How to Create an Emotionally Safe Space

How to Create an Emotionally Safe Space

by John Hart, PhD, LCMFT

April 14th, 2023

A prime indicator of a healthy relationship is the presence of an emotionally safe space. Emotionally safe spaces are critical to connecting with our relationship partners as it allows us to feel valued, comfortable, seen, and understood. Couples who consistently provide an emotionally safe space to discuss their relationship matters tend to report higher satisfaction and closer connection to their partners. Safe spaces make difficult conversations relatively easier because the safety that people feel in this kind of relational environment allows for vulnerability, transparency, and less judgment. On the other hand, emotionally unsafe relationships are filled with tension, disconnect and defensiveness. Partners in these kinds of relationships report walking on eggshells and being unable to relax around their partner. If you and/or your partner are struggling with creating an emotionally safe space, it is important to seek couple therapy from an MFT as we are well-trained in systemically reshaping an emotionally unsafe space into a safe one that benefits both partners. Here are a few tips on ways to create an emotionally safe space in your relationship:

  1. Be an Active Listener – Listening is the hallmark of emotional safety in a relationship. Great listeners do two things very well – being active and being attentive. One of the ways to show up as an active listener would be to take the time and reflect what you heard your partner said and give good non-verbal communication. An attentive listener is one who provides undivided attention (e.g., no distractions), provides consistent eye contact, and is fully engaged.
    2. Be Curious, Not Judgmental – It is far more beneficial to be curious than judgmental in relationships. I always recommend to clients that asking thoughtful, open-ended questions is a great way to show curiosity. Your partner will perceive you as engaged and want to open up more. Stay away from being judgmental as it will spark defensiveness in your partner and that tends to lead to negative reactions or shutting down.
    3. Be a Cheerleader – People who report higher levels of couple satisfaction tend to voice feeling encouraged and supported by their partner. I recommend being your partner’s biggest cheerleader – encourage them when they are feeling down, celebrate their achievements, and maintain some level of positivity. On the other hand, stay away from criticizing your partner, mocking or making fun of them, and dismissing their experiences. In emotionally safe spaces, it is not about being right per se, it is about having a relaxing moment that is filled with love and support that fosters openness.
2023-04-17T13:22:57-04:00April 17th, 2023|

Lucky in Love

by Jannel Thomas, LCMFT

Friday, March 17th, 2023

What role does luck play in relationships? Are some people just luckier than others to find love? The truth is luck plays a small part, if any, in a successful long-lasting relationship. Relationships require hard work in order to last, but why is that the case?

1. Intimacy Changes Over Time – Both emotional and physical intimacy may come easier in the beginning stages of the relationship, yet with time, things get in the way. There are demanding work schedules, kids, social engagements, exercising, pets, and more. Sometimes it can be hard to even make time for ourselves and so intimacy can be an easy area in relationships to neglect. It takes work and being intentional to ensure that both partners make efforts to maintain intimacy within the relationship.

2. Good Communication is Hard! – Communication requires active listening, in addition to being able to express your feelings, needs, and wants. However, stress, assumptions, and unrealistic expectations can get in the way of healthy communication. Luckily, the therapists at RCC are trained and equipped with tools to help couples improve and work on their communication. Couple therapy is a great avenue to practice and learn good communication skills.

3. Obstacles are Unpredictable – What, when, and how obstacles will occur in relationships is unknown. What is known is that they will happen. Therefore,
relationships require conflict resolution skills, problem-solving skills, and trust that the relationship will be able to withstand any obstacle that comes your way. All of these areas require hard work, not luck, for success and high relationship satisfaction.

Luck may have been a factor when you began your relationship, but when it’s all said and done both partners will have to work hard to build a successful, healthy relationship. Putting hard work and effort into your relationship will result in a happy, long-lasting relationship rather than relying only on luck. However, just like with anything worthwhile, the hard work tends to be worth it.

