In my over 20 years of counseling couples, I've come to realize that vulnerability is the key to a lasting union and that shame and fear are two of the main reasons why couples get entrenched in power struggles that can lead to divorce. Opening up to our partner can make us feel vulnerable and exposed, but it is the most important ingredient of a trusting, intimate relationship. One of the biggest challenges that couples face is being vulnerable with a romantic partner. After all, with over 40 percent of adults growing up in a divorced family, healthy templates for intimacy may have been in short supply. In other cases, many of us were raised in homes where showing vulnerability was seen was a weakness.
What drives our fear of being vulnerable? Dr. Brene Brown, a distinguished author and researcher, informs us that vulnerability is often viewed as a weakness, but it's actually a strength. In her landmark book Daring Greatly, she explains that vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. She writes, "To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe that vulnerability is a weakness is to believe that feeling is a weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living."
In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Given this definition, the act of loving someone and allowing them to love you may be the ultimate risk. Love is uncertain. It's risky because there are no guarantees and your partner could leave you without a moment's notice -- or betray you or stop loving you. In fact, exposing your true feelings may mean that you are at greater risk for being criticized or hurt.
Dr. Brown believes that shame and vulnerability are connected. She writes: "Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Shame erodes the piece of us that believes we are capable of change." She concludes, "Shame resilience is key to embracing our vulnerability. We can't let ourselves be seen if terrified by what other people might think. Often not being good enough at vulnerability means that we're damn good at shame."
In fact, vulnerability just might be the glue that holds a relationship together. It can help you navigate day-to-day life with a partner and allow you to feel comfortable letting your hair down with them at the end of the day. Likewise, it may be the lack of emotional attunement that comes from not showing vulnerability that can lead many couples down the path to divorce. If you are afraid of showing weakness or exposing yourself to your partner, you might not be aware that your fear is preventing you from being totally engaged in the relationship. You might be freezing out the opportunity to love because you are afraid to let your authentic self shine and to share your innermost thoughts, feelings, and wishes.
What drives your fear of being vulnerable with your partner?
• Are you afraid of exposing parts of your personality that your partner may not like?
• Do you feel a false sense of security by being able to control your emotions?
• Are feelings of shame stopping you from sharing your true feelings or bringing up difficult topics?
• Do you fear that your partner will leave or betray you?
In their recent book How To Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It, Patricia Love and Steven Stosny discuss gender differences in the ways couples try to avoid feelings of fear and shame. They posit that women are afraid of harm, isolation, and deprivation if they don't express compassion and nurturing toward their partner. This fear may prevent women from being their authentic selves. For men, they may feel like a failure as a lover, protector, and as a parent if they are too loving, compassionate, and nurturing. Shame may be so painful to men that they will go to great lengths to avoid it, according to Love and Stosny.
Gender differences can prevent couples from being vulnerable and from achieving emotional attunement. Love and Stosny explain that if you manage the differences with criticism, defensiveness, withdrawal and blame, a relationship will fail. The good news is that we can become more loving and compassionate if we accept and understand our disparate ways of dealing with fear and shame. They write: "It is not our innate differences in fear and shame that drive us apart; it is how we manage these differences."
So what can you do if you are paralyzed by fear or shame or unable to risk being vulnerable with your partner? First, practice self-disclosing thoughts, feelings, and desires without self-blame. Trying to conceal your emotions doesn't work for very long. Instead, try risking being vulnerable and understanding your partners triggers rather than holding them against them. The way to escape a pattern of emotional disconnection is to nurture self-compassion and compassion for your partner.
Three Steps to Allowing Yourself to Be Vulnerable With Your Partner:
While all relationships present risks, they are risks worth taking. Healthy partnerships are within reach if you let go of fear and believe you are worthy of love and all of the gifts it has to offer.
• Visualize yourself in an honest and open relationship and work towards allowing yourself to be more vulnerable and open with your partner.
• Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about accepting nurturing from your partner and show compassion toward them.
• Don't let your fear of rejection or past hurt stop you from achieving the love and intimacy you deserve. Practice being vulnerable in small steps so you can build confidence in being more vulnerable with your partner.
Intimacy can be an important source of comfort and provide predictability in an uncertain world. It is possible to be vulnerable and close to others without losing parts of yourself. By doing this, you'll be able to restore your faith in love, trust, and intimacy.