Safe Places, Safe Relationshiops
May 30, 2023
I was recently in conversations about what it means to create a safe place for people, and it got me thinking and studying about it. I believe many of us have the wrong perspective of what it means to create or become a safe place. Some people think it’s a place where you will never feel awkward or uncomfortable. That can’t be true, because for a person to grow there must be times that feel awkward and uncomfortable. A safe place IS a place where we can express our thoughts and feelings without being disrespected. It’s a place where you can disagree without villainizing one another.
Dr. Henry Cloud describes a safe relationship as one that does three things:
1. Draws us closer to God (Matthew 22:37-38).
2. Draws us closer to others (Matthew 22:39).
3. Helps us become the real person God created us to be (Ephesians 2:10).
We all want people in our lives who help us in these ways. But how do we recognize them? What do they look like? God created us to be in relationship, and relationships can be hurtful and/or healing. Healthy relationships are essential for us to flourish. Dr. Cloud and his colleague, Dr. John Townsend, who co-authored Boundaries, describe safe and unsafe people.
The unsafe generally fall into three categories: the abandoners, the critics, and the irresponsible.
Personal traits (who we are) of unsafe people. Here are a few of the twenty characteristics they describe of unsafe people.
- Unsafe people think they “have it all together” instead of admitting their weaknesses.
- Unsafe people are defensive instead of open to feedback.
- Unsafe people are self-righteous instead of humble.
- Unsafe people avoid working on their problems instead of dealing with them.
- Unsafe people demand trust instead of earning it.
- Unsafe people blame others instead of taking responsibility.
- Unsafe people lie instead of telling the truth.
- Unsafe people avoid closeness instead of connecting.
- Unsafe people resist freedom instead of encouraging it.
- Unsafe people flatter us instead of confronting us.
- Unsafe people condemn us instead of forgiving us.
- Unsafe people stay in parent/child roles instead of relating as equals.
- Unsafe people gossip instead of keeping secrets.
The best example of a safe person is found in Jesus. In Him were found the three qualities of a safe person; dwelling, grace, and truth. As John wrote: “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Dwelling refers to someone’s ability to connect with us. Dr Cloud says, “The Greek word used here means to “encamp” or “reside.” The origin of this word has to do with the human body as the place where the spirit resides. What this means is that safe relationships are an aspect of the incarnational qualities of Jesus, for Jesus came as a man, in the flesh. Safe people are able to “dwell in the flesh.” They are able to connect in a way that we know they are present with us.” That translates to me as someone who is not artificial, has time for me, and is actually “here” for me. This person “gets me.”
The second safe quality Cloud points out that Jesus exemplifies is grace. Grace is “unmerited favor.” It means that someone is on our side; they are “for us.” Grace implies unconditional love and acceptance with no condemnation. You have had those relationships where we are shamed and condemned, often with the supposed purpose of “helping us.” But relationships in which people shame or condemn us are ultimately hurtful and do not produce growth. They let us know clearly that we are required to change and be different in order to be accepted. Love that must be earned is basically useless. Grace does the exact opposite. It says that you are accepted just like you are and that you will not be shamed or attacked for whatever you are experiencing.
Dr. Cloud says, “The third quality that Jesus embodied for us was truth.” Truth implies many things, but in relationships it implies honesty, being real with one another, and living out the truth of God. Many people think that safe relationships are relationships that just give grace without confrontation, but ultimately these relationships are not healthy and can be hurtful and destructive as well.
We need people in our life who will be honest with us, appropriately telling us where we are wrong and where change is needed. We need friends who live in truth themselves and live out the principles of God with us. In their acceptance of us, they are honest about our faults without condemning or rejecting us.
Why would we choose unsafe relationships? There are a variety of reasons, including: isolation, fear of confrontation, romanticizing, rescuing, and familiarity, among others. It’s easiest to not intentionally choose our friendships, but to just “let them happen,” and they end up destroying us.
How do we pick healthy friendships? Several qualities are important:
- Acceptance and grace
- Mutual struggles, although they do not have to be the same ones
- Loving confrontation
- Both parties have “entered in” to a growth process
- An absence of “one-up and one-down” dynamics, no keeping score
- Both parties in a relationship with God
- Honesty and reality instead of over-spiritualizing and making everything “the devil did it”
- An absence of controlling behavior
But it’s not just about finding safe people. More importantly, it’s about becoming a safe person.
How do we become a safe person? By practicing these six steps: Ask for help, let yourself need others, push through your own resistance to change, invite the truth about yourself, actively enter into forgiveness, and give something back.
Ask two questions regularly to your safe people: What do I do that pushes you away from me?
What do I do that draws you toward me? Watch your relationships thrive!