Have you ever fantasized about your relationship being so comfortable and safe that there are no limits to the range of thoughts, fears, wishes, dreams, and problems you can talk through with your beloved? Many of us think that we have to ‘find’ such a relationship. If we find the right person, we reason, we will naturally be so comfortable together that this dynamic exists by accident.
Why are we talking about this idea of safety and comfort in communication in a relationship? Because like when discussing a prenup, communication is absolutely necessary for a positive outcome. Many couples think discussing a prenup is a bad idea, and that getting a prenup will most certainly ruin your happily ever after. News flash: IT WON’T!
For some (rare) couples, this really does happen naturally…and that’s wonderful! However, you should know that if complete safety and openness is not the natural condition of your relationship, it can be. Most of the time, couples who enjoy the kind of intimacy that allows them to readily bring any vulnerable topic have built that dynamic intentionally. It doesn’t usually happen by accident. Unfortunately, that means the storybook romantic fantasy about finding and just kind of falling into that kind of relationship probably isn’t going to happen. But fortunately, it means you can create this kind of relationship with any willing partner…if you wish to.
Signs and Types of Safety Problems
In order to be able to have a successful dialogue about even the most difficult topics, like a premarital agreement, it is necessary that you both feel safe. In order to address safety problems, you first have to learn to spot signs that you or your partner are starting not to feel safe in the conversation.
One major sign that safety is at risk is that the exchange of ideas and information is no longer flowing freely: One or both of you either withholds thoughts (silence), or tries to force your own idea to the center of the discussion at the expense of your partner’s ideas or ability to express themselves (violence) (Patterson et al., 2011).
Other signs that someone is not feeling safe include defensiveness, avoidance of eye contact or other signs of withdrawal, a clenched jaw or clenched fists, a range of facial expressions that betray discomfort, sarcasm, rudeness, and avoidance mechanisms like changing the subject or making jokes in order to not address something. This is not even close to an exhaustive list. Unfortunately, most behaviors that show that safety is at risk also happen to be extremely annoying and even triggering, leading us to habitually react in kind. However, what we could be reacting to (if we want to have a constructive discussion, that is) is the safety problem underneath our partner’s less-than-perfect behavior (Patterson et al., 2011). But we’ll get to that later.
Beyond just memorizing a list of cues that safety is at risk, the trick is to pay careful attention to the conditions of the conversation. That means going beyond the content (what is being said) and looking also at both of your body language, tone of voice, and any other nonverbal cues you pick up on. Learning to pay close attention to these often-subtle cues is most important during high-stakes discussions, but that’s also when it’s the hardest! You can practice by intentionally looking for these cues during everyday interactions, as well.
Start with yourself. For example, you may notice that you poke your tongue against the left side of your inner cheek when you are feeling shy about something you want to share. Tell your partner when you notice these cues in yourself, and encourage them to observe and share their own with you, too. You can also check in with each other about cues you notice in one another. Check to see when your interpretations of one another’s nonverbal behaviors (particularly as they relate to safety problems) is correct, and when not. The better you get at reading yourselves and one another in lower-stakes situations, the more adeptly you’ll be able to spot safety problems when they arise in more pivotal conversations.
There are two conditions for safety: mutual purpose (conviction that you both have a common goal in the conversation) and mutual respect (feeling that even if you disagree on some things or see some things differently, your partner definitely respects you, and vice versa). If one or both partners feel that either of these conditions is not met, safety problems arise (Patterson et al., 2011). Below are three techniques that can be used to restore safety when it is lacking or at risk for either partner.
Jess and James are getting married. In the process of writing their prenup, they discover that Jess wants to share all their assets, while James wants to keep some of them separate. They begin bickering; they’ve been bickering a lot lately, so much that mutual purpose is at risk. Their needs seem totally at odds with one another. They start to doubt whether they have much in common (aside from names that start with J!) “Well, you can keep your family lake house all to yourself, I won’t be visiting you there anyway after you get rid of me!” snaps Jess.
Thankfully, James remembers a communication class he took at work in which employees practiced breaking the cycle of blame and defensiveness by recognizing what was really happening beneath the surface: safety problems (Patterson et al., 2011). James suspects that Jess fears that James wants separate assets because he isn’t sure about staying together. So instead of retaliating, James takes a deep breath, then says:
“Jess, I’m sorry I’ve given you the impression that my position on asset sharing means I’m not sure about us. I should have explained better. My Mom told me after her divorce that becoming too enmeshed leads to a codependent relationship, and she and my Dad shared all their assets. I’m trying to avoid ending up like them. I should have told you that when we started the conversation. I’m sorry.”
James’ apology restored both mutual respect and mutual purpose. Although he didn’t do anything terribly wrong, he made a small but consequential mistake in the presentation of his opinion. By taking responsibility for it and then clarifying instead of becoming defensive, he was able to get the conversation (and the relationship) back on track safely.
