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Unmet Emotional Needs

By Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D.

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Becoming Captain of the Safety Patrol
Tolerance is the oil which takes the friction out of life.
-Wilbert E. Scheer

Bridge-Builder’s Tip
Treat the words your partner shares with you as the precious gems that they are.

Dale’s words caused Marty’s body to recoil, much as if he had been struck with a bullet fired from a gun.

“That does it, I’m not doing this with you anymore,” Marty shouted.

Strangely Marty’s actions, the words spoken, the depth of Marty’s anger, didn’t seem to phase her in the least. In fact, it appeared that there was a look of satisfaction on her face, just the smallest hint of amusement in her smile.

“I mean it, Dale. I just can’t keep taking this.”

“Taking what?” she asked, more annoyed than curious.

"You know damn well what I’m talking about. The way you shoot me down. I feel like I go out on a limb and there you are right behind me, sawing the branch off.”

“Marty, don’t you think that you’re being just the least bit dramatic?”

“Dramatic! You know how hard it is for me to open up to anyone in the first place. And then when I do so with you--what you do with it--it’s inhumane.

“I’m not following you,” Dale said in her most discounting tone.

“Follow this, why don’t you! I try and tell you how I feel about you and the next thing I know, you tear into me.”

“Give me an example,” Dale challenged Marty.

"I don’t have to prove this to you, although I can tell you this much. I know when you’re doing it. I feel it in my gut. It feels like I’ve been kicked by a mule.

Unmoved by Marty’s protest, Dale’s voice became harder rather than softer. “Listen, there are times that you go too far with things. I’m just trying to let you know to cut it out.”

“Letting me know is one thing, but you become downright cruel. There’s no way the punishment fits the crime. You take what I say to you, twist it, distort it, ultimately you use it against me.”

“That certainly is your perception of things, but it doesn’t mean that I agree with you,” Dale said.

“My God, Dale, I’m not asking you to agree with me. I’m asking you to understand how your actions affect me. This isn’t about whether your behavior is justified or not. It’s about how unsafe you make me feel. It’s about how I feel like closing up like a clam after one of your slams.”

“Marty, all I can hear right now is you blaming me. I want to understand you, but I don’t get what you’re saying,” Dale explained.

“It’s real simple. I consider the things I share with you to be sacred. They’re like precious jewels. But you treat my words like toothpicks that you just snap in half whenever I have displeased you.”

Dale started to interrupt Marty, but Marty waved Dale off.

“No, don’t. Just hear me out. Opening up to you the way I do, do you have any idea how vulnerable, how fragile I feel? And then you come along and stomp on me, it’s like you are squishing the life out of a bug. It’s like you have a sixth sense for what I’m feeling so vulnerable about and then you just go after it.

“I need to feel safe in order to be with you. I need to trust that you aren’t going to hurt me, that you aren’t going to use my words against me. Worst of all I never know when it’s going to happen. I always have to keep my guard up, I never know when you’re going to pounce on me next.

“Don’t you get it, Dale, the very way you protect yourself causes me to feel unsafe with you. I can’t keep doing this with you if I can’t feel safe.”

We all have the need to feel emotionally safe with the people in our lives. If you want to create a relationship that’s rewarding and fulfilling, you need to insure that both you and your partner feel safe with each other. There’s no way your relationship can grow and develop without that condition being met.

Remember, a secure connection and emotional safety are the two fundamental building blocks upon which an emotionally satisfying relationship is built. By fulfilling these basic emotional needs, you’ll be that much better able to have many others fulfilled.

In the last chapter, we focused on two skills, checking-in and self-disclosure. These are the fundamental skills to use in order to create a secure connection. However, you can’t have a secure connection without an atmosphere of openness created by a climate of emotional safety.

