Safe Haven Marriage

Safe Haven Marriage

by Archibald D. Hart

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Creating a safe haven for each other in a marriage can enable a couple to weather any storm. Yet that accomplishment is certainly easier said than done. Psychologists Arch Hart, Ph.D, and Sharon Hart May, Ph.D., present a detailed blueprint for establishing a marital safe haven so that couples can count on each other and avoid criticizing, blaming and shutting out


Creating a safe haven for each other in a marriage can enable a couple to weather any storm. Yet that accomplishment is certainly easier said than done. Psychologists Arch Hart, Ph.D, and Sharon Hart May, Ph.D., present a detailed blueprint for establishing a marital safe haven so that couples can count on each other and avoid criticizing, blaming and shutting out their partners during tough times. Based on a new therapeutic approach that involves establishing a feeling of "safety," out of which commitment and the other necessary elements of a lasting and fulfilling relationship can grow.

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Safe Haven Marriage

A Marriage You Can Come Home To
By Archibald D. Hart Sharon Hart Morris

W Publishing Group

Copyright © 2003 Archibald D. Hart and Sharon Hart Morris
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4185-6913-6

Chapter One


Safe haven. n. A trustworthy person to whom you can turn, knowing that person will be emotionally available and will respond to you in a caring manner.

The harbor was straight ahead, a welcome sight. All day the wind had blown in our faces as waves crashed against the side of the boat. The sun burned hot on our shoulders. Sailing the waves of the Pacific Ocean on Dad's twenty-eight-foot sailboat had been exhilarating but exhausting. In fact, at times it had even been a bit scary because the sea was rough and the Santa Ana winds were strong. Now that we were on our way back, nothing could have been more comforting and soothing than the sight of the harbor entrance. We gratefully approached the peninsulas of large rocks that reached out and around us, marking the entrance to the safe haven.

My dad—who is the coauthor of this book—reminded us, "Red buoy has to be on the right when returning," as every sailor is supposed to know. When we crossed the harbor entrance, the waters suddenly became calm, even peaceful. It reminded me of the time when Jesus spoke to the storm and commanded it to be still. The harbor really was a place of safety, where all peril was behind us.

A Safe Haven

This image of a safe haven, a place that protects us from the raging seas of life, is central to what we want to share in this book. It is a metaphor for what every marriage should become. All couples, when they marry, look forward to seeing their relationship become a haven for their hearts. As counselors, we call a marriage that is a refuge from the pressures and problems of the outside world a "safe haven" marriage.

Marital partners yearn for their spouse to see them for who they are and to be there for them. Spouses want to be fully understood, accepted, and valued by their mates. We're sure you feel that way too. And even though you and your spouse may be very different, each of you having your own dreams, ideas, expectations, and needs, both of you surely share the desire for your relationship to be a place where you can safely return for comfort and loving reassurance—a safe haven.

Unfortunately, marriage doesn't always turn out to be a place of safety. It can become a battleground where emotional safety is demolished by hot emotions and negative ways of interacting. It can become a stormy, emotionally unsafe place. To illustrate why the approach we are taking is so important and to lay the foundation for what is to follow, let's take a brief look at what an unsafe marriage can be like.

Walking on Eggshells

Meet Jack and Adelle Carpenter, who are sitting in a counseling office. They have been married for six years and have two small children. Adelle became pregnant on their honeymoon, so as a husband and wife, they never really had time to build and grow their marital bond, which takes about two years. Nowadays, their life together is a whirlwind of working, caring for two children, and trying to save enough money to buy a house.

Fighting usually begins at the Carpenters' when Adelle feels that Jack has not helped around the house the way she'd like him to. She usually tries to talk to him about her concerns. "Of course I'm aware of the importance of communication," she says. But Adelle feels that Jack is never available for important conversations. "And when we do manage to talk," she reports, "I have to drag out of him how he feels." She experiences her husband as being both aloof and uncaring. "He's a good father, but he's not the least bit helpful," she concludes.

Meanwhile, Jack has a somewhat different view. He says that they argue because, "Adelle is always unhappy with me. It's either that I haven't done what she wanted, I've said something hurtful, or I've done something wrong with the kids."

Jack goes on to say, "I walk on eggshells most of the time with Adelle. No matter what I do, it just isn't good enough. I say something that upsets her, or I forget to do something she thinks is important. Then I get it. She yells, criticizes, and makes me feel like a failure as a husband. No matter what I do, I can't convince her that I really do care for her. Quite frankly, I'm tired of the whole thing. I've pretty much shut down."

Adelle's response? "He just doesn't take care of responsibilities, so I have to keep reminding him. If I don't remind him, nothing will ever get done. I have to work really hard at getting him to share himself with me. It is so draining that it's unbelievable. I feel completely alone in this marriage."

