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The more couples therapy I do (and the longer I’m married!) the more I believe that the key to healthy relationships is the willingness to be vulnerable. When you’re willing to be vulnerable with a partner, that’s when the clear and honest communication of needs and boundaries comes out. When you know your partner’s needs and boundaries, that’s when you can engage in nurturing behaviors. Being vulnerable enough to ask for what you want from someone is opening an opportunity of your needs being met.
You must be vulnerable to have empathy. It is an emotionally disorienting risk to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and see how the situation feels for them. You may discover, through empathy, that you were wrong. If you have had negative role models that didn’t allow for being wrong and saying sorry in relationships, it takes courage to try something different, and say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” It gets easier, especially after the first time. (On the other side of the equation, receiving sincere apologies graciously and not continuing to go off on a person is always nice.)
Expressing anger in a relationship takes a lot of vulnerability. In a functional relationship, there is room to express anger, and within that room, anger is expressed in the most charitable and least vicious way that can be managed at the current moment, given the anger.
To grow in a relationship, vulnerability is mandatory. We have to communicate changes to partners so that we can embrace it together. Paradoxically, we sustain the most emotional hurt from being rejected, abused or manipulated during those moments when we are expressing and experiencing our own emotional vulnerability. There are people who hone in on it and exploit it, twist it around, use it against those they supposedly love.
And the scary thing about this carnival ride is that early on in relationships sometimes you don’t always know which thing you’re going to get: rewarded for being vulnerable, or rejected for it. If you’re in a long-standing relationship and you start to increase the level of vulnerability and truth-telling and you are met by shaming, blaming, deflection, and contempt, well, you and I both know that’s a bad sign. A little defensiveness is normal, but eventually that wears down and the partner steps forward with an action demonstrating a commitment to hear you out and understand you. If you are just starting out in a new relationship and vulnerability is met with shaming, blaming, deflection, and contempt; well, thats easy. Walk away, and let the person fix and heal themselves instead of you thinking your relationship is going to do it. But if you’re already deeply in it, and the person is displaying highly toxic behavior at your most charitable attempts at truth telling (when you air your grievances in an adult manner that are not bitchy digs disguised as honesty) then this heralds some work to come. The relationship will need an overhaul in the form of therapy or some other radical way of restructuring communication, boundaries, expectations and behavior.
Assuming your partner is open to you being more vulnerable and is just displaying the regular garden variety defensiveness and grumbly resistance, try to be respectful in your communications. Remember that it might be hard for them to know what you want because you don’t know yourself. You might be reading this thinking of yourself as the open and vulnerable partner in the relationship while your partner is the one who gets defensive, but if you got a little more vulnerable with yourself you’d see that you can be pretty defensive yourself.
It’s funny that vulnerability is associated with weakness, because owning it and sitting with it–both your own and that of others– takes such strength.