When Safety Becomes Controlling
Note: I wrote this post in April 2019 to explore how my thinking on this topic has changed since writing this one in December 2015.
In the tech world, they often say that it’s important to find a balance between security and usability. If you make your online passwords difficult to crack, they’re also difficult to remember. If you make your passwords simple to remember, they’re easier for someone else to guess or figure out. It’s tricky to find a level of security that does the job without getting in the way. I find that something similar happens in relationships.
Safety is a key element of attachment, and it’s part of the foundation in a secure relationship. It’s what allows people to feel comfortable being vulnerable with a partner, and it makes it much easier to lean into the edges of the comfort zone and step into a brave space. Safety is also an essential element of sexual pleasure. When we don’t feel safe, it’s more difficult to experience arousal, desire, and intimacy.
It’s important to note that I’m talking about feeling safe, which isn’t the same thing as being safe. In part, that’s because there’s no way to guarantee 100% safety in all situations. We each have a different set point for what “safe enough” feels like, and it changes in different circumstances. We each also have different strategies for moving towards safety when we need to. Unfortunately, some of those approaches can get in the way of a healthy and happy relationship. Just as super complex passwords make it harder to use your tech, some of the ways that people try to build safety can make it harder to create fulfilling relationships.
One example: if talking about sex brings up deep feelings of shame or anxiety, someone might avoid the topic. While that might make it feel feel safer in the moment, it also makes it harder for them to navigate sexual situations, set boundaries, ask for what they want, or deal with differences in desire with their partner. That’s a recipe for enduring unpleasant touch and building resentment. Adopting the “don’t talk about it” strategy because it feels safer can easily make the relationship less fulfilling. But even more than that, avoiding the topic because it feels unsafe it can lead to less actual safety.
There are a lot of reasons someone might feel unsafe and it can be hard to tell the difference between I feel unsafe and I am in danger. We learn from our past experiences and our brains are constantly looking to fit current situations into familiar patterns. The fear response is a powerful one, so when your sweetie does something that cues an old pattern, especially if you think it means you’re going to be hurt and/or abandoned, it’s easy to believe that feeling unsafe means you’re actually at risk. That’s even more true if the old pattern that’s being activated comes from childhood experiences, trauma, or childhood experiences of trauma.
When we don’t feel safe within ourselves, one of the most common reactions is to try to control the people around us. That person who doesn’t feel safe talking with their partner about sex might change the topic when it comes up. Or they might shame their partner or get angry with them and lash out in an attempt to get them to stop bringing it up. Or they might make jokes, insist that everything is ok so there’s no need to talk, or deny that there’s a problem. In these sorts of situations, they’re trying to create safety for themselves by controlling the situation and/or their partner.
These kinds of approaches often feel like an effective strategy when the anxiety or fear is loud, and in the short term, they might even seem to work. But it’s also pretty likely that their partner will feel frustrated or disconnected from them. And depending on what they strategies they adopt, their attempts to control their partner might start to slide into abuse. Often, abusive behavior comes from a misguided attempt to create an internal sense of safety.
Do You Feel Unsafe When You Aren’t In Danger?
When you feel unsafe, it’s natural to want to fix the situation. You want to get back to feeling safe again. But when you tell your partner, “you’re making me feel unsafe” or “you’re triggering me,” you might be trying to control them rather than addressing the deeper issue.
Here’s an example. A male/female couple I was coaching kept getting into fights because he was super flirty. He didn’t see it as inherently sexual- he simply liked to get playful and flirt, especially at parties, but he had no intention of actually hooking up with anyone because their relationship was monogamous. For him, flirting was a fun way to interact with people. But his girlfriend had had a couple of partners cheat on her, and in one situation, she’d had a partner end their relationship in order to get together with the person he’d had the affair with. She had a fear that the same thing would happen in her current relationship, and every time she saw her current partner flirting at a party, all of those worries came flooding back.
She told him that she felt unsafe when he flirted with other people and that she wanted him to stop. He experienced this as an attempt to control him and keep him from having fun. Since he knew he had no intention of actually hooking up with anyone else, he started to feel resentful, which escalated things. He wanted to be a good partner and demonstrate his care and respect, but when she said “you’re making me feel unsafe,” he resisted and he couldn’t hear the underlying message.
There are lots of variations on this general theme. Some people are so worried about upsetting their partner that as soon as they hear “you’re making me feel unsafe,” they immediately comply with whatever is being demanded of them. Some people get angry when they feel controlled, so they react by lashing out. Some people get caught in a shame loop and fall down the rabbit hole of “I’m a bad partner for doing this to you.” It’s easy for these situations to turn into a ping pong game of triggers- each person’s reaction sets off a trigger in the other one, until escalates out of control.
There are two big difficulties that make this even more complex. The first is that there are times when feeling unsafe is an accurate reflection of actually being unsafe. We need to be able to tell our partners when something puts us at risk. For that matter, we need to be able to talk about it when something isn’t working. Our feelings are how we know that something isn’t right, and it’s important to listen to them because a lot of the time, they are reasonably accurate measures of what’s happening.
