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The importance of being truly vulnerable in relationships

We all hate being vulnerable. After all, by definition it opens us up to being hurt. In this post I want to stress though, that being vulnerable, provided you are in a relationship you are committed to, is an important ingredient for success.

Some people take the fear of being hurt further, to a fear of appearing vulnerable. In other words, they equate being vulnerable with being weak. In a relationship, they worry that if their partner sees them as vulnerable (and thus weak), they may be seen as less desirable. On top of this, if you’re already having marriage conflict, then they think that will make their partner more likely to throw up their hands and say they don’t want to be married to them anymore. This is not a fun place to be.

I’m here to tell you though, that being honest and vulnerable to your partner is still important, even if you initially fear it.

The reason it’s important is that you won’t ever get what you really want out of a relationship, unless you are honest and intentionally vulnerable.

Think of situations where you are trying to maximize what you’re getting-- like a negotiation. Whether it’s for buying a car, or asking for a salary at a new job- you aren’t going to get as much as you want if you start out thinking you can’t say the dollar amount you really want. You will not be as successful if all you say is what you think the other person wants to hear. You are totally in your right to say what you want, but to say it in a way where you acknowledge the other person might feel differently. It is totally possible to say what you want and what would make you the happiest without being a jerk about it.

You might be saying: “A marriage is not like a car negotiation though, I actually care about what the other person wants too!”, and of course you're right. We likely want to treat our life partners better than a car salesman. But that acknowledgment doesn’t change the fact that you won’t get what you want if you are scared to say it.

Believe it or not, some people think (sometimes without even realizing it) that they don't ever deserve what they actually imagine in their head that they would like. Well, if what you want is to be the ruler of your own country, that may be hard to come by. But if what you would like is about shaping your life within reachable goals and constraints, that is something you should feel like you can try to work towards with your partner. And it is the same in reverse: you should see how to help them get what they want as well, so both of you get to maximize what both of you actually get.

This is especially important because you are the one who has the most control of what your relationship and your life look like! If you want your life to be a certain way, or to improve the relationship in a certain way, no one is going to take the reigns for you.

What necessarily comes with this, is that you also have to accept the possibility that your partner will not agree with you on everything that you want. And admittedly, that can be a little frightening. That is the vulnerability that we have to live with.

It gets scarier though! Inevitably, in all intimate relationships, we get our feelings hurt by our partner. And it’s hard for some people to express to the person they love the most that they have been hurt by them. Sometimes instead, it eventually comes out by becoming angry at your partner, or trying to get back at them for something they may not even be aware that they did wrong.

What I am saying is that it is important to be honest and vulnerable with your partner that you have been hurt by them. It sucks to have to say it to your partner. But the alternative is worse.

If we don’t want to live with the vulnerability, this is a picture of what happens. For example, some people worry that they can’t have open disagreements with their spouse, because disagreeing and arguing show there is something wrong with their marriage. Therefore it is better to just suppress those ideas that you think have any chance of being rejected.

When partners feel they need to resolve things themselves instead of turning towards their partner for support, this tends to lead to solutions that work for one person but not the other, or solutions that don’t even really involve the other person. This in turn leads down the path of disengagement, loneliness, emotional distance, and the decay of the relationship. In other words, by not being honest and vulnerable, the relationship will suffer more in the long term. That’s certainly a dark view of things. But it happens time and time again in relationships.

So being honest and vulnerable is important. But let’s say you don’t feel totally safe with your partner saying some of the things that need to be said. This is where therapists can help. Therapists can help facilitate the interactions and get the ball rolling. If your partner is initially unresponsive, we can work with them to keep them engaged and present with a cooperative attitude. The therapist can also help you frame what you think in a way that makes you feel comfortable that you’re saying what needs to be said, and getting your needs out in the open, without coming across as a selfish jerk. Sometimes this involves telling your partner that you’re scared of what’s going to happen in your relationship. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you if you’re scared! The therapist can help support you while you find your voice.

So what comes next? It’s okay to be vulnerable and tell your partner that you are hurt, or that you want something different. The important part that follows is that you should have a cooperative attitude after that. For example, you don’t express that you are hurt and then demand that your partner go over the top to prove their love to you until you feel they’ve ‘paid for the mistake’. If you are desiring change, you don’t then have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Not surprisingly, successful marriages are ones where both partners can see places they can work with their spouse and give space for them so they feel they are getting what they need from the relationship as well as you.

If your partner is being vulnerable with you, you need to realize how hard that might be for them. Ideally a partner should be a good listener, not interrupting. Only when it’s your turn to speak, gently ask what your partner might be scared of and how they can make it better. It takes courage to be intentionally vulnerable. The best way to react to this is with empathy, warmth, and a cooperative attitude. While it is hard, it is best to minimize your defensiveness to really hear what your partner is trying to get across. This warmth in a partner’s time of vulnerability will pay dividends in the future.

As hard as it is, It is ultimately worth it to be honest and vulnerable. And everyone deserves a partner that will recognize that vulnerability and turn towards it rather than brush it aside. This may be a big change in the dynamic of your relationship. But by being able to openly (and respectfully) express what you are feeling, you will feel safer, more secure, and ultimately be more satisfied because you are getting more of what you need.

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