Strengths and Red Flags - Part 3
In discussing the current issues in Francesca and Paul’s lives, I Would like to introduce a basic concept helpful in understanding what is going on between individuals in intimate relationships at times like these.
This is the concept of emotional safety, to which I had alluded in one of my previous Strengths and Red Flags blogs. When relationships are going well, people in them feel emotionally safe with one another. By safe I mean they feel they have each other's back. They can rely on each other in times of need, because they know how they mutually feel, and each knows he or she exists in the mind of the other even when not together. This feeling of emotional safety is fundamental to the development and the maintenance of intimacy. Intimacy, in fact, requires making ourselves vulnerable with our love partners by sharing what we think and feel deep inside.
What happens when we feel emotionally safe with our love partners? Everything seems to be more manageable. We don’t get so scared, overwhelmed or stressed, nor do we feel lonely or disconnected. Each partner is more able to correctly pick up cues from the other and appropriately and timely respond to them. Both feel heard, responded to, supported and loved.
When safety is in place, an intimate relationship becomes a secure base to retreat to when there is danger, and a place from which to launch into new adventures and discoveries. If emotional safety does not exist, on the other hand, each partner acts defensively, self-protecting rather than disclosing. Laughter, play and humor no longer exist, and growth is stunted.
As we have seen in the last few weeks, this feeling of emotional safety has been progressively eroding for Francesca. She senses a change in how she and Paul relate to one another, but does not know why this is so and what to do about it. She attempts to engage him to talk about his feelings, something he refuses to do. Francesca feels like a person suddenly dropped by her partner whose help and support she needs to get through an anxiety-provoking experience. She cannot calm herself down and is caught desperately reaching out for something that is not forthcoming.
Paul continues to act as though he doesn’t realize what is happening, or does not want to acknowledge it, at least on the surface. He still tries to solve the problem by disregarding what Francesca is saying and by distracting her. His plan to take Francesca camping for her birthday next week is a case in point. Paul has been averting Francesca’s attempts to reconnect, and uses logic to explain what is happening – “I have got a job now, so the problem is gone” - avoiding emotions about lack of connection and safety between them. Logic, however, does not help here, as what is going on is emotional, not rational. Maybe there is something here that Paul does not want to address. We don’t know what it is yet. It looks as though Francesca, with her pressure on Paul to talk, is threatening him, hence his defenses got stronger and more rigid.
What are Francesca and Paul to do in this kind of situations? Ignore what is going on is never a good option, as things don’t disappear but just go underground and build up a wall of insecurity. This disconnection between Francesca and Paul needs to be repaired. Ideally, Paul should address what happened, instead of avoiding it, and explore what else is going on with him deep inside, if he has any awareness of it. Francesca, on her part, should assess how she is communicating what she needs to Paul. Obviously the way she has been doing it is not getting the results she wants. Talking to her mom was helpful to her, but it also shows she is beginning to take the issues out of her marriage, which often creates more distance between partners.
Francesca is also starting to question her feelings for Paul, and is confused by what is happening to them. She wants to isolate in order to self protect from getting more hurt. None of this, unfortunately, is very encouraging. However, we will continue to follow our couple and watch how they navigate this very sensitive juncture in their relationship.