Safety, Intimacy, & Time

July 9, 2015
Reading time: 3 minutes


M aybe you can recall a scene from the HBO show The Sopranos where the main character, Tony, is in a therapy session and he throws an absolute tantrum that he’s expected to share intimate details about his life and yet his therapist shares nothing.


It’s an extreme example and a caricature, but it is an interesting idea and probably an experience that we can all relate to.


When we connect on a deep level with another person, be it a friend, family member or even therapist, at first it feels great to divulge and share intimate details of our life and our thoughts. It’s freeing, even cathartic. We feel heard and known on a deep level. Knowing and being known by another is one of the most satisfying feelings that we experience.


Often, though, as more and more time passes, it starts to make us feel insecure or uncomfortable — and people are on different timelines with how much time that transition takes.


This is a situation that has occurred with a few of my student/mentor relationships. Scheduling conflicts, children’s extracurricular activities, the transitioning of a new job and busy lives disallow time for reconnection and somehow three weeks have passed without catching up. It’s then that the vulnerability and self-doubt has an opening to creep in. I’ve noticed this is where a lot of people’s reactive behavior comes from in relationships and they don’t understand it, and therefore can’t verbalize it, so they rationalize why they’re feeling angry in different ways.


What happened?


They needed to know that what they shared was still safe and that you still find their feelings and experiences important.


If we don’t reconnect with a person who has shared deep feelings or intimate secrets with us and enforce our social bonds of trust and friendship, sometimes that intensity of connection turns to an equal amount of spite. People start to feel vulnerable, exposed, and foolish and if enough time passes, they may even experience feelings of abandonment.


Then people have a tendency to get angry. Really angry.


Recently a friend told me about a falling out that she’d had with another girlfriend. Her friend lashed out and confronted Anne complaining that she is self-involved and judgmental. Anne was shocked. The attack felt like it came from nowhere. What had really occurred was that her friend had divulged intimate details and thoughts. When she didn’t hear from Anne for a couple weeks after that intimate conversation, she became positively enraged.


How did their friendship go from intimate to sour? Once again, too much time had passed and her friend felt abandoned and that the friendship was not a safe place for her any longer. In reality, Anne had just been traveling a lot for work, her affection for her friend had not changed at all (though it certainly did after her friend yelled at her!)


In order to have true connections with other people, we have to know that we’re safe with them — that our secrets, thoughts, feelings, and views are not going to be used against us or dismissed. In reality, being harsh and dismissive of our own feelings is something most of us do to ourselves which is why it seems so plausible to leap to the conclusion that now the time has come for a friend to do it to us. The only thing that has happened in these relationships is that one person has lost their certainty in the connection, and that feels unsafe.




Social scientists observe that toddlers whose mothers are nearby are more outgoing, curious, and playful. The proximity of their mother creates a circle of safety and they exhibit far more confidence to explore their environment.  As we get older and we find adult partners, our circle of safety extends far beyond just a room. Knowing that we are loved and supported in our relationship gives us more confidence in our work, projects, and every aspect of our lives.


Recently my husband was asked for one simple and practical tool that anyone could use to improve not just their romantic relationships, but all their relationships. Michael cited that one of the things that constantly surprises him is that people don’t share with each other, they talk, sure, but they don’t truly connect. In short, people don’t communicate their deepest thoughts and emotions, because they don’t feel safe. In order to forge a lasting connection to someone we have to be vulnerable, and if there is no sense of trust or safety, that just isn’t possible. Moreover, that circle of safety has to be consistently given energy with our time and kindness.


Finally, if someone hasn’t returned your text, phone call or email, don’t jump to conclusions. A lot of stories can develop in our minds when we don’t immediately hear back from someone. Catch yourself and examine if any annoyance or anger you may experience is coming from a place of feeling unsafe. Often acknowledging the emotion is all that is needed to make the negative feelings go away. In fact, if you haven’t heard back from someone, reach out and check on them!


Thought Into Action

There are so many ways to let people know that they are loved and safe. Is there anyone that you need to reach out to, just to say you’re thinking about them?


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