Vulnerability-- many of us cringe when we hear this word, or maybe that’s just me. To me, vulnerability means getting spiritually naked in front of a person and baring your story raw and unedited. I texted a few of my friends to get their opinion on what vulnerability means to them, and they had a few ideas as well. One of my friends eloquently categorized it as “The greatest love or the greatest heartbreak,” and my other friends agreed. They acknowledged how great it is to live a life of vulnerability, but recognized the risk of ending up heartbroken or disappointed.
Dr. Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston and author of Daring Greatly, defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” She goes on to describe it as “The willingness to say ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out, and the willingness to do something when there are no guarantees.”
In a couple, partners sometimes experience two strong competing emotions that seem to be at the crux of the dilemma of vulnerability: love and pain. While discomfort may be part of the equation, from vulnerability also stems love, joy, and belonging, all of which are fundamental parts of the human experience. Research suggests that satisfying, intimate relationships are what gives our lives happiness, meaning, and purpose. On the other hand, social isolation puts us at risk for psychological and physical issues such as depression and cardiovascular disease, and also increases our risk of mortality.
We are all worthy of emotional connection, but it starts with authenticity.
In order to connect with a partner, it is necessary to let go of who you think you should be or who you think your partner wants you to be in order to make room for who you are. In order for connection to happen, we have to allow our true selves to be seen and known, but first we must accept some discomfort.
The first step towards achieving this is realizing that you cannot control the unknown and the potential to be hurt, criticized, or rejected. Love is inherently uncertain and risky, and fear will only create distance and prevent you from being able to fully connect with your partner. Allowing your partner to see your true self is not only important at the beginning of a relationship, but is also necessary to maintain closeness for as long as a given relationship lasts. In fact, according to the Divorce Mediation Project, 80% of divorced men and women reported that their marriage dissolved due to feelings of growing apart and a decreased sense of closeness. Furthermore, partners who reported distance in their relationship were more likely to behave in ways that were considered hostile.
Relationships go through ebbs and flows wherein both partners experience changes in aspirations, values, interests, fears, and stressors. However, being vulnerable in sharing these feelings with your partner, is essential for a healthy relationship. Ask yourself: “If you don’t know someone, how can you truly love them?”
Vulnerability is beneficial in romantic relationships because it:
- Allows us to build intimacy and connection.
- Increases self-worth.
- Builds our confidence.
- Promotes belongingness and acceptance.
- Allows us to build our trust in others.
- Enables us to give and receive love.
Lastly, licensed therapist Terry Gaspard encourages us to ask ourselves several tough questions regarding what may be fueling our invulnerability:
- Are you afraid of exposing parts of your personality that your partner may not like?
- Does keeping distance make you feel safe and in control of your emotions?
- Do feelings of rejection or judgement stop you from sharing your true feelings or bringing up difficult topics?
- Do you feel that your partner will leave or betray you?
- Do you view relationships as uninteresting or unimportant?
This does not only apply to romantic relationships, but relationships in general. Whether you are interacting with a partner, family member, friend, or others, give them a glimpse into what makes you you. Allow people to connect with your emotions and experiences. Maybe they’ll share their own story about a time where they also struggled, and felt inadequate or lonely.
Lastly, give yourself the opportunity to experience love and to be seen. And always remember, “you gotta risk it to get the biscuit” - you have to take risks to get rewards.
Bartholomew, K. (1990). Avoidance of intimacy: An attachment perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7(2), 147-178.
Brown, B. (2013, February). Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.
Gaspard, Terry. "THIS is the Secret to a Long-Lasting Relationship (Hint: Not Love!)?" YourTango, 19 May 2016, http://www.yourtango.com/experts/terry-gaspard/5-top-reasons-why-being-vulnerable-leads-intimacy
Gottman, J., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(Suppl), S54–S66. http://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501