Emotional Vulnerability: A Stepping Stone to Deeper Intimacy
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ~Rumi
We all have barriers—psychological defenses that shield us from the emotional pain and discomfort that is experienced as too overwhelming. In these instances, our barriers work to keep certain memories and feelings at bay (a type of internal emotional housekeeping), making life just a bit more livable.
Sometimes our barriers act as an external shield, keeping us at what feels like a safe distance from others. The message here is, “If I allow you in, if we get too close, something bad will happen.” Said differently, these barriers continuously regulate emotional intimacy, creating a distance that feels comfortable (and safe) to you. Intimacy regulation can be a conscious decision, but often we are unaware of the barriers we’ve erected throughout our lives (they function on a type of auto-pilot). We can even be unaware that we’re creating distance between us and our spouse or partner.
Emotional Vulnerability: Love’s Platform
Our barriers to love are in many ways barriers against vulnerability (emotional distance = emotional safety)—to love fully is to open yourself and allow another a front row seat (and back stage pass) to your inner sanctum.
To be seen by another (unencumbered by expectation, pretense, bravado and the comfort/security of the roles we inhabit throughout our lives) is certainly a risky undertaking. When emotionally vulnerable in this way, we yearn for self-affirming contact—our deepest desires to be acknowledged and accepted (in spite of our fear-based perceptions of inadequacy) are fully on display when we’re standing on the center stage of vulnerability.
Vulnerability is (or should be) a two-way process. Non-reciprocated vulnerability can leave us emotionally exposed, stranded without the security of mutual contact and connection. Whenever our hearts are truly open to another’s vulnerability, a shared vulnerability is created, a mutuality that allows for a deeper level of relatedness and intimacy. This “dance of intimacy” (to borrow Harriet Lerner’s phrase) is always in motion and co-created by couples—both you and your partner are responsible for this relational dance.
Shared vulnerability is the greatest (and often most unrecognized) gift couples can give one another.
Vulnerability Is Fragile and in Need of Ongoing Care
Vulnerability is delicate and finicky, requiring certain relational conditions in order to remain a presence in your marriage or relationship. When pro-vulnerability conditions are violated (by one or both partners), vulnerability is likely to recoil and, depending on the intensity of the violation, may refuse to re-emerge for quite some time. For this reason, it’s important for couples to learn about and be mindful of each other’s bids for greater vulnerability.
Rule of thumb: Don’t assume your partner’s vulnerability will look like your vulnerability—I see this type of pattern in my work with couples:
Partner A makes a bid toward greater intimacy by taking the risk to be more emotionally vulnerable (for instance, sharing something important to him/her or apologizing for something);
Partner B is either unaware of the bid or too angry-defensive to acknowledge the bid;
Partner A is quickly wounded, shamed and retracts emotionally. The open-receptive way of relating (a way of relating that is an essential part of the vulnerability landscape) gives way to a closed-off, hurt-angry-defensive way of relating.
Partner B counters with his/her own version of defensiveness. A defensive-to-defensive way of relating starts to pick up steam and overwhelms the couple.
At this point, neither partner is willing to risk moving back into an open-receptive way of relating—to do so would involve exposing oneself to further hurt and humiliation.
In order to avoid these painful cycles of relating, I often suggest to couples that they preface their bids for deeper vulnerability and intimacy by saying something like, “I just want to make sure I have your attention, because this is really hard for me…” This lets the other partner know that you are stepping out of your typical/casual way of relating into a more fragile/vulnerable way of relating.
Relationship Help: Why Risk Vulnerability in the First Place?
As alluded to above, in order to relate from our deepest, most authentic self (stripped of pretense and showmanship), we must become emotionally open and, therefore, vulnerable to another. From the playing field of vulnerability, relationship magic is possible, but for this possibility to be realized, we must be met with loving acceptance.
Emotional fulfillment, wholeness and healing are possible when this occurs.
Are you ready to move toward greater emotional vulnerability with your spouse/partner? If so, set the ground work by having discussions about what you each need for this to occur. What would allow you to feel more emotionally secure in order to move toward greater emotional openness?
Remember, emotional security, vulnerability and intimacy arise from a foundation of effective communication in your marriage/relationship.
Until next time!
Dr. Rich Nicastro