Forget Your Love Language, Do You Know Your Route to Safety?

Routes to Safety is a trauma-informed model for building stronger connections within our relationships.

Words by Krystal Jagoo. Photography by Dima Sikorski.

For many, the love languages is what first comes to mind when we think about a lens for understanding our relationships. Are you more words of affirmation or quality time? It’s an extremely common conversation since it outlines different examples of what some may need from their partners in relationships. It’s been easy to grasp when trying to build a better connection.

Thankfully for us during 2020, Jake Ernst, MSW, RSW realized that many clients were struggling more than usual to find a feeling of safety. This inspired him to develop a model to facilitate greater access to safety during a time when many of us were sharing common experiences and uncertainty in isolation due to COVID-19.

While Ernst describes himself as trauma-informed, in that he takes the reality of trauma into consideration as a therapist. As a society, he would love for how we engage with one another to be guided by the need for safety among individuals. “[The model] lists 8 routes of safety, but power and privilege is the underlying 9th route,” Ernst says. 

Ernst explains that we can access safety through Inner Guidance, Structure & Certainty, Sensory Experiences, Quality Relationships, Protective Measures, Closeness & Proximity, Private Retreat, and Common Humanity, all of which, are possible through our realities of power and privilege, which is bound to impact how we exist in the world. 

He says there are three pathways we can access safety through – self-resourced, socially sourced or action oriented – and each of the eight routes falls into one of these categories. Inner Guidance, Sensory Experiences and Private Retreat can primarily be accessed individually, and these can look like journaling or meditation, sitting in the sun or using a weighted blanket, and time intentionally spent alone in a physically safe space. Structure & Certainty, Quality Relationships, Protective Measures, Closeness & Proximity, and Common Humanity tend to rely on connections with others to feel safe, and may include having boundaries respected and feeling listened to by loved ones, but these also depend on feeling safe enough to trust yourself. 

“I initially relied on Gary Chapman’s love languages for a framework to support clients, until realizing it was steeped in Christianity and homophobia,” Ernst said. As a queer person, Ernst has navigated oppression, but he admits that his whiteness often provides safety. 

The value of emotional safety seemed under prioritized to Ernst when the world was most concerned about physical safety. As he reflected on how clients were navigating the trauma of the pandemic, he developed Routes of Safety to provide an answer to the question, “What makes me feel safe?”

While children are often taught to look both ways before crossing the street or to avoid touching a hot stove, we hardly learn how to have our needs met or how to meet our loved ones’ needs.

Krystal Jagoo

Although many of us are taught from a young age how to stay safe from physical danger, we may have missed out on comparable lessons regarding how to stay emotionally safe from harm. While children are often taught to look both ways before crossing the street or to avoid touching a hot stove, we hardly learn how to have our needs met or how to meet our loved ones’ needs. “Emotional safety often has to do with our early emotional experiences, past and intergenerational trauma, and our relationships with ourselves and others,” Ernst explains. It can be defined as a state where trust has been established to be open and vulnerable.

While Ernst feels strongly about the need for safety, he distinguishes that from comfort. “You can be uncomfortable but still safe, and that may be where you stretch and grow,” he says. Especially when it comes to discussions of power and privilege, those who are more marginalized may sometimes feel pressure to risk their safety for the comfort of loved ones. 

For example, as a white queer person, Ernst notes that he has greater access to succeed as a social worker in comparison to someone like myself, who is queer too, but also brown and disabled, which is why he actively works to challenge white supremacy culture in his approach. 

In reviewing these routes of safety, Ernst notes that how we relate to these options for safety can change based on our relationships with trauma, ourselves, and others. Maybe in the past, we needed to rely more heavily on Protective Measures and Private Retreat before we could feel safe enough to move towards finding safety with Common Humanity and Structure and Certainty. 

For instance, immediately after a traumatic experience like an assault, it may be crucial for you to be explicit in setting boundaries with yourself and others as well as asking questions before agreeing to plans as violations of one’s personhood can put you into a state of being on guard, but over time, you may need to do less of that as you are reassured by feelings of safety. 

If negotiating safety with someone else feels too uncomfortable, then it may help to ask which Sensory Experiences can offer safety for our somatic systems to feel more secure through the regulation that can come from our favorite candle scent or listening to soothing music. And when we do feel safe enough to engage with others, hopefully they care about our safety too. 

With examples of how routes of safety look, feel, and sound, Ernst provides us with a trauma-informed starting point for how to engage ourselves and our loved ones. He notes that we may have preferred ways of accessing safety, depending on the situation, as do others. 

Even in the course of our discussion, Ernst brought up how my frank approach to naming Gary Chapman’s homophobia and highlighting how it can alienate queers in the interview gave him “permission to be more authentic.” In this way, by modeling how even the therapist who developed Routes of Safety may lean on interaction with others to access emotional safety, we can trust that he embodies these strategies in his own life outside of sessions with clients. 

Although Ernst believes that all individuals should have access to physical and emotional safety, he acknowledges that due to oppression, many may struggle to feel that, which is why he encourages individuals to consider opportunities to feel “safer” and “safe enough.” 

As you make your way on your respective journeys towards greater emotional safety for yourself and your loved ones, Ernst’s Routes offer some possibilities for how we can initiate conversations that allow us to grow and stretch in our relationships with ourselves and others. 

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