Note: In this post, I will be discussing emotional safety and healing.. If you are being emotionally abused, or if you fear for your physical safety because of physical abuse or the threat of it, please seek help and support as soon as possible. What I am writing about here does not apply to you.
My resistance to sexual intimacy in my marriage grew out of my feelings about not being emotionally safe.
When I began to work on the sexual intimacy in our marriage, then, I knew I was going to have to learn to reconnect with my husband. I would need to dismantle my emotional wall—and that meant that I was going to have to be emotionally vulnerable again, even though I didn’t yet feel emotionally safe.
I didn’t know if it was even possible to feel safe in trusting my husband with my heart again—but I knew I had to figure something out.
My heart had forgiven him for the emotional disconnection (and sometimes dismissal) I experienced with him, but forgiveness didn’t grant me the knowledge or ability to knock the walls down in one fell swoop. I had to tackle it in baby steps, working on one small brick at a time.
Even though I didn’t know how to feel emotionally safe, I decided I could work on some of the elements involved in shoring up that wall. My emotional wall manifested in habits, thoughts, and actions that I had perfected and continued for years—so those were the things I worked on.
I worked on the wall with quite a few different tools. If you are trying to dismantle the emotional wall against your husband, consider whether any of these approaches can work for you.
Sometimes I had only the words Help me. Other times my prayers included Help me open my heart, Make me not afraid, Give me courage, or Show me the way. I was afraid of risking vulnerability again and knew I couldn’t do it alone. Fortunately, I didn’t have to: “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
Pray for God to help you do what you cannot do for yourself. If you have a tribe of prayer warriors, ask them to pray for you as well. You don’t need to provide details to ask for prayers. Invite God into the healing process.
I was intentional about being more vulnerable with my husband. (See Kevin A. Thompson’s great post about intention.) I chose to work on my wall of emotional safety. I wasn’t ready to tear it completely down, but I could at least stop adding to it. Intention began with awareness. I chose to work on the wall, and then I began to note situations where I resisted intimacy or my husband in any way. Intention meant that I did things on purpose and with a purpose. I chose to change the way I interacted with my husband. I worked to replace my thoughts with truth. I decided to act rather than sit around and hope that maybe someday God would fix it and make it easy for me.
Make a decision to work on the wall instead of expecting that one day you will wake up and it will be gone. Reach for your own healing. Choose to grow.
Recognizing my thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and emotions allowed me to better understand the wall I had built. The bricks in the wall were disapproval, anger, bitterness, distrust, and anxiety. And the more I looked, the more I realized that all those bricks were made of more fundamental emotions: fear, shame, sadness, hurt, and disappointment. I thought I had built my wall to emotionally protect me from my husband, but I realized that I’d built it to prevent myself from experiencing those truly difficult emotions. I worked to recognize those deeper emotions, take them to God when they surfaced, and find scripture that helped me develop knowledge to counteract some of those feelings.
Identify the material that your wall has been built from. You cannot control what your husband says or does, but you can understand what your own emotions are and then learn to deal with them. This is the stuff that makes the foundation of your emotional wall, and it can make a big difference in your bility to dismantle it.
Even while paying attention to my own emotions, I had to learn to see my husband in a new way. Instead of viewing him as an enemy who was trying to hurt me, I took on the perspective that my husband was as emotionally hurt by our disconnection as I was. I learned to see him as another hurting child of God.
Treat your husband as someone who needs your compassion and healing. Choose to believe the best of him rather than the worst. When it comes to a husband’s sin, his intention is probably not to hurt you. Rather, his sin may be a reflection of his own desire to heal some hurts of his own. He doesn’t get a pass on actions that hurt you, but sometimes knowing that your hurt is the by-product of his sin rather than the purpose of it may ease some of the pain. Even if your husband is in on-going unrepentant sin against you and it is not yet time to tear down your emotional walls, perspective can show you what to pray about for him.
To become comfortable sharing my heart with my husband, I practiced by sharing things that I didn’t care about in deep ways. The idea was to train myself into a habit of sharing with Big Guy. Gradually I increased the amount of vulnerability in talking with him. I would talk about things that mattered to me but had nothing to do with him. Eventually I began to work on sharing things that involved him. As I began to share things that mattered, I learned to be clear about what I needed from him in response: “I would like to tell you how I feel about something, and what I need is just to be heard. I’m not asking you to listen to me. If you don’t know what to say, a hug would be an appropriate response.” I changed my habits from wall-building to intimacy-building.
Learn the habits of emotional intimacy by practicing on things that carry less emotional weight for you. Practice doing this until it becomes automatic—and then work on up to a slightly higher level of importance.
I stayed at it. Years of wall-building had created habits that I was barely aware of at the time. For a while, I added bricks at the same rate as I was taking them down. I seemed to make no progress. With persistence and time, though, it got easier. The building slowed down, the walls began to weaken, and bricks began to disintegrate.
The idea of tearing down your emotional walls may be overwhelming, but know that you don’t have to do it overnight. Start where you are, and just keep at it. It will be hard, and then it will be less hard, and before you know it, you’ll have some new habits that build emotional connections rather than emotional walls
Learning to feel emotionally safe with Big Guy didn’t happen overnight. It took me two years just to stop adding to the wall and intentionally withholding my heart from him. Learning to dig deep into my heart and share my most vulnerable areas took a couple more years beyond that. Even now, more than five years into this journey, I continue to grow in my emotional connection.
I kept my wall up for years to help me feel safe. Tearing it down was scary in a lot of ways, but on the other side of the wall was my husband, wanting the same intimacy and connection as I did.
Is your husband waiting for you on the other side of your wall?
In the next post, I will look at emotional safety from a different point of view—a husband’s. Does your husband feel emotionally safe with you? Can he trust you with all of who he is?
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Posts in this series: