Toa Heftiba

Relationships

The Missing Clue to Intimacy Couples Overlook

“Sex is cool, but have you ever had someone give you so much emotional safety that you were able to break down and process trauma right in front of them without fear of being judged or ridiculed?”

This is a recent tweet of mine that went viral. What even is emotional safety, you ask?

Well, to me, emotional safety is the feeling you give to those around you that makes them feel safe enough to bring down their walls and open up. It’s an unbelievable feeling—both to give it and to receive it. I’ve experienced both ends of emotional safety numerous times, and while I was always grateful for it, I didn’t realize just how rare it actually is until the response to that tweet.

The day before I tweeted this, I was dealing with some repressed trauma and feeling extremely emotional. For those of you who have read my book Let That Shit Go, you know that it wasn’t until last year that I realized I had been sexually assaulted by one of my exes. Sounds weird, I know, but the book explains why it took so long to see what was really going on, and subsequently, how often it continued to happen with other men in my life.

Because the delayed realization hit me suddenly, it was overwhelming to say the least. I had planned for a few girlfriends to stop by that day, and almost canceled, because I just wasn’t feeling up to the task of being around people. However, I thought, maybe it’d do me some good to be around friends. I never planned to talk about it. In fact, I didn’t want to go anywhere near the subject. I just wanted to be distracted. That’s not what ended up happening, though.

Organically, we ended up on the topic of sexual assault. My friends began sharing their stories, and when I started to talk about mine, the emotions came crashing through. At one point, I was sitting there, eyes blurry as hell, blubbering through words like, “I don’t want another man who doesn’t love me to touch me” or “Why am I feeling so ashamed that I didn’t realize what was happening sooner?”

It would have been so easy for them to jump in with “the right words to say” (read: unsolicited advice), but they didn’t do any of that, and that was the perfect response for me. I just needed to cry with people I love. I needed to speak freely, voice my fears, be uncensored about what I’m going through without the fear that they’d judge me or try to fix me.

Active listening, acknowledging and validating their feelings, though, is the absolute smallest act of love and sincerest form of intimacy that you can give them. And it will go a long way.

So, the next morning, I was half-awake in bed and felt the urge to tweet what I wrote about my experience. And what followed was something I never could have anticipated. The massive response shed light on a lot of eye-opening issues—mainly that so many people have not experienced emotional safety or don’t feel deserving of it.

My mentions were a mix of sweet messages tagging friends and partners, and, well, pure sadness. People would either project by lashing out at me, saying that I’m preaching about something that doesn’t exist or try to use humor as a defense mechanism. I get it. Being in a position to experience emotional safety is not easy. But I don’t believe it should be considered a luxury like many made it out to seem, either. It’s the simplest form of love.

I saw a very important act being overlooked in our relationships, and Adam Maynard, a relationship coach who guides men through their "masculine initiation," helps illustrate why emotional safety is so crucial to our well-being.

“We live in a society that is not only complex and stressful but that isolates us from one another and detaches us from how we really feel. This makes it difficult for us to confidently navigate our lives and feel relatively comfortable along the way,” he explains. “Feeling safe to express what we’ve stored up allows us to gain more control over our experience and find the relief we’re looking for.”

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking: Isn’t this therapy? The short answer is no. Therapy is awesome, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s thinking of seeking professional aid and assistance, but in this specific instance, I’m talking about just being present with your loved ones and not shaming them for feeling what they feel. That’s it. You shouldn’t be made to feel like you have to spent hundreds of dollars an hour for this type of treatment.

I’m not saying you need to solve their problems, carry their emotional labor, enable codependency or figure out what needs to be done next so that they’re no longer sad. None of that is your responsibility. Active listening, acknowledging and validating their feelings, though, is the absolute smallest act of love and sincerest form of intimacy that you can give them. And it will go a long way.

“A lot of healing can happen just by getting your emotions up and out of you. You’ll feel immediate relief when they’re not bottled up anymore. Holding compassionate space for someone serves this purpose, and may be enough to really help them feel better,” Maynard explains.

Men often get hung up on the impression that another person’s emotions are irrational, and are therefore invalid. But the truth is, feelings don’t always make sense, and they don’t have to.

“Holding space for someone isn’t about jumping into the middle of their problem to rescue them from their pain, even for their own sake. Conversely, it’s also not about fixing their problem for your sake—because of what you think you’ll lose out on if they don’t resolve it, and quick. That’s codependency. It’s not about using the care and compassion you’ve offered as a way to exact some sort of price at a later date. That’s scorekeeping, a form of manipulation. It’s not about taking on their feelings as your own and losing perspective about who the turmoil really belongs to. And it’s certainly not about processing their emotions for them.”

He continues, “The difference with therapy (or coaching) and providing emotional safety is the degree of actual treatment, active processing, and skill-building that’s happening. Remember, holding space isn’t really about doing anything. The therapeutic relationship is one where the practitioner is more directly involved in a client’s growth, healing, clarity and understanding, and the actual unraveling of the patterns that cause them pain and discomfort.”

Make a conscious effort to become more aware of the emotional safety in your life. If you feel as though its presence is fleeting, ask yourself if you’re actively giving it to others. Of course we all want that emotional safety, but are we also putting it into action by giving it?

One of the reasons I’m fortunate enough to have multiple people in my life who practice this with me is because I constantly make an effort to implement emotional safety with them. Reciprocation is a beautiful thing, and it’s a shame to see so many of us feel undeserving of something that should be as plentiful as the air we breathe. If you want to start practicing emotional safety with your loved ones, Maynard offers some helpful suggestions.

“Holding compassionate space is as much an art as it is a science. It involves listening. Truly listening. Putting your needs, stipulations, and objections aside, if only for the course of a conversation. Holding space isn’t really even a place for your observations or advice—unless they’re solicited,” he states. “It’s easier to hold space for someone if you’re not triggered by what they’re saying, and if you don’t take their feelings personally.”

This means showing some restraint—demonstrating the dominion you have over your own emotional experience—and maintaining a certain perspective about what’s actually at stake in interactions like these.

“Men often get hung up on the impression that another person’s emotions are irrational, and are therefore invalid. They dismiss them out of hand,” says Maynard. "But the truth is, feelings don’t always make sense, and they don’t have to. They just need to be felt. Don’t rationalize what you’re hearing. Just receive it. Witness it. Hold it. Contain it.”

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