(This blog is about romantic love, the love relationships we choose to have with another person, and not the love between family of origin.)
I did a google search to see how many songs exist with the word LOVE in the title. The number is 1187. I was actually surprised it was that low. But nonetheless, that is still a lot of songs that are in our culture, listened to by millions, that somehow tell us what love is, should look like, feel like or how bad it hurts. There are so many ways that love is taught to us. We get it through Facebook, Youtube, movies, TV shows, greeting cards, commercials, diamond stores, wedding stores, wedding shows and by comparing our relationship to someone else's. That feels like a lot of pressure coupled with a lot of expectation on what love "should" be. After all, what's wrong with you or your partner if you don't get it right?
There is a prevalent belief that relationships are just between two people, who ideally fall in love with "THE" one. However, the relationship is actually between all the people and experiences that have influenced each person in their life. It is about how we attached to our parents, and friends, and feel about ourselves and how we perceive others feel about us. Relationships are about unmet needs and fulfillment, filling a void and expanding opportunity. Every person comes into a relationship with their own fears, disappointments, family issues, desires, attachment styles and some level of self worth or lack of. All of these contribute to how the interactions play out. It affects expectations of the other person; what hasn't fulfilled you in the past doesn't want to go unnoticed. There is a longing to feel "complete" and better, a longing to be understood and a longing to be loved. To say the least, love is complicated!
I believe that successful love cannot happen without vulnerability. In my experience and training, so many things come back to this. The precise definition of the word is the quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally. Vulnerability is opening yourself up to another person, not holding back. This can be incredibly scary, hence the definition states there is the fear of being attacked or harmed. Yet, how can one authentically love someone else if they are afraid to open up to them? Holding back does't allow you to know them more intimately. And vice versa, how can your partner really love you, the sweetest and most fragile parts of you, if you are holding back because of fear?
Vulnerability happens when there is safety, trust and a belief that you will not be harmed when sharing your true and raw parts. Our mind and body is wired to keep us alive and away from danger! Our amygdala is constantly scanning the environment for threats*. In intimate relationships we notice the subtle things that tell us it safe or not to be vulnerable. For example: that change in his/her tone of voice, the rolling of the eyes because of frustration, the sighing when someone doesn't do it right, the gentle hug when someone needs it, catching that quick eye flirt from across the room*. There are many micro movements that our brain process to let us know if the space is safe. If it is safe, we proceed. If there is danger, we retreat. And then there is everything in the middle when we are testing the water to see how our partner will react. There are the nuanced comments, suggestions or simple sentences to figure out where they are. This is when it gets messy, and vulnerability is put in the backseat. What's driving the relationship now?
This is a huge topic to undertake, so this information is meant to be quick and concise, food for thought, that opens your mind and heart up to new possibilities.
1. Creating a safe space for you and your partner means making time to be together and connect. If this is the most important relationship to you, then it needs your attention. Connect without distractions (no iPhone, tv or work). This is time to check in with one another, share anything that is going on with you, tell a new joke, have a glass of wine, hold each other's hand and/or find something you like doing together. You are creating a bond and communicating to the other person that they are a priority to you. Do you want to be a priority in your love partner's life? How does it make you feel about yourself, and them?
2. If you get upset about what the other person is saying, don't immediately attack. I know the cortisol and endorphins are flowing, and there is a really good reason why they got it all wrong. You know you are right, and they need to know too. STOP: what message is this sending? How would you feel if your partner didn't hear you out, but instead immediately went off on you? I can't think of why anyone would want to be in a conversation like this.
Big question: Why are you reacting this way and how does it make you feel?
There is a significant chance that your reaction has a lot more to do with you, than with them. Take 3 deep breaths, take a 20 second pause, then be curious about what feelings arise in you. When it feels safe, share the feelings with the other person. For example, "When you work late I get angry because I want to spend time with you. I feel frustrated because I don't want to sit around waiting." This is a lot more vulnerable and open than saying, "Why do you constantly come home late and leave me waiting? You need to get your priorities straight because I'm sick of it. You don't care about me."
Blame vs. Feelings....it's a tough battle.
3. Let your partner know that you want to be more open. This in itself is vulnerable. It may not come automatically, after all the songs and movies say everything should happen naturally, but in your case, it's not. There is a chemical reaction in the brain that occurs when we are not being threatened. Our heart rate slows and blood pressure slows down*. If you approach your partner in a loving way and express the desire to be closer because you love them, and you want to share something personal or intimate, then the defenses will most likely go down. Ask them to listen to you. If you want feedback, ask for it. If not, then from a loving place share what is going on for you. Intention can be the first step in this process.
4. Vulnerability has the potential to make us closer. Full self expression allows all the different parts of ourselves to be alive and welcomed. The imperfections can't be buried and hidden with only the "lovable" parts in the relationship allowed. Personally, I want my partner to see all of me because I don't want to live in fear that if he/she ever discovered that "bad" part, then I am not lovable, and they leave. It can take courage to share these parts. It's also important that you don't just dump your feelings on your partner either, then claim to be sharing all of yourself. It's a delicate dance to get close, be respectful, show compassion, be accepting and nonjudgemental, and still love. I know I live with my own imperfections and I am always trying to learn from them, grow and integrate them so I can become a better version of myself. In my relationship, I want to hold my partner in the same light. I want to show compassion for their struggles and imperfections.
5. Do I avoid my partner, hold on so tight it's not healthy, am ambivalent about it or go back and forth on all of the above? Being vulnerable requires a secure attachment. It requires a connection where the partner feels like you won't drop them. If either person is avoidant, then it's hard to constantly pursue. Why do you want to share with someone that seems to be taking steps backwards instead of towards you. If you feel suffocated, judged or criticized then opening up may feel like you are walking into a war zone with a target on your back. Who wants to feel any worse? Ambivalence can feel neglectful and sad. How can I share my secrets, passions, desires, fears or hopes withs someone that I feel doesn't care one way or the other? Secure attachment is a process, but attainable.
This is a very brief piece on vulnerability, but I hope it's thought provoking. No matter what the song says, the romantic comedies impart or the romance novels suggest, it's rare that a deep, connected, safe and true love happens without vulnerability.
*from the book, Wired For Love, by Stan Tatkin