2023-03-20T14:10:58-04:00March 20th, 2023|

Repairing Conflicts

by Ann Pham, LGMFT

Conflicts and arguments in a relationship are often exhausting and draining. Naturally, we want to avoid an escalating conflict by using healthy communication skills to state our needs and concerns. However, there can be times when those healthy communication skills are forgotten, the bickering has escalated, and everyone is feeling frustrated and dissatisfied with an unresolved problem. Instead of ignoring and avoiding the aftermath of the fight, try to repair the misunderstandings that occurred.

1. Take Responsibility: Think about what you may have said or done to contribute to the argument. It could be a dismissive tone of voice, not paying attention to your partner while they were talking, or even doing something you know that your partner dislikes. Intentionally acknowledging what you may have done to hurt your partner shows you are taking accountability and want to repair the relationship.

2. State and Explain Emotions: Express what you were feeling at the time of the conflict. For example, when we feel jealous, we start doubting. When we feel threatened, we want to defend. When we feel overwhelmed, we shut down. Our feelings influence our behaviors. Instead of making excuses or pointing fingers, acknowledge how your hurtful behavior stemmed from an emotion. By allowing yourself to be vulnerable, your partner can understand you better.

3. Be an Active Listener: It is important during this time for both partners to be fully present and actively listening. Validate your partner’s feelings and take a curious approach to ensure that you understand their perspective.

How we handle the aftermath of an argument is just as important. When we miscommunicate our emotions that leads us to being misunderstood. When we often
feel like we’re being misunderstood because of how we miscommunicate our emotions, we can end up in a repetitive negative communication cycle.

2023-01-23T10:31:19-05:00January 23rd, 2023|

Therapist Spotlight: Ann Pham, LGMFT

Friday, October 14th, 2022

Q: On behalf of the Relationship Counseling Center of Maryland (RCC), thank you for being on staff as a therapist! What has been the most exciting part in working with RCC and its clients?

A: Oh, thank you! I am so glad to be at RCC too. One of the most exciting parts has been continuing to meet new and current clients each week. I enjoy working collaboratively with my clients to create and reach their therapy goals. I really enjoy being a therapist and being able to do what I love is so exciting.

Q: In your style of therapy, do you like to tackle the main issue head-on, or focus on the deeper issues first?

A: Sometimes, I think I can help address the main issue first and process through the deeper issues at the same time but I know that’s not feasible. It really depends on the client’s therapy goals and what they are comfortable with sharing initially in session!

Q: Have you yourself been to therapy?

A: Yes! I started attending therapy during my time in graduate school. It helped me manage my stress as a student and I learned a lot about myself.

Q: What was the moment you realized you wanted to be a marriage and family therapist?

A: Growing up, I wished that I could major in “Love” because my friends and I would always share relationship advice with each other. During my senior year in undergrad, I saw a family therapy role-play and I was so intrigued by the therapist I had to learn more about it.

Q: What do you like most about working with people?

A: I really enjoy listening to people’s life stories. I enjoy learning how their experiences and interactions with families have guided them to where they are today.

Q: Outside of being a therapist, what are some of your hobbies?

A: I enjoy visiting new restaurants and trying new cuisines. I also love to visit food markets and support local restaurant owners.

Q: What do you do for self-care?

A: Being consistent with a night-time skin-care routine and practicing yoga has been my favorite way to pamper and de-stress myself!

Q: In your experience, what is the most important thing that can strengthen a relationship?

A: There will be difficulties one or both partners face during the relationship. When there is a willingness to discuss your needs and the ability to reassure your partner through validation and empathy, this can strengthen the relationship in many aspects.

