When Is “I Feel Unsafe” A Weapon?

Update: I wrote this in December 2015. In April 2019, I wrote this post to explore how my thinking on this topic has changed.

Do you want to know one of the most subtle and easiest ways to manipulate a partner? Tell them, “That thing you do makes me feel unsafe and you need to stop it.”

Don’t get me wrong- I definitely want you to be able to let your lover/sweetie/partner/spouse know when they do something that doesn’t work for you. And it’s good to acknowledge that some of the time, when we tell someone that we feel unsafe, it’s a way to get them to change without looking at the deeper dynamics at play.

Do You Feel Unsafe When You Aren’t In Danger?

One of the reasons this situation shows up is that 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 think that feeling unsafe means you’re actually at risk.

When you slip into that frame of mind, 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 flirty, especially at parties, but he had no intention of actually hooking up with anyone because their relationship was monogamous. For him, flirting was simply 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 sweetie 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 another trigger in the other one, until everything crashes and burns.

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).

What Can You Do?

To go back to my clients, she wanted him to stop being so flirty in order to protect herself from feeling scared he would leave her. But what worked much better was for them to talk about her experiences and her fears, for him to see 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 triggers 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 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 force them to comply with your wishes. While it might feel like an effective way to create safety, it undermines the relationship and plants the seeds of resentment. And there’s nothing that kills a relationship faster than resentment.

I know 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.

As a sex & relationship coach, I can help you figure out your patterns and discover more effective tools to take care of yourself with them. I can help you talk with each other in ways that connect from your heart so that you can create more useful solutions. It’s scary to lean into these unfamiliar places, so having a guide can take a lot of the pressure off. I work with individuals, couples, and polyamorous groups in my Seattle office or over video, so get in touch with me and let’s set up a free Get Acquainted call. We’ll talk about your situation, what goals you have, how I can help you move towards them. Let’s figure out how we can work together to help you create the relationships and the sex life that light you up and put a smile on your face.