A Not-So-Well-Blended Family

Next, meet Kevin and Anne Preston, who have been married for fifteen years. Anne has a son from her first marriage. Kevin has a twenty-five-year-old daughter from his first marriage, and together they have two-, eight-, and ten-year-old daughters. Kevin and Anne learned early in their marriage that there are some subjects they simply shouldn't discuss with each other. When they do, a fight invariably explodes, and their fights leave them angry for days.

Most of the Prestons' hot topics involve their children. Kevin generally tries to avoid such discussions. Anne ignores his reticence and brings them up anyway, with great intensity. Kevin's avoidance of discussions about their children has always made Anne feel alone; she long ago concluded that Kevin doesn't care as much for her as he does for his daughter. By now the hot topics have expanded—even the smallest things are able to ignite big arguments that send Anne and Kevin into a spin cycle. Unfortunately, both of them are too preoccupied with getting their point across to hear what the other is actually trying to say.

Anne complains, "I learned early on not to come between Kevin and his daughter. I feel he defends her and makes me the evil stepmother. He tells me I'm too emotional. Maybe I am, but I long for him to understand how I feel. He tells me I'm panicking. 'Just calm down!' he says. Then he walks away. I call up my sister and talk, but I long to be able to talk to him."

Kevin describes his experience. "She just doesn't trust me. She always finds something wrong with the way I do things. And yes, I back off. Of course I do! I don't want to fight. So I avoid these discussions and walk away. I guess you could say that I tune her out, but otherwise we get into overheated fights that go nowhere."

Not a Safe Haven

Another husband who participated in our research described his marriage this way: "I simply don't feel emotionally connected with my wife. Our relationship is not a safe place for my heart. Don't get me wrong—I love my wife very much. But I just can't turn to her and trust her with my innermost feelings. I have tried over the years, but it always ends up with us fighting. We each defend our point of view, and we are both left frustrated. I don't feel seen or understood. That's okay. I protect my heart, keep things to myself, and keep busy. I also pray a lot, and that gets me through."

Tragically, this man's wife wrote an almost identical response when she turned in her research questionnaire. And this mirror of mistrust highlights the saddest aspect of this whole problem: Invariably, both partners in a marriage have exactly the same desire for emotionally safe connectedness. They simply blame one another for not having a safe haven, while having no idea how to achieve it. Instead, they are locked in a vicious cycle of arguing. This pattern keeps their disappointments, hurts, and anger at the surface of their marriage and buries their hearts beneath a mountain of defenses.

How Safe Is Your Marriage?

Do some of these conversations sound all too familiar to you? Do you feel strangely alone, even though you've been married for years? Are the ways you try to get your spouse to understand you doing more damage to your marriage than good?

Reflect for a moment on the last few times you and your spouse had a quarrel. What typically sparks your disagreements? You probably see things differently. Perhaps your spouse has a habit of making hurtful remarks whenever you try to tell him how you feel about something. One of you tries to make a point. The other says, "Why are you always so critical?" and gets defensive. And the more your spouse defends himself, the more you try to explain what's wrong.

Perhaps you find yourself in a marriage where each of you tries very hard to get the other to understand your perspective, even though the harder you try the more contentious it all becomes. Before you know it, you are stuck in an emotional whirlwind that keeps driving you apart, leaving both of you feeling misunderstood and unvalued. Sometimes you are able to navigate your way through such an argument and come to a mutually acceptable understanding, but that may have begun to happen less and less often. You both cling to your side of the story. Your voices get louder. Eventually someone retreats into a distant corner of the house.

In the aftermath, it could be days before civility and comfortable conversation return. You sweep your hurts under the rug, the place where all your unresolved hurts figuratively end. Getting back together after such a storm is always difficult in an unsafe marriage.

Can you envision a marriage in which you would feel safe enough to say what you feel? In which you were assured that your spouse would respect, or at least attempt to understand, your point of view? Under those circumstances, at the end of an argument you could come back together and reestablish your emotional warmth. You would be able to say to each other, "I don't want to hurt you, and I know you don't want to hurt me. We are both trying so desperately to feel understood. I don't think we did a good job of it. Maybe we can start over. This time I'll make a special effort to listen as best I can to your point of view. Will you do the same for me?"

Often, it is precisely because couples love each other so much that strong, negative emotional gales arise, stirring up giant waves of anger, hurt, and disconnection. Each fear-provoking encounter is like another breaker against the hull in a storm-tossed ocean. Naturally you feel edgier, more fearful. After enough of these storms, you become overly cautious of every encounter with your partner. Marriage becomes an unrelenting, tumultuous voyage with no sign of a safe harbor anywhere in sight.

Discovering Your Safe Haven

How to discover and develop a safe haven in your own marriage is the focus of this book. We have a heartfelt desire to help couples like you discover emotional safety in each other. And besides seeing your pain alleviated and your hearts comforted, we also know that this is God's heart cry for all marriages. The many students, counselors, pastors, and couples whom we have taught and counseled using the safe haven approach have confirmed that it is the cry of their hearts as well.

Just like Tom and Yvonne Richards.