2022-10-18T10:23:11-04:00October 18th, 2022|

Preparing For Seasonal Depression

by Diamond Greene, LCMFT

Tuesday, October 4th, 2022

While some of us are looking forward to the change in season and various activities that accompany fall weather, some of us are dreading the emotions that can accompany shorter days and colder temperatures. During colder months, some people notice a more depressed mood, they have trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much, they overeat, and they don’t engage in activities that they would normally enjoy. If this is something that you have experienced, here are a few tips and strategies for managing seasonal depression:

  1.  Exercise: During the colder months, we are not able to spend as much time outdoors and many of us notice a decrease in our physical activity. Finding indoor activities that you enjoy can significantly impact your mood. Try joining a gym if you have not already, finding a yoga class, or even try a dance class.
  2. Maintain Social Connections: Colder weather often makes us want to spend more time at home. Spending time with friends and family is a great mood booster and increases feelings of happiness. Try prioritizing social activities with your loved ones or create new connections by joining a book club or volunteering in your community.
  3. Take Advantage of Sunshine: With shorter days, it’s pertinent to try to get outside as much as you can to take advantage of what sunlight there is. Try taking a walk on your lunch break and let in as much natural light as possible whenever you are home or at work.
2022-12-05T11:22:16-05:00October 4th, 2022|

Removing Thorns in Your Relationship

by Tamara Hull, LGMFT

Friday, August 26th, 2022

If the joy of a significant relationship can be compared to the timeless beauty of a rose, then those deeply hurtful differences around critical issues could be considered the thorns. In my work, I’ve found that differences around child rearing, caregiving, or threats to the intimate partner relationship can re-open old wounds, creating new “thorns” in a relationship.  Couples often either fight ineffectively about these issues or resort to burying the problem and “moving on.” This can create lasting pain and relationship-deadening disconnection if they aren’t effectively resolved.

The following are suggestions for resolving those persistent “thorny” issues:

  1. Time to Talk:Set aside a time that is conducive to both partners feeling relaxed and focused to discuss the issue together. One option for making this request is: “I know this has been a challenging topic for us, and I’d like for us to set aside a time to talk about (INSERT TOPIC), (i.e. our differences in our disciplinary approaches with the kids), to try to find a way to reduce any negative impacts on our relationship.”2. Reaffirm Solidarity:Although one partner may hold a larger portion of the resentment about the issue, consider that your partner is already aware of the persistent, thorny nature of the concern. This could contribute to expressions of anxiety or defensiveness. I recommend that you help reassure your partner by stating your desire to unite together to fight for the relationship and against the thorns between you, rather than continuing the pattern of fighting against one other.

    3. Speak Well, Listen Well: Acknowledge that your partner has a different perspective and has a different worldview from you. it is helpful to make it a priority to hear and demonstrate your understanding of one other fully before focusing on problem-solving. To honor one other’s differences and keep the lines of communication open, try opening the discussion by using statements beginning with, “When ‘X’ happened, I felt very ‘Y’ and the impact on me/us was ‘Z’.” Afterwards, allow your partner to comment and reflect back to them what you heard them say before responding.  Take turns speaking and listening until each partner feels heard.

    It helps to be patient and compassionate with yourself and with your partner.  It may take several gentle and committed conversations over time to see a successful resolution.  Keep in mind that “agreeing to disagree” is an acceptable option. If you get stuck at any point, consider seeking assistance from a trusted source who is experienced and/or skilled in helping partners resolve tough conflicts in ways that strengthen and grow the relationship.  With patient persistence and an approach that reduces attacking and blaming, you and your partner can begin to resolve thorny issues and restore the lasting beauty, joy and intimacy of your relationship.

2022-08-31T11:10:03-04:00August 26th, 2022|

Co-Parenting on the Same Team

by Wilson A. Llerena, LCMFT

Friday, July 29th, 2022

It’s fair to be concerned about your children when you are facing a divorce. How are they going to cope with this transition? When is the best time to tell them? The truth of the matter is that your children may be as confused as you are when it comes to the next steps for the family. Here are a few ways to support your children as changes begin to happen in the home.

1. Be Honest: Your children should understand that you are getting divorced and what that means. It is important to explain within reason, making sure your explanation is age-appropriate and not drawn out or too detailed into the workings of your adult relationship. This is not the time for pointing fingers. It is important for you and your spouse to discuss how you want to tell your children about the upcoming divorce to make sure the message is consistent from both of you. Your goal is to be respectful and show that you and your partner can still be civil to each other in front of your children. You don’t want your children siding with one parent over the other. Your children may blame themselves, so it is important to reassure them that this isn’t their fault and that you still love them.

