We all long for a loving relationship. A relationship that allows us to experience deep and meaningful love. A relationship that encourages us to be the best version of ourselves. We want to have an experience so extraordinary that it rejuvenates us and lets us live happily ever after.
Many of us read book after book or take workshop after workshop. We watch videos and talks and maybe even try couple therapy in an attempt to create this magical experience.
We read articles that list ingredients of happy relationships and try to follow advice on picking better partners. And still, we struggle. Our relationship does not match the one in our minds.
So what it is that is required to create a loving relationship?
What Loving Relationships Consist Of
Some of us have been lucky in having had great role models growing up. If our parents created a healthy relationship with each other, we would have witnessed respect, honesty, openness, authenticity, interdependence, vulnerability, kindness, reciprocity, generosity … and so on. We would have witnessed love expressed in many different ways.
Most of us focus on these results. We want respect. We want reciprocity. We want kindness. We want it all. We want this wonderful relationship experience everyone seems to be wishing for.
What not many mention is that all these attributes have to be cultivated. We are not passive recipients of loving relationships. We must be active agents of love.
What this means is to act with love and contribute all those loving attributes we wish to receive. And to contribute we need to know how to cultivate them.
Loving Attributes Grow From A Foundation Of Safety
Loving attributes are natural expressions of emotional safety.
To experience connection and intimacy in our relationship, we must feel safe with our partner. We must feel that we can trust them and that they have our best interests at heart.
Don R. Catherall studied relationships through the lens of attachment and outlined the concept of emotional safety.
Emotional safety describes an attuned and trusting way of perceiving and relating to our partner, which creates an atmosphere of openness and vulnerability.
When we feel emotionally safe with someone, we are naturally open, trusting, joyful, loving and intimate. Emotionally safe relationships are experienced as simple, loving, reassuring, nurturing, invigorating and fulfilling.
However, when there is a lack of emotional safety, we read bad intentions into our partner, get easily offended and have mistrusting and suspicious thoughts about them. We perceive our partner as a threat and react to them accordingly. (More on perceiving your partner as a threat coming soon.)
The Components Of Emotional Safety
The emotional safety model focuses of two components: attachment and esteem.
Attachment refers to the relationship whereas esteem describes our sense of self-worth or self-esteem. If either attachment (the relationship) or esteem (one partner) are perceived as threatened, emotional safety is undermined.
Partners will then react maladaptively in response to the perceived threat and create relationship conflict and distress. Both are acting out of their threat systems.
Each partner’s reaction is a reflection of their own individual pattern and core fears. Partners’ patterns can reinforce each other and create a downward spiral that is experienced as incredibly destablising, distressing and difficult to stop. (Read more on the cause of recurring relationship conflict here.)
Connecting With Our Sense Of Safety
We may be tempted to make our partner responsible for our sense of safety but that would be ill-advised. Healthy secure functioning is built upon taking personal responsibility for ourselves.
When we struggle, when we feel insecure, we need to respond to ourselves in compassionate and soothing ways. We can ask for the support of loved ones, but we cannot blame them for our state of mind.
We are always responsible for dealing with our own emotions and our own state of mind. This is never anyone else’s job, no matter how close or intimate we are.
Sometimes we all struggle with fearful, insecure and unloving thinking. It happens. To all of us. And it changes again. It says nothing about us or our worth as a human being.
With that knowledge we can begin to see more clearly and respond in calmer ways.
When we struggle in the storms of emotional distress, emotional safety is only ever one thought away.
Responding To Each Other With Compassion
Realising that our perception of emotional safety affects our experience allows us to be more understanding and compassionate with ourselves and our partner.
Being loving means considering our partner’s fears and insecurities. It means being willing to make room for them and to respond with understanding and compassion. It means learning to soothe ourselves or take time out so we can be there for them when they need our support.
Being loving also means saying no when we are being blamed or held responsible for something we are not responsible for. It means not letting anyone treat us in unkind, disrespectful and unloving ways.
It means safeguarding our relationship and the trust we have built up by interrupting arguments that undermine the emotional safety we have created.
Being loving also means realising that we are safe and valuable and that our partner’s temporary lapses of judgement do not threaten our sense of who we are.
When we truly see that our experience comes from within us, we will begin to own our perceptions and respect our separate realities. We will value our differences instead of perceiving them as problems or threats to our judgements and beliefs.
Whilst learning to tend to ourselves, we will also want to learn how to best support our partner. How to be there for them when they struggle and how to show them that we care. We will give each other the benefit of the doubt instead of viewing each other with suspicion. We will learn to have difficult conversations without making our partner or a differing opinion a threat.
But most importantly, we will never threaten our relationship because we have come to realise that our bond is sacred.