Being vulnerable is easier said than done, so let’s begin with the definition of what we mean when we are talking about vulnerability. For most of us, vulnerability means allowing others to know things about us that demonstrate our imperfections. To be vulnerable involves opening ourselves, revealing ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be seen by another.
The essence of vulnerability is that what we are allowing others to see about ourselves are the very things we feel are necessary to hide.
Vulnerability therefore is relational and inextricably bound up with trust. In a healthy relational vulnerability, we reveal ourselves to those who can be trusted with the revelation. And it is in being vulnerable that we invite them into a more intimate relationship with our authentic selves.
Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable
Allowing ourselves to be fully known by another is the essence of relational vulnerability, and relational vulnerability creates the connection that deepens our love, happiness and shared flourishing. What then are the necessary conditions that can help us overcome our resistance to a healthy relational vulnerability? Healthy relational vulnerability requires trust and safety. Trust and safety are both the necessary precursors of healthy relational vulnerability and the result of healthy relational vulnerability.
This entire enterprise of vulnerability can be understood as an intentional subverting of the evolutionary mandate to protect and hide one’s weaknesses. It is obvious that hiding weakness and protecting one’s vulnerability would be important strategies for survival. Hiding one’s own sense of weakness might even become a culturally-mandated norm, as we see in models of traditional masculinity which prohibit, in both overt and covert ways, expressions of vulnerability.
Yet the very same evolutionary impulses which caution against vulnerability also shape us in the direction of connection as our primary source of safety. And this is the paradox: vulnerability is vital to authentic connection and safety, and at the same time is often resisted as a potential threat to our safety. Put in another way, we both want to be vulnerable so that we can connect, and yet are afraid to be vulnerable because it doesn’t feel safe. How do we manage this paradox?
The power of vulnerability in your relationship
This comes up often in my work as a therapist working with couples experiencing relationship distress. Invariably, some aspect of the paradox of relational vulnerability is always present, often in the form of a mutual longing for a deeper connection which is blocked by their inability or unwillingness to deepen their vulnerability to one another. In other words, they resist the very change they most deeply want. Often, this resistance is based on the evidence of past relationship experiences, when being vulnerable was not safe.
These couples know intuitively that deepening their connection will deepen their happiness, their sense of purpose, and their capacity to flourish as individuals and as a couple. And yet they struggle with the fear that deepening their vulnerability might be unsafe. When we explore this resistance together, we often discover that beneath the fear of relational vulnerability is a sense of shame, of somehow not being enough; the often unconscious and deeply-conditioned perception that, if their partner were truly to know them in all their imperfection, they would be abandoned. This seems often to form the primary resistance to vulnerability.
So, if we want to encourage healthy relational vulnerability, we must help couples to deepen their sense of trust and safety with each other. And here we come to another paradox: it is through our willingness to reveal ourselves to our partners that we deepen our sense of shared trust and safety. Relational vulnerability both creates and is created by a deeper sense of trust and safety.
As a couples therapist, my work with distressed couples involves the delicate and attuned balancing of each partner’s needs for safety and each partner’s need for connection. Sensitivity and attunement to the vulnerability tolerance of each partner allows us to discover together how best to encourage both partners to safely disclose themselves to each other. Through a cycle of positive feedback and reinforcement, it also develops a deepening sense of trust and safety.
About the Author
Brad Byrum is an Associate Marriage & Family Therapist at Well Clinic in San Francisco. In his words,
“I am a relationship therapist. So much of our suffering arises when our relationships aren’t working. I help clients explore what isn’t working in their relationships and why. We work together to understand what they want and need, to identify the changes they want to make, and to create the solutions that work for them.”