Updated: Mar 14
Over the years, in my practice, I’ve noticed that when I ask couples if they have a good working definition of emotional safety, it is often hard for them to respond.
However, when I ask couples if they can describe what the opposite of emotional safety in a close relationship might look like, the responses flow freely.
Below are some of the most common responses to the question about what a lack of emotional safety looks like:
When you feel like your partner doesn’t respect or like you very much.
When you feel like your partner will assume the worst about you.
When you feel like your partner is looking for ways that you will mess up or let them down.
When your partner is rude, hostile, or detached.
When you feel like your partner is never in your corner.
In terms of emotional safety, the closest fit is the idea of “having your partner’s back.”
As your community therapist that tackles some non-PC topics to help your marriage, I consider it my business to help you understand your partner better. The idea is that men should generally try to protect their wives, because this is what most women that I see want. If the choice is between overprotecting and under protecting, men who pick overprotecting will end up with happier marriages.
Women frequently tell me that they don’t feel their husband “has their back.” This can manifest in hundreds of ways, but some common ones are:
He is not on her side in arguments with the kids or in-laws.
He doesn’t watch out for her and try to help her when she is tired, overwhelmed, or sick.
He is passive to a fault and does not lead the family in a positive direction because he fears her short-term disapproval.
Women can be independent AND also desire a partner who takes charge when they feel tapped out or overburdened. The problem comes when they criticize their husbands for any attempt at taking charge, which makes men avoid it and take the path to the least resistance.
What are examples of protecting and under protecting?
Protecting (which maybe you see as overprotecting if you never do these things):
Making the decision about where to go to dinner because she is too stressed to deal.
Modeling to your kids to respect their mother.
Suggesting a nap to your wife because you have the kids and the house handled and she is exhausted.
Letting your wife make all the decisions because she criticized your choice of Italian food when you were dating.
Saying nothing as your mom makes comments about how your wife should this or that.
Saying nothing when your kids are rude to your wife because of that one time, she told you not to invalidate them.
Not checking on her during the day at all, even via text, and then saying it’s because you don’t want to bother her at work because she says she’s busy (it’s just a text and can go a long way)
If you try some of the protecting ones and your wife says, “Don’t patronize me!” then you can openly share that you’re trying to lead because she has expressed that she wants you to make decisions, be involved and whatever else she has said. But I can assure you that this reaction is better than the anger that you will get from a wife who feels that you never have her back.
If you are uncomfortable making decisions for your wife’s benefit because this seems chauvinistic, think of it as caretaking plain and simple. I have said before, to treat your spouse as well you treat your kids. If your child said, “But I don’t want to brush my teeth!” you would still make sure they brushed their teeth. Yet, when your exhausted wife says, “But I have to do one more thing,” you say, “Okay” and go back into the world of your phone. What if you said, “Come to bed and I will rub your back and then you can get the sleep you need?” This would be loving, caretaking, and protecting. If you do it for your kids, why not for your wife? I have observed that in strong marriages, the love that the man feels for his wife needs to be analogous to the overpowering love that the woman feels for their kids. Since she is the heartbeat of the home and needs this nourishment from you.
Sometimes women are uncomfortable being cared for many reasons stemming from childhood. They usually secretly want to be taken care of and protected, and they will say things like:
“I do everything around here”
“My husband acts like one of the kids”
“My husband is so passive”
If only men could read the emotions in the content.
You may think that these men are actually all of these things that their wives call them. But how did these men get this way and why did the woman choose to ignore selfish traits when they became evident (almost never late in marriage, almost always red flags early on)? It takes two to tango.
Often, women who are very anxious and codependent find a partner very familiar on a subconscious level. Growing up, they saw one parent who was a “difficult person” (e.g. alcoholic, anger issues, depressive), and one who devoted their life to “helping” or enabling this person. When women stay in situations where a man cannot protect them and then say this is why they HAVE TO do everything themselves instead of being in a healthy relationship, this is due to unexamined codependency. You can read my previous blog here.
You may also ask, “Why is this post targeted toward men? My answer is simple. I see many, women in couples counseling who say they wish their husbands protected them, and I have never heard this from a man. Men certainly want to be taken care of and its usually with respect, physical touch. I take an equity approach to couples work vs equality. Everyone needs similar things, such as to feel loved and secure, but not everyone needs the exact same partner behaviors to achieve this. Don’t worry, I will post one for wives soon.
Try to protect your wife and see if she starts to feel more secure, which could manifest as more smiles, less anxiety, less irritability, and less resentment (and more physical touch). Choose her everyday. People who feel vulnerable to attack (even in ways that you don’t consider “attacks,” e.g., your mom making comments) act angry and defensive. When they know someone is there for them, actively trying to care for and protect them, they soften because they feel more secure and loved. When mamma feels good and knows she has her cornerman, this influences the whole house. If you don’t transform it, you will transmit it.
Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate runs the Christian Center for Counseling and works with adolescent and adult clients in individual, couples & family therapy. Her personal philosophy is that through human connection, we can foster the encouragement needed to take courageous steps toward creating positive change. She uses evidenced based and strengths-based approaches & believes in the inherent ability of everyone to overcome when they are willing to step into their potential. Therapy illuminates the path so the client can make conscious steps towards emotional health. Her attitude is one of respect and acceptance of each client’s individuality, allowing for the creation of a safe, therapeutic space. Silvia serves with Coptic Women Fellowship, an archdiocese ministry focused on enriching, supporting, and strengthening the lives of women, along with the clergy and several accomplished women of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.