The second challenge is that feeling unsafe (or angry or scared or sad or…) doesn’t necessarily mean that anything in the situation needs to change. You might feel worried because your child is going off to college. If you let your fear hold them back or if you try to manage your fear by controlling your child, you aren’t giving them the opportunity to have the full experience of being in college. Sometimes, we need to allow ourselves to feel unsafe without trying to fix it by either minimizing the emotion (to make it go away) or changing the situation (to make the feelings not happen).
Finding The Balance Between Safety and Flexibility
To go back to my clients, she wanted him to stop being so flirty in order to protect herself from feeling scared that he would leave her. But what worked much better was for them to talk about her experiences and her fears, for him to hear them without trying to fix them, and for them both to find ways for him to give her the reassurance she actually needed. When he understood what was really going on, he was able to promise that he wasn’t going to hook up with anyone he flirted with. He also promised to spend time at parties flirting with her and making her feel special, to find ways to show his love and care for her more regularly, and to tell people he was talking with that he had a girlfriend. As he put these pieces into place, she felt safer and was able to soften around her old hurts and begin to heal them. Meanwhile, he got to be his flirty self without giving up something he enjoyed. In fact, they discovered that they enjoyed flirting with each other and it became a regular part of their sexual and romantic connection.
That took a lot of courage on both of their parts. She had to be willing to let him see her fear without requiring him to fix it in the way she had wanted. She also needed to tell him about it without attacking or shaming him. He had to be open to seeing how his actions affected her without getting defensive. They both needed to be vulnerable with each other in order to move forward. And they had to be willing to be creative in coming up with possible solutions that would work for them both, and to experiment with them and recalibrate as needed. That’s a lot harder to do than simply making demands, and it ultimately got them to a much more solid and sexy relationship.
Learning to stop using your fears and your feelings of unsafety to control or manipulate the people in your life isn’t easy. It means learning emotional resilience and self-regulation skills. It means taking the chance that you’ll feel fear or discomfort. It means setting boundaries without turning them into ultimatums. It means allowing other people to see your vulnerability so you can find ways to move forward, rather than holding yourself (and your partner) back. And it means risking the possibility that there isn’t a solution that will work for you both, which might signal the end of the relationship.That’s some pretty scary stuff, especially if the two of you are setting each other’s triggers off. It’s no wonder that so many people simply fall back on “you’re making me feel unsafe and I demand that you stop it.”
But if you want to be able to fully show up in your relationships and to allow your partner(s) to do the same, you can’t use your feelings of unsafety as a weapon to attack them. You can’t use them to try to control or manipulate them. If you’re telling someone about your emotions in a way that makes demands, whether they are explicit or implicit, you’re using your feelings to try to get them to comply with your wishes. While it might feel like an effective way to create safety in the short term, it undermines the relationship and plants the seeds of resentment. And there’s nothing that kills a relationship faster than resentment.
It can be hard to find better ways to speak your truth without trying to control your partner. Most of us don’t have a lot of role models for it. And every relationship will find ways to activate your wounds and shadow, which means that you’ll get reactive and defensive about something, sooner or later. This isn’t about being “perfect.” It about learning how to do a little better, each time it happens, so you can get off the hamster wheel of your habits.
Feeling Safe Enough
Since there are so many reasons each of us feels unsafe in different situations, we each have a different trajectory as we move towards feeling safe enough. Some of the elements that might be part of your path include:
- Identifying old patterns and triggers
- Learning new ways to ask for what you want or need
- Healing from past experiences and traumas
- Getting information about the situation to develop a more realistic assessment
- Building resilience around risk and difficult emotions (yours and your partner’s)
- Learning about Karpman’s “Drama Triangle” and how it plays out for you
- Tuning into the felt sense of your emotions and finding new ways to talk about them
- Figuring out when and how to slow down or press pause, and then re-engage
- Learning about the nervous system and developing tools for emotional resilience
- Discerning between boundaries and ultimatums
Any one of those can feel daunting, and many of them are ongoing processes, rather than a “deal with it and it’s done” situation. As challenging as that might seem, I find that it can help to think of these as practices to engage in, instead of a merit badge to earn and then move on.
This isn’t something that you can only learn from a book or webinar, though those can be important tools. And this isn’t something you can think your way through or figure out. It’s something you need to feel your way through, and for most people, that works best when there’s someone else guiding the process. Since safety is part of attachment and attachment is about a relationship between two people, building a sense of resilient safety within your system might happen more smoothly with some outside support, whether that’s a coach, a therapist, a support group, or a trusted and knowledgeable friend.
In the end, getting to “safe enough” means being able to feel safe in your own system, rather than trying to control the people around you. It’s a moving target since it can change as you grow and move through life. And while it might seem like a lot, all you really need to do is focus on the next step. You’ll be amazed at how far that can take you.
As a somatic sex educator and relationship coach, I want to help you find new tools to create the relationships that support you and make you thrive. I offer in-person sessions in Seattle, as well as coaching over video. Get in touch with me to schedule a free 30 minute Get Acquainted video call. Let’s talk about what’s going on for you and how I can help you make sex easy.