My client Virginia originally called me to help her navigate a difficult relationship. She loved Pat so much it was painful. The problem was, it actually was painful. She never knew when he was going to pull the rug out from under her. One day he was understanding and supportive, telling her how much he loved her grit, determination, and warmth (his words). The next day he could be harsh and judgmental, accusing her of being selfish, lazy, or neglectful (his words). Virginia constantly felt off balance in the relationship, and just as she’d think she could accept his love and support, he’d once again knock her for a loop. She felt terribly unsafe and it was turning her into a wreck. A strong, smart woman reduced to fear and insecurity by a man with whom she did not feel emotionally safe.
Without that emotional security, Virginia’s love affair with Pat was doomed. Or else she was—doomed to a painful and exhausting relationship that could never provide what Virginia—what everyone—deserves and wants. In the end she extricated herself from the relationship.
Two types of emotional security
Personal emotional security does not depend on another person. It comes from:
- self-awareness of your character strengths and vulnerabilities
- knowing what you need and want to feel safe
- trusting yourself to look out for your own best interests
- living with intention and authenticity
- setting your emotional, physical, and energetic boundaries
- not living in fear….
Virginia had all of that going for her when she first entered her relationship with Pat.
Relational emotional security refers specifically to the feeling that you are on solid ground in a relationship. It includes:
- a mutual connection of trust
- having one another’s best interests in mind
- the feeling that your partner “has your back”
- authentic connection and commitment
- emotional and physical availability
- emotional integrity
- being and feeling
When there is emotional security in the relationship, you can feel vulnerable and safe in a secure container where love can grow. For Virginia, there was no safe place in the relationship where she could breathe easy, knowing Pat had her best interests always in mind.
Where differing levels of personal and relational security can be a problem is when a lack of emotional security in your relationship can wear down not just your connection with your partner, but your connection with yourself, and your own inner sense of security. That’s how Virginia’s unsafe connection to Pat ended up being so bad for her own sense of herself, ultimately making her tell me, “I don’t even feel like me anymore.”
Why is emotional security so important?
Thinking about Virginia and Pat, it is easy to see how true, meaningful, and sustaining love is impossible without emotional security in a relationship. Breaking it down, what are you going to be looking for when it comes to emotional security in your relationship? Here are a few basics:
XOXO Trust. Keep your word. Speak your truth. Live authentically. Even keeping the simplest of honest reactions or feelings from your partner because you don’t want her or him to judge you for it is a lie. You might want to rethink the security of your relationship if, for example, your partner would think less of you for loving a slasher movie or a tear jerker, or loving snakes or hating them? What’s that about? If you are real, the love your partner feels for you will be real and you’ll be secure.
XOXO Commitment. If you are in a relationship that has moved past the casual dating stage, one way to foster emotional security is by showing commitment to the relationship through dedication, exclusivity, and faithfulness, in good times and not so good times.
XOXO Prioritize. You and your partner will feel secure if you recognize that the needs of both of you are important, simply because they are your needs. Also, prioritize means that you spend time together and want to know each other. If one of you is always on stage, and the other is expected to be the grateful audience, that inequality is the perfect breeding ground for an insecure relationship.
XOXO Communicate. And by communicate I mean be honest in all exchanges. You both should feel free and safe to express your innermost thoughts, discuss your needs, and wants, and difficult subjects without criticism or judgement. You should not have to justify what you want or need to a partner you are safe with.
XOXO Stability. If the emotional landscape of your relationship is always in question—and you feel you are constantly being surprised by a turn in the road or you are always tripping on an unforeseen pitfall, you won’t feel secure. Sure, shit happens. But your overall sense of emotional, physical, and even financial security is crucial.
XOXO Authentic intentions. A secure relationship is based on want rather than need. In other words, you want to be connected with this particular person, not because you are afraid of being alone. Fear is guaranteed to create an insecure attachment between two people as there is no authentic bond between them. Authenticity also includes not projecting past relationship experiences onto the current relationship. Fear-based limiting beliefs can show up as neediness and controlling behavior. If such pre-existing limiting beliefs are present, your current relationship will not feel emotionally secure.
XOXO Mutual respect. Do you hold one another’s feelings of safety in the highest regard? Do you honor one another’s values, personality characteristics, and needs as if they were your own? If so your relationship will be emotionally secure.
XOXO Understanding. Both partners in any relationship, to feel emotionally secure, need to feel actively listened to, and heard. I like to ask my clients, “Do you really get your partner?”
XOXO Love. Let’s face it, without love, there can be no true intimacy. We cannot feel emotionally safe with a romantic partner who does not love—and like—us.
And finally—if your fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered within your relationship, you are not emotionally safe. Even when physical violence is not and never could be on the table, being emotionally battered, worn down, or minimized can lead to very real fear, which is the enemy of love and the enemy of security. If you are walking on eggshells, the relationship is built on eggshells, and that’s no foundation worth building on.
A relationship without emotional security comes with an extremely high emotional, physical, and energetic price tag. Such a relationship can feel very lonely, painful, exhausting, and fraught with drama. It can consume you—your thoughts, life, emotional reserves—and confuse you. “I don’t recognize myself anymore,” someone might think when they have been in an emotionally unsafe relationship.
On the other hand, a relationship with emotional security can feel peaceful and free. In such a relationship there is growth, self-expression, acceptance, appreciation, and passion.