The Importance of Vulnerability in Relationships
Do you struggle with being vulnerable in relationships? It’s easy to think of “vulnerability” in negative terms, because it conjures up images of opening yourself up to being hurt. However, what I know from many years as couples counselor and relationship coach, is that when it comes to your relationships, vulnerability is (paradoxically) the key to having closer, more intimate, and ultimately more satisfying connections with other people.
Conversely, if you keep your guard up all the time, you’ll be missing out on having truly meaningful and authentic connections with the most important people in your life.
Not too long ago I shared some advice on Bustle.com about “What to do if you’re having a hard time being vulnerable in a relationship.”
I thought this was such a great topic, and one that so many people struggle with, that I should share more advice on how to use the power of vulnerability to transform your relationships here too.
What Does it Mean to be Vulnerable in Relationships?
As Brené Brown says in her amazing TED Talk about the power of vulnerability: Being vulnerable means sharing the most important, authentic parts of yourself with someone who matters to you — and risking rejection.
Being vulnerable means “being seen” for who and what you are, and exposing yourself to potentially being hurt or rejected. While this may sound intimidating, the alternative is worse: Being closed off can lead to loneliness, and feeling unseen and unknown by others.
Do You Keep Your Guard Up in Relationships?
If so, it’s understandable. Emotionally, it is much safer to manage your image, keep the mask on, and not let yourself care. Especially now that we live in the hyper-curated era of social media, there’s a strong pull to only show what is perfect or enviable about your life.
But knowing how to be emotionally vulnerable in a relationship means showing someone else that maybe you’re not perfect, and maybe you do have some worries, insecurities, or pain.
The scariest thing about vulnerability for many people is that when you really, really care about someone else, and want them to love you as much as you love them, it can be terrifying to allow yourself to be truly seen by them.
Because… what if they don’t want you anymore, after they know the whole truth? Or what if you allow yourself to lean on someone else emotionally, and they fail you, or reject you?
Being vulnerable means exposing yourself to the potential for hurt or rejection. But, at the same time, risking vulnerability helps you become emotionally available for the relationship you long for: one built on authenticity, emotional intimacy, and deep connection.
Why It’s Important To Be Vulnerable in Relationships and Open Up To Your Partner
Another thing to consider — in addition to YOUR feelings of closeness and connection — are the feelings of your partner.
As a marriage counselor and couples therapist, one of the most common issues I see with couples having problems is that one person in the relationship feels that their partner is closed off and uncommunicative. They want to understand how their partner feels, what they think about, what they care about, and their hopes and dreams… and yet feel cut off from that part of their partner’s life.
I can tell you that many — if not most — relationship fights are really not about the things that people are fighting about. Things like how much money was spent, or whether or not someone wants to have sex, someone’s “the tone,” or whether or not someone followed through with whatever they said they were going to do, aren’t the real source of anger and frustration.
When couples feel emotionally intimate and close to each other, they are much more resilient, more tolerant of each other, and generally kinder and more respectful.
When true, deep connection is present, there’s just nothing to fight about. (Instead, you can have constructive conversations about how to get on the same page and solve problems together).
That’s the power of vulnerability in relationships.
On the other hand, when people don’t know how to be emotionally vulnerable in relationships and trust themselves and their partners enough to allow themselves to truly be seen, relationships remain superficial. Yes, you may have a companion and a social partner, but the core of your relationship — emotional intimacy, empathy, and responsiveness — feels barren.
Over time, these types of relationships tend to stagnate. Or, if people have feelings that they are not communicating about vulnerably (and consequently, the needs they have are not getting acknowledged or met) they can also start to believe that the relationship itself is unsustainable.
It’s such a bind: in order to have a better relationship, you need to talk about how you feel and take emotional risks with your partner. That feels scary, and many people avoid it.
On the other hand, not saying things out loud feels safer in the moment, but in the absence of communication, relationships grow strained and fights start brewing under the surface… which makes it feel less safe to talk about your truth in a vulnerable way.
The Consequences of Keeping Emotional Walls Up
Over time, in the absence of vulnerability and emotional intimacy, relationships become increasingly dissatisfying for both partners. This makes it less likely that either person will feel safe and secure enough to have heartfelt conversations that will bring them back together again.
Instead, people make cutting side comments or show each other their distress through behaviors. (Behaviors and comments that are often angering or unattractive to their partner, pushing them further away as opposed to drawing them closer).
When a relationship reaches this stage, it can be helpful to consult a professional. One of the primary benefits of marriage counseling or couples therapy is that the presence of a compassionate, knowledgeable couples counselor creates a “safe space” where people can be more vulnerable and open.
With a third party holding open the door to communication — and shielding both parties from the emotional reactivity that will turn a heartfelt conversation into a vicious fight in a matter of seconds — couples can start seeing each other, hearing each other, and understanding each other at a deeper level.
By moving back into a space of vulnerability and authenticity (or for some couples, creating that kind of emotional intimacy for the first time) partners can establish stronger connections, foster empathy towards each other, and discover a feeling of emotional safety that will help their love endure as they solve problems together.
