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Home Is Where You Feel Safe. How Emotionally Safe Is Yours?

What makes a home feel like a safe harbor? What dangers can lurk?

(c) photography33 of fotosearch
Source: (c) photography33 of Fotosearch

Working as a couples therapist, training other couples therapists throughout the U.S. and globally, and writing books on marriage and on taming anxiety, depression, and anger, it has become increasingly clear to me what makes a home feel emotionally safe or hurtful—and aware that many emotional injuries can be avoided if people are aware of when and how hurts occur.

Safety with regard to getting hurt by falls in the home and by emotional injuries

I recently picked up a flyer at my physician's office on preventing falls from tripping in your home. I was surprised by how helpful the list was for me. Even though all the items on the list felt relatively obvious to me as I read through it, the list helped me when I returned home to take several measures that definitely are making my home more fall-safe.

That list brought to my mind the idea that a list of emotional hazards in a home could be useful for readers.

Compare the emotional safety of these two households

The following two families are composite examples from my clinical practice:

The Smith family

Joe's wife, Claudia, frequently complaints to him that he doesn't do enough of this and too much of that. Her tone, when she speaks with her husband, is often contemptuous. Joe, by contrast, seldom complains. Instead, he withdraws, spending much of his time at home isolating himself in front of the TV set or by reading the newspaper. Joe intermittently does, however, erupt into raging anger, screaming at his wife and also at their children.

While Joe and Claudia do sometimes express appreciation or affection, because these expressions contrast so sharply with their more frequent hostile attitudes toward each other, both spouses receive each other's affection with wariness.

The Jones family

Jonathan looks forward to coming home from work. His work pays well, but he works mainly to support his family rather than because he loves what he is doing. The reward for his labors comes as soon as his feet cross the threshold of his home. Jonathan's children run up to hug him. He has to push his way, lovingly, past them to go to the kitchen where his wife, who also works out of the home but generally gets home before he does, turns to him with a warm smile. He reaches out to hug her. Asking his wife what happened at her work today, Jonathan and his wife share together the latest events in both of their workplaces.

Jonathan and his wife sometimes have misunderstandings that create tension between them. When this happens, they talk together, quietly, to understand what caused the upset and how to prevent similar distress in the future. Each of them looks to offer what she or he can do differently. Similarly, when they need to make decisions together, they seek out solutions in response to his concerns and also to hers.

Both spouses feel blessed to have found each other and to have been able to raise their loving family together.

A short quiz on emotional safety in your home:

Rate the following statements as True or False for you.

___1. Family members seldom criticize me, and I rarely criticize them, though we do quietly give each other feedback when there's been a problem.

___2. I generally feel comfortable saying what I think and expressing what I want to do, even if sometimes others may disagree with me.

___3. We seldom if ever use loud, angry, or even quietly annoying voices in our family. If someone does sound irritated, they usually apologize afterward and explain that they were tired, hungry, worried, or overwhelmed.

___4. No one in our family would hit, push, or in any way aim to hurt anyone else in the family. There's also no verbal hurting, like from snide remarks or mean comments.

___5. When we disagree with each other, we listen to try to understand each other's point of view.

___6. No one calls each other names.

___7. When something has gone wrong, each of us focuses on what we can contribute toward fixing the problem. No one looks to figure out whose fault the problem was or looks who they can blame.

___8. We often tell each other that we love each other, appreciate each other's strengths, take pride in each other's accomplishments, share with each other what we have been doing during the day, and all pitch in with the household work that keeps the family going.

___9. We have fun together.

___10. We value highly being there for each other throughout our lives. We are a family.

That's the emotional safety quiz.

The higher the number of statements that you scored as True, the higher the likelihood that you feel emotionally safe in your home. Ideally, aim for a score of 10.

Change the words about family to words that indicate bosses, colleagues, and employees and you can use this quiz also to rate your feelings of emotional safety at work.

What creates emotional safety?

People feel emotionally safe when they feel free of excessive criticism, free of excessive control by others, free of uncalled for blame or shaming from others, free from fears that others will turn anger on them, seen and heard when they express their thoughts, and free from concerns that others will leave them.

They also feel safe to the extent that they receive positive attention from others, for example, affection, interest in what they say, agreement with their ideas, playfulness, smiles, appreciation for what they do, and support in response to concerns that they express.

What next?

Having taken the quiz, if your score was less than a perfect 10, how do you feel about doing something to upgrade your score? Learning the skills for marriage and family success is always an option, and sure to benefit all of you.

At the same time, if your score was very low, take that seriously. Feeling unsafe in your home can indicate that there is emotional or physical abuse. If so, check it out. Google domestic abuse for the many sites that offer more information and help for both abused partners and abusive partners.

Make the changes that could enable your home to become more emotionally safe—for you, for your children, and for your partner. Abuse, including emotional abuse, tends to be handed down from generation to generation. You can become the generation that stops the chain.

More from Susan Heitler Ph.D.
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