Safety in Relationships
We sure live in a strange society. Public safety is high on the Federal Governments agenda and at the same time our entertainment industry pumps out movie after movie after movies that revolve around people in terrifying situations. The favorite computer games played by young people and old alike are obscenely and graphically violent. Yet at the same time we are trying desperately to deal with the problem of bullying in schools and in the workplace.
Early in June I had the privilege of attending a two day workshop related to trauma and caring for people who have experienced trauma. One of the presenters shared a very interesting fact. The effectiveness of any helping relationship is 70% dependent on how safe a person feels in the relationship.
I knew this was true, but I had never heard the numbers. My wife is a therapist and perhaps the most telling comment made by many of her clients that accounts for the help they receive in the relationship is, “Janice, you are the safest person I know.” My wife is extremely confidential – a hallmark of a safe person – and she shares her work life with me it is in in broad generalities and the importance of safety in the relationship emerges all the time.
Think about it for a minute, in our everyday lives of family relationships and friendships, the degree to which we share intimate details about our inner lives corresponds to the degree to which we feel that the person is safe. In some families Mom is a safe person and Dad isn’t, that is why the kids always go to Mom when they have a problem. A couple of months ago a nurse I work with shared about a situation happening in her home: one of the kids was struggling and it was having quite a negative impact on his life. He didn’t talk to Mom or Dad initially but when Mom discovered the problem and they talked he said, “Mom, don’t tell Dad, I can’t handle it when he yells at me.” I asked her about this “yelling father” and she explained that her husband grew up in a family where the volume was always turned up high so it always seemed that he was yelling, he is so accustomed to this volume that he doesn’t even realize that he “yells” - but it scares the kids and sometimes it even scares his wife. This makes him “unsafe” and consequently his son was afraid to talk to his Dad about his struggles.
This certainly is true in my work as a chaplain. If the patients, residents, family members and staff didn’t perceive me as a safe person, I would be very ineffectual in my work. Feeling safe in a relationship develops in a number of ways. Most of the times we don’t think about why we feel safe in one relationship and unsafe in another, but maybe it would be helpful to try and identify some factors in a relationship that help us feel safe.
Sometimes, safety is attached to a role. Some people view ministers as safe people. Of course this isn’t always true, we have heard far too many tragic but true stories of ministers who abuse this trust and take criminal advantage of children and other adults who place their trust in them. A whole body of study has developed about “spiritual” abuse - any abuse that is perpetrated by someone who “represents God” in the life of the other.
This attachment of safety to a role can also be found in doctor/patient relationships, parent/child relationships, teacher/student relationships, coach/player and many other role related relationships. However, this safety is fragile and can be destroyed in a second if the minister, doctor, parent, teacher or coach behaves in a way that is threatening, insensitive, uncaring or disrespectful.
The sad fact is that by the time most people reach middle childhood, they have already developed a sense about safety in relationships. By this age some kids have already developed walls that they keep in place because they believe all relationships are suspect. Other children have developed an unconscious screening method to determine if a person should be given a chance to prove that they are a safe person. And for those children who grow up in wonderfully safe homes where no suspicion has yet been raised, by middle childhood they are particularly vulnerable for they tend to trust everyone.
So what makes for a safe relationship? One factor that makes for a safe relationship is personal integrity. What is personal integrity? It is being the same person on the outside that I am on the inside. When I am a person of integrity, then those who are in relationship with me can count on who I am, they are not surprised that all of the sudden they are in relationship with a person they don’t even know.
I have heard this too many times in pastoral counseling. Often when a couple comes for help soon in the counseling relationship one of the couple will say, “He or she is not the same person that I married.” This is frightening, it creates uncertainty and anxiety in the relationship and eventually distance and walls are created to protect one from the other. Not the kind of environment that makes for a great marriage.
Another factor that makes for a safe relationship is trust. Can I trust the other to be honest? Can I trust the other to be faithful to the relationship? Can I trust the other to have my best interest in mind? Can I trust the other with “me”? If at some point I begin to distrust the other person in the relationship – I will not feel safe and I will begin to do things that are aimed at protecting myself from getting hurt by that person.
A third factor that makes for a safe relationship is acceptance. This is communicated when the other accepts me for who I am, with my bumps and bruises and idiosyncrasies and when I feel accepted, I feel safe. This doesn’t mean that the other can never address flaws in my behavior or attitude, but when this is done it is not done in a manner of judgment and rejection but love and acceptance.
A fourth factor that makes for safety in a relationship is the ability to deal constructively with failure. It is impossible not to fail one another in any relationship. “To err is human.” But when the parties in a relationship can own their failures, admit them without being defensive and forgiveness can be asked for and granted – safety can be enhanced evening the context of the disappointment and failure.
You know, in any relationship by far the most important thing is safety. When I feel safe with another person, I am vulnerable and open and honest and excited but when something destroys that sense of safety in the relationship the walls go up, suspicion surfaces, I begin to withhold and withdraw and the relationship suffers and can even die if this safety issue is not addressed.
Now so often when we are in relationships that are suffering we sit back and expect the other to make the first move. Because relationships are by definition people relating to each other, each person in the relationship has some responsibility to address issues that threaten the relationship. That reminds me of another factor in a safe relationship, which is courage – the courage to love, to put the other’s interests above our own, to go the extra mile in valuing the other person and the relationship you have with them. Blessings and may you be the safest person you can be for the people with whom you have relationships.