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6 Tips On How To Be More Vulnerable In Your Relationships
- Develop Self-Awareness
The most important first step in creating a more emotionally intimate relationship based on authenticity and vulnerability is knowing yourself.
You cannot communicate your truth if you yourself don’t know what it is. It might sound odd, but many people are awash in nebulous feelings or have core beliefs or automatic thoughts that never fully enter their consciousness as coherent thoughts. They just react to their feelings without questioning them.
Understanding how you really feel is a prerequisite for being able to communicate it to others.
- Clarify Your Feelings
Until you have language for your inner experience, it remains unknown — even to you.
If your relationship currently feels fragile to you, it may not feel safe enough to talk through your feelings with your partner until you arrive at the truth.
In these cases, you might consider journaling, letter writing, or talking with a counselor or coach until you’re clear about how you’re feeling. Then, you can express it to your partner in a way that they can hear.
- Find the Right Time
Vulnerability is all about timing. Finding the right place and time to share what really matters to you can be as important as how you share it.
Too many people experiment with vulnerability at a time when their partner is not expecting it, in the same mindset, or even in a place where they are present enough to be responsive.
For example, someone might see their spouse in the kitchen, unloading the dishwasher, and take that opportunity to start talking about something really important to them (often to their back).
Their preoccupied spouse may not understand the importance of what their partner is saying, or respond in a thoughtful way. Consequently, many people feel rejected and hurt, and come away thinking that their “vulnerability experiment” was a bad idea.
- Be Explicit With Your Partner
If you want to talk about something important, make it known.
Invite your partner to sit down with you, without distractions, and then let them know that you want to talk about some important things.
Let them know that you feel apprehensive about being vulnerable before you start sharing. Talk out loud about your emotional process, and how important it is to you to feel emotionally safe with them.
Say things like, “Just the fact that you’re sitting here looking into my eyes while I’m talking to you means the world to me,” so they know how to be present with you in a way that feels good to you.
- Accept the Fear Without Letting It Overwhelm You
If you start feeling apprehensive when you’re talking about your feelings, you can say that out loud too.
Remind yourself (and perhaps, even your partner) that as hard as it can be to “go there,” that vulnerability is the path to a deeper, more intimate connection.
Be brave and honest. You might even consider saying out loud that what you’re trying to do feels scary or hard. Even disclosing your misgivings to your partner can make you feel less alone, and help them help you be more vulnerable.
- Help Your Partner Listen to You
Most importantly, ask for what you need. (As much as we’d like to wish that our partners could or should “just know” how to respond to us perfectly… they won’t unless you tell them.)
When you share your feelings, let your partner know that you don’t need to be “fixed” or have your problems solved. The goal is not resolution, but connection.
Communicating openly with your partner about what helps you feel safer to share will pave the way for easier, more heartfelt communication and the emotional security that you both desire.
How To Get Your Partner To Open Up To You
- Help Them Feel Emotionally Safe With You
Once you’ve been emotionally vulnerable with your partner, it can be extremely frustrating — if not downright hurtful — if they don’t reciprocate you vulnerability. But, unfortunately, this happens all the time. You might find that no matter how much you share, trying to get your partner to open up feels like talking to a brick wall.
But before you place the blame too squarely on your partner’s shoulders, consider that to cultivating vulnerability is all about creating a non-judgemental, emotionally safe environment, and that it’s easy to unintentionally come across as an emotionally unsafe person — especially if you’ve been feeling frustrated or hurt by your relationship lately.
Think back to times when your partner has shared their feelings with you, did you meet their disclosures with care and empathy? Or is there a chance that you judged them, or imposed your values on them? (This can be true if their truth is something that you disagreed with, or wished were different.)
If you really want your partner to open up to you, show them that they are safe with you by seeing and accepting them for who they are.
- Acknowledge That Their Inner Experience May Differ From Yours
People differ in their personalities, in their emotional awareness, in their desire for emotional intimacy, and their desire to understand psychological processes.
Not to bring gender into this, but many times women feel frustrated with partners who they perceive as “not opening up.” When, truthfully, men don’t relate the same way women do.
Women establish an emotional connection in relationships by deepening, reciprocal layers of personal disclosure. Men don’t always do that. [More info: “Understanding Men,” on the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast]
Furthermore, many men are socialized out of having feelings and thinking too deeply about their emotional process. They may therefore, genuinely, not have as much to say about their inner experience.
They may be happy and content in “doing” life rather than talking about it. In order to have an emotionally safe relationship, that needs to be okay too.
Emotional intimacy and vulnerability can be expressed in many ways besides face-to-face conversations. Sexuality, sharing finances, making sacrifices for each other, developing shared priorities, and committing to your partnership are also all expressions of vulnerability — many times, even more powerful than vulnerabilities disclosed in words.
When you practice tolerance and acceptance for the way your partner shows vulnerability and intimacy, it increases the emotional safety in your relationship.
Emotional safety creates an environment that cultivates vulnerability and intimacy, helping you continually grow closer and more connected.
I hope these ideas help you and your partner create the kind of strong, satisfying relationship that you both crave.
All the best,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.