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Professional Columns -
Relationships by Dr. Bill Austin


In my book, Creating Our Safe Place, I wrote that in counseling we strive to help couples and families make their relationships safe. A safe relationship is where we turn to for acceptance, love, refreshment, peace, and comfort in a dangerous world. In a safe relationship, we can drop our defenses and masks and be who we really are. Unfortunately, many of us find ourselves in unsafe relationships. We are loved only if we meet certain conditions: "I will love you if you: don't upset me, live where I want you to live, make me happy, be who I want you to be."

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A safe relationship encourages us to grow.

In unsafe relationships there is confusion about what change means. We may feel that it is not okay to be who we are. We have to become someone our partner wants us to be. Of course, this can be threatening. In safe relationships, change means changing some of our behaviors or ways of relating so that we can experience closeness. It is about growth and maturing as individuals and as couples.

Feelings are okay in a safe relationship.

In unsafe relationships there are certain feelings we are not allowed to share. We may only be allowed to have happy and positive feelings. We become afraid to share our feelings because we might get hurt or abandoned.

In a safe relationship,
we can drop our defenses and
masks and be who we really are.
Unfortunately, many of us findourselves
in unsafe relationships.

We know our relationship is safe when it is okay to be angry and disagree with each other. Our relationship is safe because there is an agreed on structure for dealing with anger and conflict. We are more interested in understanding each other's viewpoints than in winning the argument.

A safe relationship is when we can be vulnerable and know it will be treated as holy ground.

When our partner shares his or her deepest feelings, thoughts, mistakes, weaknesses, and secrets, we are standing on holy ground. This is where the person lives and not many people are privileged to enter this space, so it should be treated as sacred or holy ground. This means we don't make fun or criticize, but rather "take our shoes off" and walk in humbly as someone who has been given a special privilege. It means that what is shared is honored and confidences are kept. Intimacy is private knowledge between two people. When it is shared, the private knowledge becomes public. Consequently, intimacy is damaged. The other person is afraid to be vulnerable and open again.

A relationship is safe when there is a commitment larger than mistakes and disappointments.

In a safe relationship we don't have to walk on eggshells, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, because there is a commitment to each other that is larger than our problems. We can count on that person to be there for us in good and bad times; when we are at our best and when we are at our worst; when we look great and when we don't.

A safe relationship is reciprocal but is not 50/50.

A safe relationship is not just about making myself happy and expecting the other person to make me happy. If we think our relationship should be 50/50, we are in for a disappointment. It is not going to come out even. Sometimes we give 60 percent and get back 40 percent because it is about need. Other times we get 60 percent and give 40 percent. If we are always getting 60 percent and our partner is only getting 40 percent, then there is a problem. Our relationship needs to be reciprocal and worth the cost.

Dr. Austin has decades of experience dealing with relationships. He charges clients on a sliding scale according to their ability to pay. His first book, Creating Our Safe Place: Articles on Healthy Relationships, was published in 2004. His second book, Keeping It Safe, was published in 2009 and can be purchased through,, and at the Parrish Book Store in Virginia Beach.  He is also a sought-after speaker at meetings and seminars.

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