“I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure,” writes renowned research professor Brené Brown in her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. With that definition in mind, let's think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can't ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment's notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow: that's vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It's incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it's scary, and yes, we're open to being hurt, but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved?”
There’s perhaps no greater authority on the subject than Brown, who’s dedicated much of her impressive career to examining and analyzing vulnerability. So I often reference her writing when I’m discussing issues around love, betrayal, fear, and trust with my clients. Maybe you think of “vulnerability” as a strength; maybe you consider it a weakness. A lot of your perception may be influenced by how you were raised and how the people in your life approached talking (or not talking) about emotions. No matter where you’re coming from, if you’re at the point in your life where you feel ready to embark on a lifelong partnership, then it’s time to get really comfortable with the concept of vulnerability.
Vulnerability can be inherently uncomfortable—so why on Earth would you want to chase after it? Especially in the context of a romantic relationship? The simple answer is that a strong partnership simply can’t survive without a mutual commitment to being raw and real with emotional truth. And while every relationship out there is totally unique, feeling safe and secure enough to embrace the uncertainty and talk about it openly is universally important.
Here’s what people often misinterpret about vulnerability: they assume expressing a need or desire (and the huge discomfort that can go along with that) indicates they’re doing something wrong, or they’re somehow inadequate or unlovable—and that their partner will invariably see them that way as well. That’s a perfectly natural fear.
But if you’re putting your faith in someone as a partner, then that relationship requires vulnerability. A meaningful connection can only thrive if both partners are truly willing to express those tough, gritty, anxiety-inducing emotions, and trust that the person receiving them will respond in a loving way. Suspecting that your partner will reject your truth or disregard your feelings sets you up for an unstable foundation, and that’s not what you want in a long-term union.
If all of this sounds way easier said than done, you’re definitely not alone. We’re not really taught to be vulnerable and some of us aren’t taught to expect love and safety. Again, much of our relationship to these concepts is wired in childhood. But the good news is, there are ways to work on your approach to vulnerability and tangible steps you can take to make it a priority in your relationship:
1. Be fully present. In today’s world, we’re all forced to be multitaskers. But that kind of juggling act just doesn’t work in the context of open, honest conversations. In order to be vulnerable, you need to feel a sense of safety from your partner — how do you express safety to your partner? Texting, scrolling through Instagram, or watching TV out of the corner of your eye are ideally no-gos when you’re engaging with your partner about a hard topic. Splitting your attention between your partner and a million other distractions will communicate to them that you’re not fully invested; make it a rule that the two of you put away the tech tools and give each other full attention when needed.
2. Let your partner speak uninterrupted. It’s a totally normal urge to want to chime in while someone else is speaking — especially if you completely disagree with or are hurt by what they’re saying. But allowing your partner space and time for expression is a vital part of fostering vulnerability. Cutting them off or interrupting mid-sentence will only hinder their trust, and vice versa. Work with your partner to create a system of allowing one person to communicate fully before the other person has a chance to jump in.
3. Ask the right questions. Once your partner is done speaking, is your instinct to refute their claims and argue about their assertions? That sort of immediate reaction will only breed hostility and defensiveness. For vulnerability to grow, it’s essential to make your partner feel heard, seen, and supported. Once they’re done speaking, consider asking them, “how can I support you?” or “how can I change that for you?” You won’t always have all the answers, you and you may not be able to fix the issue, but letting them know you’re willing to try is crucial.
4. Recognize patterns—and work with them. Again, each relationship is unique. When I work with couples, I often use the example of my childhood to illustrate a specific pattern. When I was a kid, my father would get very angry and fly off the handle if something upset him. Over time, I came to recognize that he’d invariably storm out of the room, then come back again shortly after, but only to explain why he was so angry. It wasn’t until he came back a third time that he was calm and willing to have a productive conversation (which we often did). That was his form of vulnerability, and while it may not have perfectly aligned with mine, I had to learn to work with it. If your partner is the type of person who needs a cool-off period, running after them to sort out a solution to your argument isn’t going to be helpful. Allow your partner to have the space to be an individual and talk to them about how to reciprocate that.
Genny Finkel, LCSW, specializes in supporting individuals and couples reach their goals and foster healthy relationships. Need some more guidance when it comes to vulnerability? At Octave, Genny runs a four-session course called #RelationshipGoals, designed to provide couples with new ways to communicate about their relationship, discuss future goals, manage expectations and build a future together.
Learn more at https://www.findoctave.com/classes.