From our Ask The Experts Contributor Dr. Merry Lin
Our longings for love and belonging is a gift from God. We’re created for love and for relationship. In healthy relationships, we have secure attachments that give us a sense of safety. We are seen and known and we can be vulnerable and trust that our hearts will be held with tenderness and compassion.
As parents, knowing this is key to helping our kids grow a sense of resilience to handle the ups and downs of life, as their safe attachment to us is the most essential ingredient to their happiness and resilience. As leaders, recognizing this human need helps us to lead well and to bring out the best in our teams. Even in the business setting, when people feel a sense of belonging and feel seen, they will be more creative, work more effectively and take more risks.
Our Attachment Relationships
From the time that we are conceived, we are being shaped by the attachment relationships we have. We develop a sense of safety and security when we believe that we are understood, accepted and valued, when we can trust that the person we love will be there for us.
Are you there for me? Can I count on you? Can I trust you to be there for me when I reach for you? Will you be emotionally available to me? Am I worthy of your love despite our conflicts and hardships? Do you understand and value me? Are you trustworthy with the deepest parts of my heart?
These are questions of ATTACHMENT – this isn’t about steps you take to be closer to your loved one, but it’s more about “ways of being” with your loved one. These qualities mean that you are someone with whom your loved ones can feel safe and secure; you are someone who sees, loves, accepts and understands them.
An emotionally safe relationship is one in which you feel safe enough to say what you feel, knowing that your loved one will respect or at least attempt to understand your point of view. You feel confident that at the end of an argument, you can come back together and re-establish your emotional connection and warmth. The strength of a relationship is never about your ability to avoid conflict; rather it is one that has the capacity for healthy repair.
Clinical experience and research have shown that there are three essential ingredients to a safe relationship. First of all trust: trust that your loved one will tell you the truth, that they can be relied upon to make wise decisions, that they will be dependable, responsible and reliable, but most important of all, that your loved one will have your back and value you in spite of the storms you may encounter in your relationship.
The second important quality is emotional availability, which is your capacity to turn your full attention to your loved one when he or she needs you and vice versa. Research shows that relationship satisfaction is highly correlated with whether a person perceives a partner or friend to be emotionally available to them. In a marriage relationship, husbands who have confidence that their wives are emotionally available are less rejecting and more supportive. Wives feel more assured of themselves when their husbands listen attentively. Do you know that you can actually build your spouse’s self-esteem and help him or her cope better with stress? And for those of you who aren’t married, you can do likewise for your closest family and friends.
The third essential ingredient to safety is sensitive responsiveness. What does that look like? Here are some questions to ask yourself: How do I respond when my loved one approaches me about some painful event or hot topic in our relationship? Do I respond with understanding even if I don’t agree? Do I sound critical or hurtful in my response? Am I defensive? Am I approachable? Do I listen with warmth without judging, criticizing or problem-solving?
Unfortunately, when these three qualities aren’t there, your psychological, relational and even spiritual foundations can be shaken. This is the reality of human relationships in a broken world. Not only do we sometimes injure one another in relationships, but many of us enter into our relationships with attachment wounds from our earlier childhood relationships that weren’t always safe or secure. That means that we might have come into our relationships with attachment injuries that make it more difficult for us to trust, or a greater sensitivity to feelings of rejection or abandonment – all of this affects our ability to build a safe relationship.
Developing Healthy Relationships
The good news is there is much that we can do to find, develop and nurture healthy relationships, whether with a life partner, in our friendships, with our kids, or at work. It starts with working on ourselves – we can’t have healthy relationships if we, ourselves, aren’t healthy.
And that really is good news! Taking responsibility for ourselves and our relationships moves us to a place of hope, as it gives us the power to do something about our lives. It gives us hope because we recognize the internal forces that cause us to make poor relationships choices or contribute to the dysfunction in our relationships. It helps us set boundaries or break free from unsafe and unhealthy relationships that are injuring us or holding us back.
As we focus on our own responsibility in our relationships – dealing with our own insecurities, fears, unmet needs and trauma histories – we can grow to the healthiest versions of ourselves, which, in turn, attracts healthy relationships. We learn to recognize that taking care of our own heart – knowing our heart, healing our heart, and protecting our heart – is our responsibility. We learn to turn to God – who is our truest, purest, most unconditional source of the love we need – for our sense of worth, identity and value. God is foundational to our potential to love and be loved.
If we struggle to accept that God is really for us and that we are his beloved, then we enter into relationships from a position of emptiness and insecurity. We then become dependent on others for our worth and we end up feeling like we have to please, perform or somehow measure up to be loved. And those lies and fears will cause us to respond in self-protective ways that don’t open up our hearts and allow us to trust. We then become way more reactive and fearful and put pressure on our relationships to meet all of our needs.
So start with self-awareness! Ask for feedback from people you trust; ask them what it’s like being on the other side of you. Consider the ways in which you tend to react under stress, or when you’re upset or feeling scared or insecure. What are some of your behaviours that could be hurting your relationships? Do you tend to be critical or defensive? Do you tend to shut down and stew? For more insight about Relationship Busters and other free resources, sign up for Dr. Merry’s VIP page here.
Dr. Merry C. Lin is a psychologist, podcaster, and speaker with over 25 years of clinical expertise. She is the Executive Director of Dr. Lin & Associates, where she leads a team of psychotherapists, life coaches, and leadership experts. A wise counsellor and respected speaker, she can be heard on her popular podcast, The Fully Lived Life, with her friend, Coach Gillian, where they speak about life, love and purpose through the lens of faith and science. She is an advocate for social justice and works globally to equip and support leaders who serve human trafficking and abuse survivors. Dr. Merry is the author of The Fully Lived Life: Rescuing Our Souls from All that Holds Us Back, and her teaching videos are available on her website, YouTube and RightNow Media (https://linktr.ee/Drmerry)