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“We just didn’t love each other anymore.” Those were the words my friend Jeff said to me, as we sat on the back porch of a rustic cabin on a guys weekend. “One day, we woke up, and realized that whatever “this” was, it wasn’t real love. So, we decided to file for divorce.”

I could literally feel the pain that my friend was experiencing. You could feel it through his tone of voice and the expression on his face. Though it had been over two years since his marriage had ended, Jeff still could barley talk about it. He told me that the person he had married, slowly over time, began to vanish. Jeff said that he began to feel like no matter what he did, or how hard they tried as a couple, they just couldn’t “get there.” They couldn’t feel the love that their married friends with “great” marriages seemed to feel with no problem.

Jeff asked me what I thought about his relationship. “Wasn’t your grandpa that famous relationship expert? What would Gary Smalley say.”

I get asked that all the time. “What would your grandpa say?” And, I honestly love that question. Because, I’ve never faced that question without an answer my pops taught me.

What Jeff experienced in his marriage, is something single people like me dread. And, it’s something that terrifies people that are dating or married. What happens when our relationships aren’t what they seemed to be at first? What happens when we’ve slipped inadvertently into the abyss of disfunction?

What happens when my relationship isn’t real?

If you’ve ever found yourself asking that same question. Or, are afraid of asking that question some day. I want to give you a secret. And, this secret has the potential to not only save your marriage before it starts, but can open up a new realm of possibilities in your relationships. I’ve watched this secret create marriages that last a lifetime. And, even spill into relationships with family and friends. And it all has to do with this word… safety.

The relationship ingredient Jeff was missing, and many of us can miss if we’re not careful is safety. Safe relationships are life-giving. Safe relationships give freedom. And, safe relationships are real relationships.

So, what is a safe relationship? How can I make sure my relationship is safe? Or, how do I know when to get out of a un-safe relationship? I’d like to let you in on this special secret with five traits of a real (safe) relationship.

1.  Safe relationships help you be the best you.

In my new book, Real Life Love, I dedicate a full chapter to honor. You see, if you aren’t with someone who honors you for who you are, then you are literally wasting your time. Honoring someone means to value them, and everything about them, like they are the most important things on Earth. So, all of those quirky things you do. Your crazy, outlandish dreams. That thing you do when you’re nervous that everyone else finds annoying. That person honors each of those. If you’re with someone who doesn’t propel you to be the best you, then that person isn’t safe.

When I was in college, I dated this girl who was awesome. She was funny, and was extremely intelligent. Until one night. I remember telling her that one of my dreams was to someday be a host on NBC News. She looked at me, and shot back with, “let’s be honest, the only thing you’re honestly capable of is cleaning the bathrooms at NBC.”

I know. Brutal, but true. Let’s just say I quickly realized that I was never safe to truly be who I was around her, and who I wanted to be in that relationship. That girl was more focused on her putting her best on center stage of our relationships, and I was supposed to be in the wings.

Real relationships honor everything about you. And, they never put you in the wings of your own life. You deserve someone who thinks of you as highly valuable, and allows you the freedom to be your best.

2.  Safe relationships want you to have good relationships with other people.

One of my best friends recently started dating this girl. And, before we all knew it. Not only was he dating this girl, he was only seeing this girl. As in, every waking moment of every waking day. Our friend group would text him, and it was always the same thing.

“Hey, thanks for the invite. But, I’m hanging with Jamie tonight.”

Every night. Every day. Every weekend. It was always Jamie.

One day, I decided to ask my friend. Why in the world was he spending so much time with this girl? I mean, I get it! You’re in love! But, did that mean he had to sacrifice his friendships for his romantic relationship.

It turns out, Jamie put tremendous demands on my buddy’s time. And, she didn’t want him to have any other strong relationships, that was stronger than theirs. While, I will agree that our romantic relationships are important. They aren’t the only relationships that we have. If someone isn’t willing to allow you to build quality relationships with others, which only brings more fulfillment in your life, then they aren’t worth being in a relationship with.

At some point, they need to trust you that you are doing the right thing.

3.  Safe relationships point you back to your relationship with Jesus.

Jefferson Bethke is this author and speaker who lives in Maui. He’s super popular for doing cool videos on YouTube and a book he wrote called Jesus>Religion. A few years ago, he released another book called Love That Lasts. It’s about relationship secrets him and his wife used to build a healthy marriage. He recently posted a photo on Instagram of this book someone bought from a used book store, and in the book, there was a list this girl wrote called “10 Reasons I Need to Break Up with Jordan.”

I read the list hurting for this girl. She wasn’t in a real, safe relationship. And, several times on the list pointed to the fact that Jordan wasn’t challenging her spiritually. Not only that, he wasn’t really interested in following Jesus.

I’ve seen so many of my friends walk into relationships with someone who wasn’t a Christian. And, I’ve never seen any of them work out for the best. If you think that someone is going to change because of how strong your faith is, I have bad news for you. It’s not going to happen. Because Jesus is the only one that changes hearts.

Instead, invest in a relationship with someone who is excited about their faith. Invest in a relationship with someone who isn’t afraid to pray over decisions. Who wakes you up for church in a Sunday. Who is genuinely interested in reading God’s word. Who is spiritually wise.

Trust me, the other way only leads to pain. Be with someone who will sharpen you!

4.  Safe relationships are judgement free zones.

Let’s go back to my friend Jeff. When he told me him and his wife couldn’t ever get “there,” I asked what he meant. “Well, I guess I feel like nothing I ever did was good enough,” he said. “Nothing was ever right. Nothing was ever the way she wanted it. I guess I just wasn’t good enough.”

Once I heard him say that, I realized that he probably wasn’t in a safe relationship from the beginning. Jeff was with someone who was quick to judge. She critiqued and criticized even the small stuff. The way he would chew his food. The fact that he wanted to start a company, and be an entrepreneur over being a doctor like she (and her mom) wanted.

Safe relationships can’t be judgmental, because people who want safe relationships say goodbye to their role of critic.

Jeff’s ex-wife was like a food critic that couldn’t get over what Jeff was wanting to serve. Jeff could make the meal of his life, and she would still give it just one star.

Safe relationships appreciate, and celebrate everything. The good. The losses. The joyful. And, the ugly.

5. Safe relationships are quick to seek forgiveness

In the book Real Life Love, I talk about how forgiveness is the healer of all wounds. The stark reality is that when people mess up in relationships, they refuse to seek forgiveness. They cast all the blame on the other person, and hold onto those angry feelings for years to come.

The true mark of a safe relationship is when someone messes up, they immediately seek forgiveness. The don’t let the grass grow under their apology. They understand that the other person is so much more important than “winning.” Real life love wins, when both people win. And, sometimes, that win starts with the words, “will you forgive me.”

Michael Gibson writes and speaks about relationships. He’s the author of Real Life Love: Saying Goodbye to the Fairytale and Hello to True Relationships. A book about the seven secrets his grandpa, the world-famous marriage and family expert, Gary Smalley. He lives in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.

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Michael Gibson

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