"I just want you not to be mad at me all the time." Tears rolled down Yvonne's cheeks as Tom, his voice softened with sincerity, spoke these words to her. They had been married for twelve years and now sat on the couch in my (Sharon's) counseling office with broken hearts, but armed for battle.

"He just doesn't understand my heart!" Yvonne cried in response. "He never has. No matter how much I yell or cry, he just doesn't get it!"

"She has no idea how much I've been hurt by our fighting and harsh words." Tom's voice was thick with emotion. "Yes, maybe I have shut down on the inside, but I've done so just to survive this marriage."

Then something amazing happened, something I've seen happen over and over again with couples. It happens once they reveal to each other what is really at the core of their hearts. Both Tom and Yvonne leaned forward and looked right at me. Almost in unison, they said, "All I ever wanted was to be understood and accepted ... by him (her)."

Tom and Yvonne sat momentarily motionless. Then they slowly turned to look at each other, their faces gentle and hopeful.

"I just wanted you to be there for me, to understand me, and to value me," Tom whispered.

"That's all I ever wanted too," Yvonne responded. As they embraced, they took a giant leap toward making their marriage a safe haven.

You see, behind all the fighting, yelling, crying, and withdrawing, counselors nearly always find two struggling human beings with broken hearts longing to be understood, accepted, and loved just for who they are. Tom and Yvonne, like all couples, longed to be emotionally connected. They craved a space between them in which they could really, honestly be safe.

Safe Haven Marriage: Romance Novel or Reality?

If you're a wife, don't be surprised if reading the above stories causes you to feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction in your marriage and an unsettling fear that you may never be able to achieve a safe haven marriage.

And if you're a husband, you may be saying, "Sure, I can see how great it must be to have an emotionally connected, safe relationship. But you don't know my personality. And you can't imagine our history of hurts or how bad our marriage has become. I just could never envision saying to my spouse the things you've quoted, and my spouse would never say them back to me. To be honest, it doesn't sound like something any man could hook up with. It sounds more like a romantic novel than a real-life relationship."

Is that what you're thinking? Before we close this first chapter, please allow us to address some of the questions you may have, as well as some major obstacles that might prevent you and your husband or wife from even beginning your journey.

First things first: Marriages are never safe havens when there is physical or emotional abuse. In such cases, changes beyond the scope of this book are necessary before the journey of fostering a safe haven can begin. Sometimes, years of constant fighting can feel abusive and trusting again difficult. Seeking professional advice can help you discern the difference and initiate the necessary changes.

Second, it is important for you to understand that our suggestions in this book have been scientifically developed and validated in the lives of many couples. They are not just nice ideas. Safe haven couples, as our research demonstrates, are happier, more satisfied, and better able to withstand the storms of life. Their marriages also last longer. These things are true, we believe, because we are working toward the type of marriage that God intends for couples to have.

And we don't have any intention of setting up husbands to do and say things with which they're not comfortable. Nor do we intend to outline a marriage so ideal that wives can only dream about it. We are introducing a way that you and your spouse can emotionally connect and foster a safe haven marriage.

Third, we know from experience that both husbands and wives "feel" their emotions differently. Their expressions of feelings and hurts are also different. A wife might be very verbal and emotionally expressive, while her spouse is inexpressive and more reserved or logical. One spouse might fight for changes, while the other tries to maintain peace and quiet by staying away from any emotion that might start a fight. But despite these differences, remember this: Deep down, your spouse longs to have a close, emotionally safe relationship with you where he feels loved, respected, and understood. And your spouse wants these things just as much as you do.

Fourth, you may think that the examples of conversations we share throughout the book don't sound like words real people would ever say—especially the "good" stuff. Well, the truth is that most of these quotes come from a blend of many real-life cases, although we have concealed all identifying information.

But even if you know other people have actually said such things, perhaps you would still feel uneasy saying what we suggest. You needn't sound like anyone but yourself, so please feel free to adjust your words to fit your temperament. Try to understand the point that is being made, and then shape the conversation we offer as an example to fit the way you and your spouse talk. There is no one right way to say anything. Just make sure your words are meaningful to you and your spouse.


Excerpted from Safe Haven Marriage by Archibald D. Hart Sharon Hart Morris Copyright © 2003 by Archibald D. Hart and Sharon Hart Morris. Excerpted by permission of W Publishing Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dr. Hart is a professional psychologist, a prolific writer and well-known speaker. He covers different topics including the treatment of panic attacks and depression as well as stress.

Sharon Morris May, Ph.D. is the originator of the highly acclaimed Haven of Safety Marriage Relationship Intensives and Conferences at the Hart Institute in Pasadena, California. With a doctorate in marriage and family therapy from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology, Dr. Sharon is an internationally known expert in emotionally focused therapy. Author of Safe Haven Marriage, as well as numerous articles and chapters in books on relationships, she is the contributing editor for Marriage and Family: A Christian Journal. Dr. Sharon and her husband, Mike, live in Southern California surrounded by their four sons.

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