When we feel emotionally safe, we feel internally relaxed with a person. Our guard is down and our shields don’t go up when we interact. We feel free to be authentic, which includes expressing our hurts, discontents, and longings without fearing that we’ll be criticized or shamed.
According to John Gottman’s research on marital success, one of the four factors that lead to troubled relationships is defensiveness (along with criticism, contempt, and stonewalling). We defend ourselves against the painful feelings that might pierce our heart if we are blamed, judged, shamed, or rejected. Maintaining this invisible wall becomes a barrier that doesn’t allow our heart to remain soft and open.
There are many possible ways to protect ourselves when we don’t feel safe. We may shield ourselves by shutting down and staying distant; we might minimize contact with a partner or friend. Or we might become critical of others before they have a chance to criticize us. Or we defensively turn the tables on them when they express some dissatisfaction with us. (“Well you’re not a good listener either!” or “You’re the one who’s always late, not me!”).
When we feel safe with a person, we don’t need to be defensive because there is little to defend against. When we feel consistently treated with respect and kindness, we can relax internally with a person. As we trust that our partner or friend has the intention and capacity to see who we really are—to hear and understand us, even if they fall short sometimes—we relax more and more with them, which strengthens trust and builds intimacy.