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Articles by Dr. Greg Smalley

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Dr. Greg Smalley

Dr. Smalley also helps lead marriage seminars around the world and helps train pastors, professionals and lay leaders how to effectively work with married couples. read bio

Home: The Safest Place on Earth

When couples talk as friends, they learn an enormous amount of information about each other. Think back to a time when you had an intimate conversation with your spouse. Perhaps you shared your dreams and life goals. If you felt safe, you might have talked about your insecurities, fears, and other sensitive information. As these kinds of personal feelings are expressed, couples can move into deeper intimacy. However, if this sensitive knowledge is not treated with care, something destructive can happen. My wife, Erin and I experienced this during an argument.

While on a date at our favorite restaurant, Erin began sharing about how exhausted she gets while dealing with our three children all day. "Sometimes during the day," she explained, "I feel like I'm losing my mind." We ended up laughing about how frustrating parenting can be at times and even referred to her as "crazy mama." However, on the way home, something happened that caused Erin to lose trust in me as a friend. We were arguing about a sensitive issue when I tried to make a cute comment. I said the argument was her fault because she wasn't thinking clearly. "Remember dinner?" I asked sarcastically, "You've already admitted that you're losing your mind!"

Unfortunately, my comment was not very funny and it actually weakened our relationship. In the middle of an argument I used something against Erin that she'd shared during an intimate conversation.

Through intimate experiences as friends, Erin and I learn new things about each other that, if we are careless, can be used later when we feel more like adversaries. But the harmful effect of using this knowledge as ammunition is significant. Who is going to reveal private and sacred information when it might be used against them during conflict?

The real tragedy of using sensitive knowledge as ammunition is that it can erode the trust that is necessary for open communication. In the blink of an eye, the security that was the foundation for expression of one's true self can be destroyed. Sadly, it takes dedicated work to rebuild lost trust ripped away by thoughtless sarcasm like I used with Erin. The reason is simple: when we feel unsafe, our heart tends to close and we disconnect emotionally from one another. On the other hand, when people feel safe they are naturally inclined to open their hearts and spirit. Intimacy occurs effortlessly and naturally when hearts and spirits open to one another.

We are designed to hunger for intimacy and deep connection. In its most basic sense, intimacy is the experience of being close to another person and openly sharing something with them. This may or may not include words. It doesn't necessarily require work or effort. As a result, we will look for ways create that experience. In order for intimacy and deep connection to occur, hearts and spirits must be open. The mistake many make—knowing they want to experience intimacy and that openness is required—is to focus on trying to be open or to create intimacy. Either focus makes getting to true intimacy harder than necessary. An easier approach is to focus significant time, attention and energy into creating an environment that feels safe. When people feel safe they will open naturally because that state of openness requires less energy to maintain than all possible states of being. For that reason openness is the default setting of our hearts. No state of being takes less energy to maintain than openness—it merely involves being yourself and relaxing. Maintaining emotional defenses and walls takes tremendous energy. Working to get people to see you a certain way, by projecting images or trying to get them to like or accept you, requires significant energy. Simply expressing who you are and "being" does not. As a result, when people are open with each other intimacy just happens. It does not require effort or conscious attention.

As I have learned over the years, one of the main goals in my marriage is to create a safe environment—one that is safe physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally—where Erin will be inclined to open and share intimate details of her life. As a result, we feel very close and intimate with one another.

Since emotional intimacy takes people to some of the most vulnerable places a relationship can go, the risks are great. To have a foundation of safety built into your marriage makes opening up significantly easier. When you and your spouse know that both of you are committed to creating a safe marriage, you avoid things that would cause hurt in either of you—like using sensitive information as ammunition during an argument—and you begin building a foundation for a great relationship.

I want to encourage you to make the same effort to create safety in your marriage. Have as your goal to make your home feel like the safest place on earth.

Used with permission from Greg Smalley Psy.D.  Greg Smalley, Psy.D. is director of Marriage Ministries for the Center for Relationship Enrichment on the campus of John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas. Greg is the author or co-author of eight books concerning marriages and families. Visit Greg at www.liferelationships.com.

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