Being able to apologize and take responsibility for your part in a less-than-savory interaction is one of the most useful skills you can bring to your marriage.
Contrasting is a technique that you can employ to restore safety if someone a.) has misinterpreted your words or actions and feels disrespected even though you didn’t mean to insult them, or b.) falsely interpreted that you tried to harm or coerce them into doing things your way (Patterson et al., 2011). If neither of these things are actually what happened, apologizing would not be suitable (Patterson et al., 2011), However, because one person perceives mutual respect or mutual purpose is at risk, something needs to be done. Contrasting can help.
First, highlight what wasn’t your intention (addressing their concerns). Then, highlight your respect for your partner or clarify your true intentions (restoring mutual respect or mutual purpose) (Patterson et al., 2011).
If James had wanted to use contrasting rather than apologizing in his asset argument with Jess, he could have said the following:
“Jess, the last thing I want to convey is that I’m unsure about our future. I love you, and I’m marrying you and plan to stay married! In fact, I hope we and our future children will spend lots of time together at my family’s lake house! Now, let me explain a little bit about where I’m coming from…”
After restoring safety by contrasting, it’s possible to shift from the conditions of the conversation back into the content of the conversation (Patterson et al., 2011) (in this case, a prenup and division of assets.)
Create a Mutual Purpose
Sometimes, a mutual purpose is not clear or even existent at the outset of a difficult conversation. In this case, you have to create one in order to restore safety. This is the most advanced skill offered here, so be patient with yourself and your partner and know that it will take some time to master.
In James and Jess’ previous argument, they were able to discover through James’ apology that they actually shared a mutual purpose–to ensure the continuity of their relationship. However, in discussing the ‘work’ clauses of their prenup, they consider the question of what will happen if Jess’ job requires her to transfer out of state (a real possibility).
Jess is very passionate about her work; in fact, she’d had her eye on her current company for years before finally gaining the qualifications and confidence to apply for a job with them. She enjoys creative freedom, excellent working conditions, and a high salary which is hard to come by in her industry; she doesn’t want to face the possibility of giving these things up and would move almost anywhere to keep her job.
James, on the other hand, loves where he and Jess live. He loves the house, the neighborhood, and the community they have built and in which they hope to have a family. He thinks these things are more important than any job, and he doesn’t want to face the possibility of having to leave. Clearly, Jess and James’ desires are not in alignment; they need a mutual purpose.
There are 4 steps to creating mutual purpose. Let’s see how James and Jess approach each step:
–Commit to seeking mutual purpose (Patterson et al., 2011). In this case, James might tell Jess “it looks like we are really at odds here. I commit to continuing this conversation until we find an arrangement that meets each of our individual needs.”
–Recognize the purpose behind the strategy. Get curious about why (the purpose) you and your partner want what you want (the strategy) (Patterson et al., 2011). Through considering this question, Jess and James discover that James’ main purpose is to live in a place where he feels at home, and Jess’ main purpose is to be compensated fairly and generously for what she puts into her work and not be subjected to the conditions endured by most others in her industry.
–Invent a mutual purpose. If sharing the purposes behind your strategies doesn’t illuminate any compatible goals, then you need to create a mutual purpose by stepping back and finding goals that are more all-encompassing and and more meaningful than the goals over which you’re divided (Patterson et al., 2011). Jess and James decide on a new goal: that the most important thing is that they make decisions in a unified way and never decide anything that will make them resent one another.
-Brainstorm new strategies. Once you have created and agreed on a mutual purpose, then you again step back into the content of the conversation and explore ways to work towards your mutual purpose (Patterson et al., 2011). Jess and James begin asking questions with an eye towards their new goal. James asks himself if the town they live in now is the only place where he could feel at home, and if he could be happy elsewhere provided they don’t move more than once in the next 20 years. Jess begins to explore whether there are other companies she would be equally happy working with which wouldn’t require her to move, or even if she’s up for exploring whether freelance consulting could potentially even level up her salary and creative freedom even more.
Inventing a mutual purpose takes a dash of creativity and a heaping tablespoon of flexibility. However, it is an ability which can restore safety when neither apologizing or contrasting is enough, and it can bolster your relationship again and again.
Practice these strategies again and again, and then when you’re done, practice them some more. Train yourself to recognize when safety is at stake and to step out of the content of the conversation into its conditions. Apologize when relevant, contrast if you can, and create a mutual purpose when there isn’t one.
Why? Back to our initial point: Investing in the ability to restore safety in high-risk conversations will help create a pervasive sense of safety and openness in every aspect of your relationship, even outside of the difficult discussions. If you want a relationship that feels safe and comfortable enough to talk about anything, you can build one! An enduring sense of trust and comfort are built by repeatedly restoring safety in high-risk discussions, again and again.
Patterson, K., Grenny, J., Switzler, A., & McMillan, R. (2011). Crucial conversations. New
York, USA: McGraw Hill Professional.