So many relationship experts have embraced the idea of love languages. They became popular with Gary Chapman’s 1992 book, The 5 Love Languages, for the ways partners show love and care: acts of service, physical touch, words, gifts, quality time. Yet none of these can exist in a meaningful, enriching way without one basic element — safety.
Safety is the foundation for all of the love languages.
Safety is the prerequisite for everything else in a healthy relationship.
This post addresses emotional safety and assumes there is a baseline of physical safety in your relationship. If physical safety is not present, please read this article first.
Why is safety essential, especially for trauma survivors?
Humans are wired for connection. We all long to be loved and cared for and know we are supported in life. We nurture connection in the ways we express ourselves.
The love languages sound like a good concept for nurturing a healthy relationship, except for one thing. Love languages can work only when assuming that both partners’ brains are able to think clearly, calmly, and are online. This is often not the case for trauma survivors who frequently exist in a state of alarm. They are living with a traumatized nervous system, and survival impulses have hijacked the brain.
“Our injuries do not occur in a vacuum,
so our healing cannot occur in one either.
Our hurts and losses need to be repaired interpersonally.
We can not heal alone.”Arielle Schwartz, Ph. D.
Trauma creates barriers to using love languages
Many trauma survivors feel wary about love languages. Trusting them or using them can feel too risky, without a foundation of safety inside themselves and in the relationship. Any of the love languages — affirmation, physical touch, gifts, etc. — can be memory triggers for times they felt endangered or manipulated. They can signal threats to a trauma survivor if a basis of trust and safety has not been established and healing has not occurred. This is why compliments are hard for trauma survivors to accept. Without safety, even compliments can feel threatening!
Trauma survivors often view relationships through a lens that evaluates the risk of danger, as they do most things prior to healing. Even if these relationships are actually safe, the trauma survivor’s nervous system is biased to see danger. It takes time – and work– for trauma survivors to learn to be present in these relationships and know they are safe.
My colleague, Heather Tuba, does incredible work supporting the partners of trauma survivors. If you’re a partner of a trauma survivor, I recommend Heather’s article, Support for Trauma Survivors & Their Loved Ones and my article, Loving a Trauma Survivor.
Trauma survivors must clearly establish safety in the moment
For trauma survivors, experiencing safety in a relationship requires the ability to be in the present in order to actually derive comfort and joy from the relationship.
Before awareness of any of the love languages can bring any benefit, the trauma survivor must be grounded in safety in the present moment. The trauma survivor needs to be able to feel safe telling their partner when they are able to be present and when they are not. They need to be able to speak up and feel heard when experiencing a flashback or body memory, while trying to work on their current relationship. They need to know they are safe with their partner in this current moment.
Those who have experienced less trauma and who have a basis of secure attachment (safety), may be able to come to a new relationship assuming they can find the trust and safety they need. If they don’t start off presuming they’re already safe, the process of building safety for those with secure attachment will be much easier and quicker.
For trauma survivors, today’s safety must be established through deliberate, consistent actions and effort.
Recognizing safety takes work
Often, trauma survivors need to learn deliberately what emotional safety looks like and to recognize how it feels.
Emotional safety in a relationship looks like:
- Being able to talk openly to each other and not feel overwhelmingly anxious
- Holding space safely for one another to process or name feelings
- Feeling safe in vulnerable moments
- Listening openly and fully to your partner
- Being attuned to your partner
- Knowing you will be heard
- Having confidence your partner respects you
- Feeling that your partner has compassion for you
- Being able to go as slow as you need to
- Noticing if either of you are uncomfortable
- Noticing if either of you are triggered
Trauma survivors: Is there safety in your current relationship?
Answering this question can be tricky for trauma survivors. Feeling unsafe while they are in their current relationships can happen in moments when something triggers body memories of times they felt threatened before. Something in the present can stir a familiar feeling experienced in the trauma of their past.
Recognizing safety in the present moment requires slowing down to process the situation in the here and now.
When struggling whether to allow yourself to feel safe and grounded in the present moment, consider:
- At its foundation, is your relationship safe?
- Even though you might be fearful of abandonment, pain or rejection, are you able to notice if you also feel loved and cared for in this relationship?
- Are you able to see when old feelings are getting triggered, versus something dangerous happening now?
- Is your partner willing to slow down and hear what you have to say?
- Is your partner interested in your feelings?
If you are in a safe relationship, you may feel like these statements are true when you look at your relationship while grounded in the present:
- I know I can be vulnerable and that you will respond with compassion and respect, and without abuse.
- I know I can share awkward things, cry, say something silly, wake up and look terrible — and be held without judgment.
- I know I can have and express differing opinions, spiritual views or political views and still feel accepted.
- I know that you won’t push me, hit me, or display violence or aggression towards me.
- I know that if I say no sexually, you will stop immediately.
- I know that you will be there for me.
- I feel safe with you because your words and actions line up.
Safe relationships make healing possible
“We are born in relationship,
we are wounded in relationship,
and we can be healed in relationship.”Harville Hendrix, Ph. D., Founder of Imago Relationship Therapy
If safety is not present in your current relationship, please read this: Safety First: A Trauma-Informed Approach for Couples Who Want to End Abuse In Their Relationship and How to Repair Love with Trauma-Informed Couples Therapy.
A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.
- Loving a Trauma Survivor: Understanding Childhood Trauma’s Impact On Relationships
- How to Heal Trauma By Understanding Your Attachment Style
- Why We Practice Trauma-Informed Therapy
- Flashback Halting Guide: 10 Tips to Halt Flashbacks for Yourself or a Loved One 3 Concepts to Help Trauma Survivors Move Forward Into Healthier Relationships
- Support for Trauma Survivors and Their Loved Ones
- How to Have a Healthy Sex Life After Abuse