Interpersonal Traits of Unsafe People – Part One

We want to continue speaking about relationships. We just finished a short series on the inner character traits of an unsafe person. Now let’s look at the the interpersonal traits of an unsafe person. In other words, the relational trends you will see when in relationship with an unsafe person. Personality traits (see the previous blogs) describe “who we are,” interpersonal traits describe “how we connect.” These interpersonal traits are about how people operate in relationships, how they move close or pull away, and how they build up or destroy.

1> Unsafe people avoid closeness instead of connecting

We were created for intimacy, to connect with someone with heart, soul, and mind. Intimacy occurs when we are open, vulnerable, and honest, for these qualities help us to be close to each other. We know each other at deep levels when we share our real feelings, fears, failures, and hurts. This kind of sharing helps us to feel that we are not alone in the world. We are meant to have intimacy with God and with people. If we do not, we experience isolation, even if we are in some kind of relationship.

Time with someone does not a connection make. Only true sharing and intimacy create a connection. You need to question long-term relationships in which you do not get to know the other person. If you spend significant amounts of time with an individual and still feel far away from him or her, something is wrong. You do not have a connection that is nourishing to the soul. Furthermore, this can be a signal that real danger is present. People who are not able to get close often act out that isolation in affairs, two-faced betrayals, broken confidences and trusts, addictions, and a whole host of other problem dynamics.

This isolation is like “a vacuum in the inner parts of the relationship.”

Many marriages have this dynamic at work. Like a silent killer, this lack of intimacy eats away at the foundation of the relationship. Because there are no apparent overt problems, nothing is said. Things are “fine.” But then one spouse discovers that the other one is having an affair, or has an addiction that surprises everyone. When this happens, the external structure of the relationship – the one everyone thought was good – breaks down.

Usually spouses know deep inside that things were not really all that good. They had a nagging feeling of disconnection, but they did not know exactly what to do about it. So they continued to go along the same direction in life, until  the catastrophe brought everything tumbling down. 

If you are uneasy about a relationship, ask yourself, “Does this relationship breed more togetherness or more isolation within me?” If you feel alone in the relationship, that’s not a good sign. But remember: the first person to look at is yourself. Your sense of detachment may be from some block inside of you. Sometimes our own fears and conflicts make it difficult for us to feel connected to someone. The problem can be ours. It can be theirs. And it can be both, 

2> Unsafe people are only concerned about “I” instead of “we”

If unsafe people are self-centered, safe people are relationship-centered. And that priority shows itself in the all-important action of empathy.

Safe people are empathic … a genuine connection is a mutual give-and-take of caring that flows between individuals. Both people bring their lives, loves, joys, and sorrows to the connection. Each brings his needs – yet has a deep interest in the life of the other person.

In safe relationships, empathy is a large part of the equation. We literally “enter the other person’s head” and attempt to understand how he feels, what he believes, and how he thinks. Empathy is walking in the moccasins of another person, and not judging them until we can see what suffering he has been through to get to the point he is at.

Empathy is not easy. It involves letting go of your opinion and what you are needing in the relationship so that you can enter the world of the other person, if only for a brief time. We can’t stay in the empathic position permanently, because we would lose ourselves. But empathy is what makes a relationship real – and safe.

Jesus taught about empathy, but in a surprising way: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) This is a startling teaching, because He didn’t condemn our needs as selfish. Instead, He used them as a starting point for learning how to love. In other words, He was saying, “You know how terrible you feel sometimes? That’s also how others feel. You know how being loved and understood by another person helps you deal with those feelings? That’s also what helps others. Give them what you’re also needing.”

If we are all taking our needs to safe people, and those safe people are taking their needs to us, love is created – and the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled.

Next time … “Safe people act on their empathy” (the conclusion to point two)