2. Be Consistent: Children operate best with structure and stability. Make sure you communicate with them how schedules may change and what they can expect moving forward. No changes in living arrangements should occur until after you tell them about the divorce. You want to establish routines with your children so they don’t feel like their world is falling apart. Parents need to be consistent with rules and guidelines for both homes, as well as consequences. Remember, your goal is to make sure that your children don’t favor one parent over the other, rather they enjoy the time they spend with both of you. It is important to be reliable and dependable for your children. Don’t make empty promises or commit to something that you can’t deliver on. If you say you are going to be there for them, don’t change plans. Every decision you and your partner make should be for your children’s physical, spiritual, and psychological health and well-being.

3. Be Validating: Your children need to know they can come to you to talk about what they are feeling. Provide them the space to process what they are going through. Try to focus on hearing them rather than trying to distract them from their feelings. While you may not be able to fix their problems or make their sadness go away, it is important to acknowledge their feelings rather than dismiss them. Your children may lash out at you or the other parent. It is important to be empathetic with your children’s anger, but to not allow them to express anger in a disrespectful way to you or the other parent.

2022-08-01T13:15:45-04:00August 1st, 2022|

Co-Creating a Love That Lasts

by Jasmine Mauss, LCMFT

Friday, June 10th, 2022

We have all heard the fun term: “Couple Goals!” What is it about these particular matches that we idolize? The love that is created by two people is one that is unique and divinely purposeful. Much of the inherent desire for love is part of our human nature to connect with those around us. To see and be seen. To share a life with someone. To co-create a future with someone that supports our goals and dreams. We want someone to be witness to our own journey and to cherish us unconditionally along the way. Many of us strive for a love that is characterized by reliability, consistency and longevity. Love may be one of the most powerful and impactful emotions we experience in our entire lifetime. Falling in love should feel effortless and exciting. Staying in love is an intentional choice.

1. Shared Visions – In any relationship, it is imperative to have mutual goals and aspirations that are joined and collaborative. This can be a yearly vacation you take with your partner, creating a small business together, or even mutual bucket list items. The idea for this notion is centered around the actions of creation and collaboration. Having these things to look forward to allows for a clearer visual of what your future will hold with one another. These visions are
based off of the various ideas that you both have constructed together. The purpose of these plans are to bring you ultimate fulfillment and consistent shared meaning, all while connecting with one another.

2. Intentional Conversations – It’s not enough to just plan things for the future. Having intentional and conscious conversations about the relationship you hope to have with your partner is a critical way to keep things healthy, lively, and thriving. Many years can go by before it is realized that the state of a relationship is in poor shape. Having periodic “honesty hours” are a great way to make sure you are on the same page and living the life you truly desire, independently and together. “How can we make our relationship stronger?” “What do we both need to do to stay happy?” “What can I do to make you feel more connected to me?” Checking in and asking your partner these questions will assure that you remain steadfast in your love and purpose with one another.

3. Daily Commitments – The daily rituals you engage in each and every day may arguably be the most important gestures of them all. This is the way you show up to your relationship each and every moment. The key here is the consistency and reliability that we can offer our partners so that they feel safe, secure, and trusting of our love. Showing up on time after work, giving a good morning kiss, creating holiday traditions, and sending a mid-day text to check in are all
examples of small daily actions. We want to show that we care, we want to be fair, and always stay aware.

2022-06-13T13:36:04-04:00June 13th, 2022|

What is a “Healthy Relationship”?

by Meg Tenny, LCMFT

Friday, May 6th, 2022

If you have attended couple therapy in the past, you may have heard your therapist talk about “healthy relationships.” What makes for a healthy relationship and how do you know if yours is healthy? There are several common factors present in thriving partner relationships.