Now this is easy enough to see why. The emotional nutrients of any relationship are openness and emotional honesty. Feeling emotionally safe is the primary ingredient necessary for emotional intimacy to grow and develop in your relationships. If you don’t feel safe, you’ll shut down, turn off, and tune out. The connection that you’ve worked so hard to create will shrivel up, wither away, and all too often, die.

What makes a relationship emotionally safe? Does the word respect make sense? Think about your own experiences. Think about the risks that you’ve taken with somebody. Did you feel like the risks you took were received with respect? Was there a sense of being honored for sharing something about yourself with somebody? Did you feel encouraged to continue taking risks with that person?

Trust makes a relationship emotionally safe. Trust is created out of the track record that you build with somebody. Has experience taught you that your partner works hard at understanding you? Or do your words become the tools that your partner uses to humiliate you? Using your words against you--these are the kinds of experiences that contribute to an emotionally unsafe relationship.

Taking ownership of your behavior is a third way to create an emotionally safe relationship. Taking ownership of your behavior removes the voices of blame and victimization from your relationships. In order for you to feel safe in your relationships, it’s critical that you feel safe enough to be yourself without fear of blame and retribution.

Whenever there’s blame being projected, nobody can feel safe. Blame makes you feel like a target. When you feel like a target, you must necessarily defend yourself. Feeling like a target, anybody will naturally defend themselves first, and build relationship bridges later.

The best way to diffuse that vicious circle is to blame less and take ownership more often. Being open to seeing your part in any dynamic with your partner enables your partner to feel much more open to seeing their part. That is the formula to resolving conflict and making things feel safe for you and your partner. 

What I’m suggesting to you is the need to develop an emotional tone in your relationships. The tone expresses something special--the essence of which may seem somewhat simplistic to you. What this essence  communicates is that you and your partner are for each other. Cooperation supplants competitiveness. Understanding displaces judgment. Acceptance blooms where criticism once ruled.

Whenever there is a prevailing sense of emotional safety  there’s a feeling of warmth and camaraderie. You feel safe in the knowledge that you have at least one person on your side wanting to be there for you rather than being against you. Life feels a little lighter, your burdens feel a little easier to bear.

Emotional safety is not something you can simply wish to have happen for you. There are things you can do to create that climate. Much of what we have discussed in earlier sections of the book are part of the puzzle. Things like acceptance, empathy, and validation. Now let me suggest more tools that will assist you in building emotionally safe relationships. Using these skills will build trust into your relationship. The presence of trust  will enable the two of you to feel safe with each other in order to take more and more risks that will build an even more secure connection.

Bridge-Builder’s Tool
Use information to understand your partner, not to use it against them.

Laurie’s face had turned a bright red. She was so embarrassed. All she wanted to do was find a hole to climb in and hide.

“I told you that in the strictest confidence,” Laurie said. “How dare you bring that up again!”

“I’m just trying to prove what a hypocrite you are,” Ralph said.

"A hypocrite? What’s that have to do with anything?” Laurie asked.

“It has everything to do with it. All I’m saying is last week you told me all those things about you and your mom. And I can’t help but think that if that is how you are with your mom, then....”

Laurie cut Ralph off before he could complete what he was about to say. “‘Then,’ nothing! One has absolutely nothing to do with the other.

“But I’ll tell you this much. I can’t believe how offended I feel. I can’t believe that you would take what I told you, twist my words, and then try and apply them to a completely different set of circumstances.”

“Why not? It seems like a perfectly normal thing to do. You make all these promises to me and expect me to believe you. I’m just pointing out that there’s no reason to believe you, based upon what you told me about you and your mother.”

By now, Laurie was more hurt than embarrassed. Tears were running down her cheeks. She couldn’t believe how betrayed she felt.

“Ralph, you’re missing the whole point. I told you that stuff about me and my mom, because I wanted you to better understand why it’s so hard between her and me. I sure as hell didn’t expect you to take that information and blow it out of proportion in every other aspect of my life.”

“I’d be a fool not to,” Ralph said.

“No, you’re a fool for doing it,” Laurie said.

