Let’s think for a moment about that word, vulnerable. In sports or battle—or business or law or politics—being vulnerable means leaving yourself open to attack. In any relationship where the question is who will prevail, we arm or shield ourselves. When I remove my armor I’m exposed, in body or mind.
Gender and Vulnerability
It’s generally more difficult for men to let down their guard. Early on, they are given signals, by society and sometimes by their families, that it’s unmanly to talk about vulnerable feelings or even to have them.
We tend to think of women as more comfortable expressing softer feelings. Research has shown that women are biologically wired to shed tears more readily than men. Men often have less facility in identifying and naming vulnerable feelings, or are used to keeping those feelings to themselves. These patterns also play out in many same sex couples. Sometimes the traditional gender roles don’t apply or are reversed.
For many of us, our couple relationship is one of the few relationships, perhaps the only one, where we might want to open ourselves to being vulnerable. We hope to feel the relief that can come from confiding our deepest concerns to our partner. Even then, it’s risky. The embarrassment of sharing our vulnerability may be stronger than the relief it brings. Confiding our vulnerable feelings depends on trust that what we express will be safe with our partners, that they will receive it with compassion and not use it against us later in a fight. We hope that our partners will reciprocate by confiding vulnerable feelings in return.
Conflict may occur when one partner voices frustration or disappointment with a less emotionally expressive partner, who experiences those feelings as a reproach rather than as a wish or an invitation. It helps if both partners make an effort to understand the other’s way of being in relation to vulnerability.
EXERCISE: THINKING ABOUT VULNERABILITY
1. Vulnerable feelings include fear, hurt, disappointment, shame, embarrassment, self-consciousness, self-doubt, helplessness, despair; feeling weak, lonely, needy; or ________.
2. Talking about vulnerable feelings may be different for each of us:
- I hesitate to talk about those feelings.
- I’m used to keeping them to myself.
- I worry how you will respond.
- I don’t want to burden you with those feelings.
- I’m not sure I have vulnerable feelings.
- I wish I could talk about those feelings with you.
- I (would) find it a relief to talk about those feelings with you.
- I’m comfortable talking about such feelings.
When I have vulnerable feelings such as (see above, no. 1) _________
Sometimes/usually, I (see above, no.2) _______
Together, discuss what each of you has written. If one of you speaks more readily about vulnerable feelings. Is that an issue in your relationship?
About This Blog
With my husband, Dan Wile, founder of Collaborative Couple Therapy, I have given workshops for couples at our home in Oakland, California, as well as at Esalen (Big Sur), San Diego, Chicago, New York, and New Jersey. This blog is adapted from one of the sections I wrote in our handout.