Healthy relationships require healthy communication. This means, in part, being honest and willing to put yourself in a vulnerable position. For some, the need for safety overwhelms the desire for honesty. We want open communication but may also have valid reasons to protect ourselves. The trick lies in finding a workable balance between the two.
What is Emotional Self-Protection and is It a “Bad” Thing?
The effects of abuse and trauma are often best judged in the eye of the experiencer. All of us undergo hardships but we also experience it differently. As a result, we develop defense mechanisms against feeling such pain or discomfort again. This is how we emotionally protect ourselves. More often than not, it’s a good thing.
However, there are instances when we shut down in our personal relationships. We miss opportunities and take very few risks. This more extreme version of emotional self-protection makes us feel safe but has the potential to negatively impact us and our marital satisfaction.
Can Emotional Self-Protection Stifle Your Marital Connection?
We’ve set up two accurate premises that can create friction:
- Healthy relationships require healthy communication
- Emotional self-protection is normal and usually needed to some extent
It is not hard to recognize how a marital connection can be stifled by emotional self-protection. Holding back words and emotions can lead to distance and strife. Emotions not expressed may emerge via passive-aggressive behaviors. One spouse expects the other to essentially be a mind reader while the other fluctuates between feelings of inadequacy and resentment.
5 Ways to Find Balance Between “Me” and “Us”
1. Practice Radical Honesty
A big part of trust is being authentic. Get used to saying exactly what’s on your mind. Also, practice being receptive to hearing exactly what’s on your spouse’s mind.
2. Set and Respect Boundaries
Since each of us has different needs, it only makes sense that our boundaries will also look and feel unique. Don’t settle for less than what you need. A compatible partner will be happy to comply.
3. Enjoy Solo Time and/or Individual Time with Friends
You can’t be together all the time! This is especially important for anyone with strong boundaries. Set aside time to be alone. Set aside other time to socialize without your partner. Such a schedule will not create distance. On the contrary, it cultivates balance.
4. Recognize and Appreciate Your Differences
The fact that one of you is more sensitive than the other is not a bad thing. If your history is more traumatic than your partner’s history, it might manifest in a vastly different perspective. And that isn't necessarily a bad thing, either. We each bring our unique selves to a marriage. If one of us needs more reassurance than the other, this is to be recognized, validated, and appreciated.
5. Find More Things to Love Together
Certain interests and similarities helped bring you together. It’s great to lean on that foundation, but don’t get too comfortable. Desire and curiosity are not fixed. Evolving together as a couple helps create a safer environment in which to emotionally blossom.
Finding a Safe Space to Learn Balance
Safety is clearly a big issue here. Couples therapy can help. You, your spouse, and your therapist form a team with the same goals. In that space, you can begin exploring what you’re protecting and why. You can share openly, recognize patterns, and identify solutions.
A relationship—and the healthy communication it requires—is not a static goal. It’s a fluid process made more manageable by the work you both do in counseling. If you can’t commit yet to full disclosure, you can commit to taking steps to change unhealthy patterns at your own pace.. Consider couples counseling to be a giant step in the right direction.