there is something else even more important than the ability to listen well.
Interestingly enough, research tells us that the most important ingredient for successful communication is for both partners to feel emotionally safe. In other words, we need to know that we can be both vulnerable and honest with each other, and that our opinions and emotions will not be rejected or discounted by our spouse. Developing this kind of safety in a marriage takes time and investment and is a direct by-product of the level of trust that is created between spouses.
Conversely, the biggest deterrent to good communication is the lack of emotional safety. What happens when we feel unsafe with our spouses? When we’re not feeling safe, we tend to respond defensively, and then all hell breaks loose! The worst parts of ourselves emerge, and we yell, nag, argue and attack, or just give up and stop speaking altogether. And so much of our energy gets focused on defending ourselves that we lose the ability to listen to our partner at all!
Another type of safety that is equally important in marriage is commitment safety. Any thriving, healthy marriage requires a constant sense of having a reliable future together. This allows both spouses to feel emotionally secure, and explains why it is never a good idea to threaten divorce – even if you don’t really mean it. Both the threat of divorce and the word itself, erode commitment safety and emotional security.
Having a strong sense of commitment also tends to keep both our negative thoughts at bay and fosters behaviors that are good for our relationship. For example, in a healthy marriage, spouses will naturally make small and positive sacrifices for each other on a regular basis, that signal commitment from one partner to the other. This is commitment in action, and enhances the sense that the relationship can be trusted.
So what does this mean for our marriages? It means that even if we are still working on improving our communication skills, we are way ahead of the game if each of us does what we can to make our relationships and our partners feel safe.
Spend some time discussing how your couple is doing with regards to commitment and emotional safety, noting where there might be room for improvement and growth. Ask each other what you can do, or stop doing, to foster feelings of safety.
I will make consistent effort to help my partner feel safe so that our marriage continues to get stronger and deeper.
This article is adapted from Debby’s book, Small Steps to Bigger Love, which is available through HSA Publications and on Amazon. It includes a study guide for small group use. Debby is also available for couple coaching and can be contacted at email@example.com or at debbygullery.com.