Note: In this post, I will be discussing feelings of emotional safety. The focus is on the feelings, not on actual safety. 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.
Sometimes women describe their struggles in trusting their husbands with these words: they don’t feel emotionally safe.
A variety of things can lead a wife to feel a lack of emotional safety: a conversation, a husband’s sin or thoughtlessness, or her own baggage. I feel emotionally safe when I know my feelings (the good, the bad, and the ugly) can be shared with Big Guy without coming away feeling “less”–less valued, less loved, less worthy, less accepted. When I come away from a conversation feeling “less,” I feel emotionally unsafe.
In the next few posts, I’m going to explore emotional safety. Today, I’ll share how my feeling emotionally unsafe led to problems with the sexual intimacy in our marriage. In the next post, I will share some strategies for learning to feel safe again. Then, I will consider emotional safety from a husband’s perspective.
I still remember the conversation that marked the beginning of the worst years of my sexual disengagement from my husband.
We’d made a difficult relocation for Big Guy’s job. I struggled to make new friends and to start over in a profession where I’d seen some recognition and success. The church didn’t have anything I could participate in during the week. I was sad and lonely. Without any female friends to open up to, my husband was all I had.
I don’t remember my exact words. They were probably something like, “This move has been really hard for me. I don’t have any friends, I’m having to start all over in my career, and I miss our life before. I feel so lonely.”
While I don’t remember my exact words, I do remember my husband’s: “I don’t care. There’s no point complaining because what’s done is done. Figure it out for yourself. I don’t want to hear about it again.”
I remember what flashed into my mind as I heard my husband’s words. How can my own husband not care how I feel? I have no one else to share my feelings with. I just opened up about something that has been so hard for me, and he refuses to acknowledge them or even just let me talk. He doesn’t care about me. My own husband doesn’t love me.
What I came away with was a feeling that I was not emotionally safe. My husband had shown me that he couldn’t be trusted with my feelings. He didn’t want my heart; he only wanted servicing and information that directly affected him.
I sat in shock after he left the room. I bared my heart to him, and when I was so vulnerable, he stomped on it. I will never allow him to make me feel like this again. Never again.
That night he approached me for sex. I agreed–but I mentally checked out. I simply could not allow myself to be connected and emotionally vulnerable with the man who had dismissed my heart just a few hours earlier. The fact that he asked for sex when I was so deeply upset cemented the idea that he didn’t care about me; he only cared about what I could do for him.
I understand now that my words of sadness had stirred up his own difficult emotions. He was still getting used to his new job. His job had initiated the move, so he thought I was saying that my feelings of unhappiness were his fault. He was confronted with a sobbing wife who presented a problem he couldn’t fix. His harsh words were a result of his own feelings of inadequacy. His approach for sex that night was an effort to restore the connection he knew had been damaged.
Our relationship truly had been damaged. My emotions are such a core part of how I experience life. Even now that I work to not let my feelings drive my decisions or behavior, my emotions are ever-present. In sharing my difficulty and sorrow with my husband, I had exposed myself to him. His dismissal and rejection of my words were, to me, a dismissal and rejection of my innermost self. His words wounded me deeply, because I had been completely open with him.
I began to hide my heart from him.
It used to be that I would share anecdotes from my day with Big Guy. I would tell him about conversations with colleagues, humorous things that happened in my classes, the funny comment from the cashier at the grocery store, and so on. To protect myself from further hurt I stopped doing this. If sharing a story would reveal anything about my heart, I would keep it to myself. I would communicate only information that was directly relevant to my husband.
After years of sharing, it was hard to learn to withhold my stories and life from him. There were many times I would experience something and think about telling Big Guy, only to catch myself and remember that if I told him the story, he would see something about me that I couldn’t bear to have challenged or dismissed. The thought made me hurt all over again, so I would tell a colleagues or my kids—but not my husband.
Sometimes it was painful to withhold. My experiences and emotions are the story of my life, and I ached to tell my story—but I knew I would ache more to have my story dismissed again by my husband. I just couldn’t take the risk. I didn’t realize that the less he knew about me, the further we grew apart.
I withheld my heart from my husband, and because my heart had always been involved in sex, I began to withhold sex, too.
Every time I made a choice not to share myself with him in some way, I added a brick to the wall between us–a wall I was sure he had erected. Every “no” that I said to sex because of feeling so disconnected to him added a brick. Every time I said “yes” because I was tired of being pestered, I resented how he could just look past our problems to get his jollies. And there was another brick.
Over time, the bricks made a wall that was tall and thick.
My husband craved intimacy with me. He would talk with me about his unhappiness about our lack of sexual intimacy. He would say, “It isn’t about the sex as much as it is about the intimacy.”
I would hear those words and think that intimacy was never to be ours.
It was too scary, too risky. I had already gotten progressively restrictive with sex throughout our marriage due to exhaustion and stress from parenting and work, but now I was withholding myself. Withholding sex wasn’t as much about denying him what he wanted as it was about holding myself safe behind a wall of emotional protection.
It’s hard to be one flesh when there is a wall right down the middle of your marriage bed.
The wall stayed intact for a long time.
Do you feel emotionally safe with your husband? Have you built a wall to protect your heart?
In my next post, I’ll share some things that can help tear down the wall and rebuild feelings of emotional safety.
Posts in this series: