Vulnerability: Do We Know It, When We See It?

“Vulnerability”… a universal human experience, the companion of an open heart. And when we recognize it in another, it is the precursor to the giving and receiving of compassion and empathy. But what does vulnerability look like in another? And do we know it, when we see it?

The work of Brene Brown has certainly made it a popular, commonly used, word. She says this about it, “Vulnerability is basically uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure”. And way before Brene Brown’s work there was Sigmund Freud who said, ” We are never so vulnerable as when we love.”

As a couples therapist, I believe vulnerability is what nurtures and sustains intimacy. In my work with couples, I dwell in the land of vulnerability. I see clients doing everything they can to avoid it; I see clients exhausted in their mission to hide it; I see clients live from a closed heart in an effort not to feel it; I see clients take big steps in learning how to express it; and I see clients embrace it.

And, what I see, very often, are clients who are unaware of the vulnerability demonstrated by their partners. I see, over and over again, one partner feeling very exposed and raw, and the other partner completely unaware of the deep vulnerability before them. And as a result, missing an opportunity for developing deep intimacy with their partner.

Two things become apparent as I witness an unawareness to another’s vulnerability.  First, we all express our vulnerability differently. Secondly, in order for intimacy to be developed and nurtured, in addition to expressing our own vulnerability, we all need to know how our partner looks when feeling vulnerable.

We tend to think that others will express vulnerability, the way we do. But, the ways in which vulnerability can be expressed, are infinite. Some of the more common images we hold in our minds of how vulnerability looks, fall into the areas of quiet, soft, gentle types of expression. We tend to think of vulnerability as looking “tentative” or “shy” or “demure” in some way.  However, vulnerability can also look angry, judgmental, critical, apathetic, disengaged, humorous. When we feel vulnerable, we can be masters of covering it up with other expressions of emotions that feel more comfortable to us. When some people feel vulnerable, it is more comfortable to become even louder, more insistent, or more boastful. For some, it is more comfortable to be angry or disengaged than it is to be emotionally exposed and feel the uncertainty and risk that comes with that. And for others, humor distracts from the vulnerability lurking just beyond the surface.

Intimacy and vulnerability go hand in hand. When partners recognize, receive and explore each other’s vulnerability, it is a chance for them to let go, to tear down the walls, take off the masks and honestly admit to their fears. When we are not aware of the unique way vulnerability looks on our partner’s face, or gets expressed in their body language and in their words and actions, or sounds in their tone of voice, we miss the chance to respond with compassion, understanding, and empathy.

So, it seems some important questions are: When your partner is feeling vulnerable, do you know it when you see it? How does your partner act when they are feeling vulnerable? And how can you, as their partner, slow down, manage your own reactions and emotions effectively enough to be curious as to what is lying underneath what you see on the surface?

Other questions: How do you express your own vulnerability? How do you communicate to your partner when you are feeling uncertain and emotionally exposed? How would you like your partner to respond to you in these crucial moments?

So take a deep breath, slow down and ask, what does it truly mean to be vulnerable and will I know it within myself and within my partner, when I see it?

 

 

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Jane Ryan

Jane Ryan, M.A., LMFT, is a Licensed Couple and Family Therapist with twenty years of clinical experience and a speciality in helping couples navigate the challenges of intimate relationships. Jane also has a sub-specialty of helping couples navigate the relational and sexual effects of breast cancer.

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