“Why’s that?”

“Because you’re causing more damage by misusing what I told you than the damage you fear I’m going to create in the first place.”

“How do you figure?” Ralph asked.

“Because I’m going to think twice before I tell you anything anymore. I don’t like having to be so guarded with anybody. I’m going to resent you for what you’ve just done to me and I’m going to resent you for not being able to trust you in the future.”

“Why can’t you trust me?” Ralph asked.

“Because I don’t want to have to worry about what you’re going to do with something once I share it with you. When I open up to you, I’m just sharing a part of myself with you, I’m not looking to have it shoved back into my face two weeks later when it suits your purposes to do so.”

The skills we have talked about in this book have one aim--diffusing conflict by better understanding your partner and more effectively expressing that understanding to your partner. Your best intentions will be defeated if all the new ways you have to express yourself are used against you.

It’s a very simple proposition. You and your partner both deserve to be treated with respect as you learn how to pinpoint the issues in your relationships. You need to understand that the skills you’re learning are tools of healing, not bullets to be loaded in a gun to be fired at your partner.

Healing through understanding is the goal. Don’t take your sights off that target. Understanding is created through all the new ways of communicating we’ve talked about.

These ways of communicating are sacred. They need to be honored as such. Communication is most effective when it feels safe to express what you need to express.

Take some time to review the list I have created below. Think about how this list may enrich your relationship. Is there at least one pointer on this list that you can adapt immediately?

This list of do’s and don’ts can open up doors to the people in your life. But you know, this is no instant formula to happiness. You must be willing to practice these skills and be ready for the inevitable disappointments that come with trying something new. 

 The Do’s and Don’ts for
Creating Emotional Safety

Don’t take for granted what your partner is sharing with you. It may strike you as unimportant, but don’t mistake that as being true for your partner. Treat it with the respect that you would want accorded to what you might share.

Don’t twist the meaning of what’s being shared with you. Check it out with your partner how you’re hearing what has been said to you. Make sure you understand what your partner is trying to communicate, not what you want to understand from it.

Don’t throw information in your partner’s face. Be clear that whatever your partner shares with you, it’s not going to be used as ammunition against them in the future.

Honor your partner. Let your partner express what they need to express. By not personalizing what your partner expresses, you will reduce the defensiveness that can arise from honest communication.

Listen to your partner. Your partner is not looking to have their feelings debated. Avoid attempting to argue away or fix away somebody’s feelings. Be a sounding board that affirms your partner’s feelings.

Thank your partner for taking the risks that they have taken with you. Acknowledge the importance of what you have been entrusted with. Let your partner know that you understand the risk they have taken.

Bridge-Builder’s Tool
Heal the hurts in your relationships rather than store them up as ammunition.

“All right, that’s enough already!” Pat said angrily.

"Enough!  I’m just getting warmed up,” Barb said.

“Stop it, won’t you?” Pat pleaded.

“Oh, you think I should go easy on you now?” Barb asked.

“Yea, don’t you think I’ve been through enough?” Pat reasoned.

“You think you should get a free ride just because you quit drinking? What do you think I’ve been through the last fifteen years?”

“I know what you’ve been through, Barb. You’ve been telling me nonstop now for the last three hours,” Pat said.

“You don’t think I’m entitled to blow off some steam? I had to watch what I said when you were drinking because I didn’t want to set you off. Now you’re saying you’re too frail to take responsibility for the things you did to me?”

“No, I’m not saying I’m frail. I’m saying it’s unfair to keep beating me over the head for every crime I committed. What good is it going to do either of us to keep citing me chapter and verse about every last thing that I’ve done to you?” Pat asked

“It makes me feel better,” Barb shouted.

"I’m glad it works for you, but it makes me feel like crap,” Pat said.

“I’m tired of worrying about your feelings. When are you going to start worrying about mine?” Barb asked.

