Why is it that some of us feel safe in our couple relationship and others don’t? Why do some of us experience our partner’s words or opinions as dangerous or threatening but someone else wouldn’t react like this? Why is it that some of us trust our partner completely, whereas some of us just can’t?
Where do our experiences of feeling safe and having trust come from? Where do our experiences of not feeling safe and a lack of trust come from? For many of us the answer is found way back in time well before we met our partner – in our early relationships with parents or caregivers.
When we’re born, we don’t simply feel safe in the world. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Our new environment outside the womb can feel truly hostile with alarming sounds, bright lights, changes in heat or cold, new textures, vibrations that thud, and now we have experiences of hunger, wet or dirty nappies, and fatigue. We have no way of understanding these experiences yet and can become easily startled or even feel threatened by them.
As babies when we feel unsafe, we start to cry in an attempt to call our parents towards us. We instinctively know that they’re the ones who will protect us, so we start to feel a sense of protection when they respond to our cries. It’s only when our parents soothe us with actions, sounds, and words that we start to feel safe again. Through their nurturing us, meeting our basic needs and protecting us from danger, we develop a sense of safety. Our nervous system learns that it can be jangled or alarmed, and with the help of our soothing and protective parent, we can calm down again.
When we’re young, we have hundreds or even thousands of experiences of feeling startled or threatened. We learn that our parents can soothe us and help us feel safe again. This is where trust and safety are developed – in the critically important relationship with our parents or caregivers. Over time we learn to tolerate upsetting and distressing experiences ourselves.
I wish to point out that no parent is perfect. There will be times that parents frighten or startle their child. Their voice may be too loud or their facial expression too angry. They may drink too much. The parents may fight too much. There will always be ruptures or difficulties in any parent-child relationship but what’s vital to the child’s sense of safety and trust is how they’re repaired. This is done through apologising to the child for any words or behaviour that’s out of line. This is vital if parents want their child to feel safe with them.
Without these nurturing and soothing experiences with parents or caregivers we don’t develop a sense of safety and trust in relationships. Our cries for help remain unanswered. What is the child supposed to do next? They don’t know how to soothe themselves yet. They escalate their attempts to call their parents. They start to scream.
We all can experience a screaming baby as unpleasant to our ears. But let’s think about it from the baby’s perspective. Babies can’t move around, find food, quench their thirst, or change their nappy themselves. They are completely dependent on parents or caregivers for everything. They can’t make sense of noises or changes in vocal tones or parental conflict. They startle or feel fear quite easily.
Imagine a baby being frightened by a loud bang. They start to cry to call their parents to help them. If they are not responded to by the parents their original fear becomes compounded by the sense of now being completely alone. Their next call for help is a scream.
Imagine as an adult the level of distress we would have to be in to scream like that for help. It would be terrifying, devastating and exhausting for adults to be in that state. It’s the same for a baby. Over many repeated experiences like this with parents who can’t respond to their child’s fears and basic needs, the baby doesn’t develop a sense of safety and trust. They learn something different. They learn that no-one’s coming to help them. They learn that no-one’s really there for them. They learn that they should shut up and stop crying, and not show their feelings to anyone.
We either develop a sense of trust and safety with our parents or caregivers, or we don’t. And if we don’t, we grow up and become adults who take all of this into our couple relationship. Some of this we may be aware of, yet so much will be without our awareness. We can’t remember it as we were so young, but it’s unconsciously encoded in us.
Typically, we won’t discuss how we feel with our partner, nor do we want to messy ourselves with our partner’s feelings. We want them to turn them off too. Unfortunately, they become upset with us as they will take it personally when we dismiss their feelings and avoid conversations within the emotional realm.
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