Keeping a Relationship Emotionally Safe

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

-Ed Finkel

If a couple's relationship is "emotionally safe," then it's well-prepared to overcome an onslaught of difficulties, while an emotionally unsafe relationship will often flounder on even innocuous comments or circumstances. This model, created by SSA lecturer Don Catherall, is at the core of his course at the School and outlined in his latest book, Emotional Safety.

When couples achieve emotional safety, Catherall says, "One partner can say something stupid, and the other person ignores it or doesn't look at it as significant. There's a level of trust. But when they lose that safety, everything has the potential to flare up. They stop taking things at face value or giving each other the benefit of the doubt. Under those circumstances, it's very difficult to make progress on issues in the relationship."

Catherall, a clinical psychologist and professor of clinical psychiatry in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, specializes in both couples therapy and the treatment of trauma disorders. In Emotional Safety, he draws from modern affect theory, which illuminates the role of shame in relationships, and attachment theory, which uses research on how infants attach to their parents to understand the fundamental emotional connection between adults in an intimate relationship.

Catherall's background in the treatment of trauma disorders influenced him to think in terms of safety and to recognize the role of perceived threats. "When a spouse feels there's a threat to the attachment, they become very upset. They protest," he says. "Too often, their protest takes the form of criticizing the other partner: 'You never come home on time,' rather than, 'I really miss you.' If that [dynamic] goes too far, a partner could detach, which can cause a lot of damage to a relationship."

To this dynamic, he adds the shame factor: "Your partner has a much greater capacity to stimulate your shame both because she or he knows you better than anyone else and because you care more about what they think of you. When you get a sense that your partner's view of you is negative—'you were selfish'—that tends to stir up your shame, even though you probably don't recognize your feeling as shame."

The dynamic between these two factors can move a relationship into unsafe waters. "The main reason relationships go into downward spirals is because of the maladaptive reactions so many people manifest in response to their perception of threat," Catherall explains. "If you criticize me, I'm likely to feel threatened and move farther away. Then you feel the relationship is threatened and become critical. We go back and forth because your reaction threatens me, and my reaction threatens you."

In Catherall's view, the line between emotional safety and an eroding relationship isn't hard to cross— which means it's also possible to help a couple move back into a healthier frame of mind as a foundation to solve other issues. "The mark of a successful relationship is not that it never leaves the safe zone," he concludes. "Rather, people in successful relationships can repair momentary lapses in safety and get back into the safe zone."