Thanks to Brene Brown’s TED Talk, many of us understand vulnerability as one of the necessary keys to unlock true connection in relationship.
As I write, I realize that vulnerability is the place where I continue to get stuck in relationship, often succumbing to my instinctual desires to shut down, run away, or, if cornered, act defensively and simply turn into an asshole.
According to Merriam-Webster, vulnerability means, “Capable of being physically or emotionally wounded or open to attack or damage.” Synonyms to vulnerability are endangered, exposed, and susceptible.
Ouch. No wonder it’s so damn hard.
Willing yourself to be susceptible to hurt is exactly what intimate relationships require, and why it can seem elusive and challenging.
Recently, a friend and I were talking about her inability to be vulnerable with someone. After several dates, he appeared to be all that she is looking for, but instead of allowing him to truly see her, she hid behind a protective layer of jokes, drinking, friends and activity.
Weeks after their last date, she lamented the fact that she may have blown her chance with him; she reenacted what she was like in his presence—awkward, stiff, and hardened. A friend blurted out that she resembled a smitten T. Rex.
Yep, that’s it; a lack of vulnerability looks like a smitten T. Rex — hardened exterior, incapable of softness, not huggable, not kissable, and only good for raging and biting.
I don’t want to be a T. Rex, nor do you.
So what does vulnerability actually look like in relationship? Given that relationships trigger deeper emotions causing our fight or flight to kick in, vulnerability is doing something other than fighting or fleeing.
If we have not experienced positive reactions to our vulnerability in the past, we may have to take a leap of faith and ‘fake it ‘til we make it,’ and imagine an accepting partner in order to let our guard down. Vulnerability is much easier when we know that the relationship is secure, and that takes time and trust.
Being vulnerable can feel like an emotional game of chicken, wanting the other person to drop his or her guard first, showing us that it’s safe, and telling us that they aren’t going to leave.
Vulnerability means dropping your proverbial weapon and remaining loving even when it’s uncomfortable. It means exposing yourself to hurt by revealing how you actually feel, allowing yourself to be seen, and saying what you want.
Just this morning, my partner and I were packing for a Valentine’s Day road trip. He rented his house for the weekend and we had to be out by 10 am, both of us heading into a day of full work plates. He began acting irritable and short with me, yet he remained capable of lovingly talking to his dog. When he caught himself, he approached me and told me he knew he was being an asshole, but that it should be all right, given that I am often an asshole.
I felt sucker punched, somehow his apology turned into calling me an asshole. We kept packing, then the cleaners arrived and he was just as sweet to them as he was to his dog.
With the image of vulnerability fresh in my mind, when we got in the car I asked myself what vulnerability might actually look like in this situation. I knew what it didn’t look like — mirroring his irritability and acting like a jerk to him (which is also what I instinctually wanted to do).
So I breathed in and remembered step one: revealing how you feel, without using an angry, eye-for-an-eye tone. I told him that my feelings were hurt and why.
Then came step two: saying what you want. I shared that I want us to be kind to each other and not treat each other poorly behind closed doors.
Thankfully, he met my words with softness and love and a genuine apology. Because of my partner’s positive response, I will hopefully remember to be vulnerable again. Even if he is acting out, I can remain loving. Said another way, and so eloquently in a Glue interview, “Only one of us is allowed to be an asshole at a time.”
Vulnerability comes down to making a choice and deciding to open to love. So many of us avoid true connection when the outcome is uncertain (and love is always uncertain). It’s hard to allow someone to truly see us and connect with us, without any guarantee of how we will be perceived… it’s downright scary.
In long-term partnership vulnerability may look slightly different than when dating but it’s still a factor. “A relationship is only as intimate as it is transparent.” Honesty is vulnerable, and even long-term couples talk about how hard it is to work towards honesty.
Once we are comfortable in long-term relationship we may quickly display easier feelings of anger and irritation when upset, rather than express the often more tender feelings that lie beneath the anger, such as disappointment or sadness.
In dating, lack of vulnerability can take on the form of avoiding intimacy altogether by a subtle and innocent game of smoke and mirrors. We may pull the attention away from ourselves by pointing to a “shiny object,” such as other friends or activities, or anything that allows us to disconnect from deeper emotions.
Years ago, while on a trip to San Francisco with someone I was dating, I planned an array of distractions, scheduling visits with everyone I had ever known in the area — a college friend I hadn’t seen in 15 years, old roommates, cousins — instead of allowing the trip to unfold intimately with him. Finally, he called me out on it, explaining he wasn’t interested in running around the city meeting all of these people. I realized, much too late, that I wanted to control how he saw me and impress him through all the people who loved me, rather than allowing him to simply see and experience me.
Emotional exposure is about sharing who we really are and feeling feelings that aren’t always comfortable. We live in a thinking culture. We spend time figuring things out in our heads before we give ourselves a chance to feel, expecting that we can avoid discomfort by making things black or white. As Brown explains, vulnerability is about uncertainty and about being seen.
When I think back to my vulnerability in relationship in the past and compare where I am today, I am grateful that I have found the confidence to simply be myself with a partner. The simplest version of vulnerability is to show up, tell the truth, and let go of the outcome.