1. Freedom to Speak Your Mind – A hallmark of a healthy relationship is feeling comfortable to speak to your partner about your thoughts and emotions without fear of retribution and without fear of it turning into a major conflict. Clear, respectful and gentle communication is vital to the health of your relationship. A strong partner connection that feels emotionally safe will encourage you to share your thoughts and feelings freely and enable you to reciprocate creating a safe space for your partner to share.

2. Feeling “Heard” – Another sign of a good relationship is when you feel “heard” by your partner, literally feeling that your partner can hear you. This happens in relationships in which partners listen well to one another and try to understand one another. It creates a space where your partner feels understood and that his or her feelings are validated and valued. Healthy couples work on their listening skills and use some nonverbal cues like eye contact to help their partners feel heard.

3. Mutual Trust and Respect – Trust is the foundation of any healthy relationship. Healthy relationships allow for respect for differences between partners and frame these differences as non-threatening to the relationship.  An indicator of a healthy relationship is that you trust that your partner tells you the truth and has your best interests at heart, and that trust and respect are reciprocal. You feel secure in the knowledge that your partner respects you and has your back and vice versa.

Your relationship does not have to be perfect to be a healthy relationship. In fact, many imperfect relationships can model very healthy and constructive ways of expressing negative feelings and resolving conflict, which every relationship will endure at some point. Putting your own personal effort into creating an emotionally safe space for your partner, being a good listener, and being trustworthy and respectful will go a long way towards building a healthier relationship with your partner.

2022-05-13T10:10:40-04:00May 13th, 2022|

Gratitude in a Relationship: Improving Relationship Satisfaction

by John Hart, Ph.D., LCMFT

Monday, April 4th, 2022

One of the most overlooked processes that is critical for the well-being of a relationship is expressing gratitude. What is gratitude? Gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful and a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. I have worked with many couples over the years, and I have discovered that while saying “thank you” to your partner is necessary, gratitude comes with a bit more energy, effort, and action. Couples can go beyond saying thank you. Gratitude allows for expressing a genuine and heartfelt appreciation. Research shows that couples that engage in expressing gratitude often are happier and more hopeful about the relationship, and that expressing gratitude serves as a stronger predictor of relationship satisfaction as compared to forgiveness, patience, and self-control. Gratitude in a relationship manifests love, devotion, and commitment in ways that encourage longevity. These are three critical ways to express and maintain gratitude in your relationship:

  1. Speak to Your Partner’s Impact: It is important that when you say “thank you” to your partner, take it the extra step and walk them through how their efforts and gestures impacted you (no matter how big or small). For example, saying something like, “Thank you so much for taking the garbage out for me. I appreciate it because it allowed me to grab some coffee before my next Zoom meeting.” Why say all of this? It works because we, as humans, want to hear the impact we have on this world and in the lives of our loved ones. To go beyond “thank you” and share the impact of your partner also boosts their self-esteem and reinforces this positive behavior again. NOTE: I use this strategy in my own marriage, and I have seen it play a huge role in how my wife and I stay connected daily.
  2. Don’t Forget about Touch: Michaelangelo once said “to touch can be to give life.” Expressing gratitude does not only need to take the form of verbal gratitude. One of the most prominent ways to stay connected is through touch. Expressing gratitude via touch such as hugs, kisses, petting, etc., becomes the vehicle of emotional expression and displaying gratitude. Touch is fundamental in communicating with your partner to promote bonding and health for you both. So, while words matter and stick with us, let’s not forget that physical forms of gratitude strengthens powerful connections between our brains and our bodies, and lets us know we are safe, secure and appreciated.
  3. Make it Mutual:Reciprocity is the key in any romantic relationship and expressing gratitude must go both ways. Both partners need to sit down and talk about ways of expressing gratitude and establish a commitment to reciprocity. A critical part of this conversation would be to figure out what to do when a partner feels that there is an inequity around expressing gratitude. Another way to increase expression of gratitude as a mutual experience for both partners is to create gratitude rituals. These rituals can serve as explicit spaces for both partners to share in the experience together and be intentional about expressing gratitude so that it does not fall to one person.
2022-05-13T10:11:19-04:00April 4th, 2022|
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