“I can’t possibly begin to do that until you stop launching these missiles at me. If I didn’t have to dodge every misdeed I’ve done, then perhaps I could start thinking about you and your feelings.”

I call it laundry listing. Keeping track of all the slights you have suffered at the hands of your partner, never shy of reminding them about the sins they’ve committed.

But laundry listing is merely a device that fans the flames of conflict rather than makes molehills out of mountains. I’m not saying that you aren’t entitled to feel hurt or angry or betrayed. I’m merely asking how does clinging to your laundry list serve the overall well-being of your relationship?

That’s why resolution is so important. Think of all the unresolved issues in your relationship as jagged edges that you and your partner continually trip over. How does it feel to have those jagged edges tossed around, days, weeks, even months after the crime was committed?

Part of resolving conflict means that you have to let go of the past as you move towards living in the here-and-now. How do you practically let go of the past? In a word, forgiveness. If your goal is to create a climate of emotional safety, forgiveness is the final stop to that destination.

There’s no getting past this ultimate truism. Making molehills out of mountains is one part awareness of the underlying relationship issue, one part effectively communicating that awareness with your partner, one part letting go of your hurt and anger, and one part forgiveness. 

Can you see how important forgiveness is in the equation? Do you recognize how you have a tendency to hold onto the hurts and slights that have come your way? Do you keep track of them, constantly replaying them in your head, throwing them up in your partner’s face from time to time?

What prevents you from letting go of feeling wronged?

Is forgiveness a place you want to wind up with your partner as you work through the issues in your relationships? There are many people who choose to live in the energy of their hurt and pain. Many people I work with choose--that’s right it’s a choice--to stay hurt, to feel wronged rather than forgive.

The choice is a simple one. Live in the energy of self-righteous indignation or the energy of forgiveness. Self-righteous indignation perpetuates the cycle of wounding, whereas forgiveness heals. Self-righteous indignation creates pseudo-power for the wronged, forgiveness empowers both parties. Self-righteous indignation widens the split between two people, forgiveness forges a bond of caring and intimacy.

How does that last paragraph fit for you? Can you identify at least once in your life where you chose to cling to the energy of self-righteous indignation rather than grow into an energy of forgiveness? Let’s walk through this step by step. Let’s see if we can identify what keeps you stuck in your hurt, anger, and resentment. Just what will you need to let go of in order to create an energy of forgiveness?

What is your laundry list of grievances that you keep alive?

What do you gain by continually bringing them up to your partner? What do you fear that you’ll lose if you let go of them?

Let’s rearrange your laundry list. Take the items on the list from above and write them down below in the following order. Rank in order from easiest to hardest those items that you are ready to forgive your partner for. Number one on this new list would be the item that you are most comfortable transforming from anger and resentment into forgiveness. The last item on the list would be the one transgression you absolutely refuse to forgive your partner for. This list is your blueprint to start letting go of those hurts you are ready to let go of.

Hopefully, you’re starting to see your choices for how safe or unsafe you can make your relationship. You have the power within you to create a climate of forgiveness or a climate of retribution. You have the power to create a climate of kindness and understanding or a climate of  belittlement and ridicule.

You have an enormous opportunity to empower your partner to join you in your efforts to create a relationship that is built upon a foundation of emotional safety. Don’t be seduced by the allure of revenge. Revenge is a mirage that embitters rather than resolves. Creating a climate that’s safe between you and your partner is hard work. But it’s a critical element to sustaining the well-being of your relationship.

Don’t sell emotional safety short. You have a right to experience it with all the people in your life. You have an obligation to create it with whomever you build a relationship bridge with.



Dr. Steve Frisch, Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in
Chicago, Illinois and Northfield, Illinois.

You can contact Dr. Frisch, Psy.D. at drfrisch@aliveandwellnews.com  or at
(847) 604-3290.

Recover from chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your children to choose to be alcohol and other drugs free. Learn how to in Dr. Frisch’s, Psy.D. Recovery book series.


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