Can I find safety in a world (& in my relationship) that feels unsafe?
Our human form is relatively fragile. Resilient in many ways, of course, but even the most cursory amount of attention to the news reveals the many ways our bodies and spirits can be harmed. And we live in a part of the planet that is not as subject to some of the on-going violent and destructive forces found in other parts of the world. From a physical safety point of view, those of us who have the privilege of reading words like these about safety, tend to be actually relatively safe — at least in a physical way. Fragile, yes, still subject to all the dangers and vicissitudes of being human, but relatively safe.
But what about emotional safety? What about that warm, secure, I’m-being-held-in-my-mother’s-arms kind of feeling? The sense that the cells of my body can move out of “red alert” and I can rest in feeling that things are basically right with the world? What about that kind of safety? Is there some way to get more of that? Where does the sense, the experience, of safety actually reside?
Some of us, in fact many of us, did not have the experiences in childhood that helped create the internal structures that lead to an inherent sense of feeling safe in the world. For many of us, some level of feeling unsafe is the norm, it just feels natural. And guess what? It is in our closest, most intimate relationships that the lack of the structures of feeling safe are most often revealed.
When a relationship begins, in the closeness of the new romance, often the charge of connection and the freshness of the bond can smooth over many feelings of lack of safety. But over time, actually as we begin to relax into the relationship, the undeveloped structures of internal safety begin to reveal themselves. What do you do then? Often the immediate reaction is to ask (maybe demand?) that your partner either stop doing the annoying thing that is causing you to feel unsafe or to do more of some “good” thing that causes you to feel safer.
Oh, if only it were that easy. Ultimately that doesn’t work. Generally our partners won’t be able to do the “I won’t do that thing that upsets you” dance steps (even if they are willing to try) in a way that gives us the sense of safety that we yearn for so deeply. I have found that our most intimate partner, in fact, somehow possesses the exact qualities that will illuminate the place inside that feels so unsafe. They seem to be able to expertly push (without even seeming to try) on that part of us that is longing for the freedom of discovery our own inherent safety. Our partner often seems to just keep doing (or not doing) exactly the things that light up the feelings of lack of safety.
This may seem like bad news, but it’s not. The understanding and acceptance of this fact is one of the steps on the path to building the internal safety structures. This leads back to the question — where does the sense of safety actually reside? Is it available only when the outer environment gives it to us? As children, that was the case. As children we were physically and emotionally dependent on our caregivers. Brain science has determined that the internal scaffolding we create in our minds about how the world works is deeply patterned by the time we are six or seven years old.
When those structures are developed as children we bring them with us into our adult relationships. If, however, we are lacking in those internal formations, we have the capacity to develop them. We possess the capacity to literally complete the task of growing ourselves up.
How to find a sense of safety in our most intimate relationships when it seems to be playing hide-and-seek with us? We can call “Come out, come out wherever you are,” like this: the key is to begin to make friends with the sense of feeling unsafe. Don’t try to get rid of it. Don’t scold it. In the same way a loving parent would comfort a scared child, you can compassionately invite your sense of unsafe to reveal itself to you. Each time you do this, your compassion is literally building, re-building, structures of safety.
So the next time you find yourself wanting your partner to stop doing that oh-so-irritating thing that “makes you feel” unsafe, let that be a signal to you to quietly take even the briefest of moments to take a deep breath and bring compassion to the scared, unsafe child lurking inside you. Here you will find where safety really resides. This work on the inside will begin to change your experience of the world.