Being Vulnerable in Marriage

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

a loving couple being vulnerable

In my last post, I talked about four different styles of communication: dominating, accommodating, avoiding, and collaborating. Collaborating means that you’re honest about your own thoughts, feelings, needs, and wants. You’re also willing to show empathy for your partner’s thoughts, feelings, needs, and wants. This is the healthiest of the communication styles and becomes particularly important as you get into deeper and more sensitive conversations.

This kind of communication requires vulnerability which is a willingness to be open, to expose the softer side of yourself. It is giving up pretense, self-protection, and defensiveness. I like Brene Brown’s definition. “Vulnerability is about having the courage to show up and be seen.”

Most people are familiar with Brene Brown. She’s done literally thousands of interviews on intimacy. She says, “There can be no intimacy—emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy—without vulnerability.” She went on to say, “One of the reasons there is such an intimacy deficit today is because we don’t know how to be vulnerable. It’s about being honest with how we feel, about our fears, about what we need, and asking for what we need. Vulnerability is glue that holds intimate relationships together.”

We Don’t Like to Be Vulnerable

And yet we resist being vulnerable. We live in a society that values being strong and self-sufficient and vulnerability can be seen as weak. We believe it will expose us to being hurt and humiliated and so we keep our distance.

But vulnerability is not weakness. In fact, it takes courage to be vulnerable, to be seen as we are in this moment rather than as we wish to be seen.

If I can go back to our four styles of communication, there are a number of reasons we slip into dominating, accommodating and avoiding. One is they are familiar. We’ve done them before and they have become habitual.

However, another and more important reason is that they keep us from being vulnerable. All three protect us from our deeper and more vulnerable feelings. Dominators do it through toughness and anger. Accommodators by retreating and withdrawing emotionally. Avoiders do it through pretending everything is okay.

But here’s the thing. You’re going to need to become more vulnerable if you and your spouse are going to resolve your conflicts and communicate in a healthier way.

An Example of Vulnerability

man alone on couchLet me offer an example. A husband is feeling lonely, missing his spouse who’s been putting in long hours on the job. He doesn’t want to be very direct about his feelings because it feels unsafe. Better to feel lonely than face the possibility of rejection.

And yet, if he were to be vulnerable and direct, he might find a good time to communicate with his wife and say something like, “I’m feeling lonely and distance in our relationship.  It seems to me that your job and other concerns are more important than our relationship. I want to let you know how I’m feeling so I don’t withdraw from you.”

It’s risky to be so open and direct because this husband doesn’t know how his spouse will respond. She may cut him off, put him down, or scoff at his statement. So rather than be vulnerable, it’s easier for him to go into his preferred style of dominating, accommodating, or avoiding.

Dominating

If he’s a dominator, he’s likely to come on by attacking her.  “You really don’t think about anybody around here but yourself!  You work late, come home late, and you don’t care about me or the family as long as you’re advancing in your career.”

Can you see how his attack covers up his more vulnerable feelings? It’s his way of protecting himself and also trying to guilt his wife into changing.

Accommodating

If the man’s an accommodator, he’s more likely to pout or give his wife the silent treatment when she comes home.  He may be distant and withdrawn, maybe even sulking. His wife might ask him if everything is okay. He’ll say fine, knowing inside that it’s not fine. He’s caught up in a dilemma of not knowing how to take care of his own needs while being supportive of his wife. He’s hoping that she’ll sense something is wrong and become more sensitive to his needs.

Over the long-run, accommodators also become passive aggressive. Because of unspoken needs and smoldering ill-will, he may withhold affection and goodwill, fail to keep his end of some agreement, or perhaps talk to the kids in a way that might be hurtful to her. He’ll act out his hurt but in more subtle, indirect ways than the dominator.

Avoiding

If the man is an avoider, he’ll handle his feelings by believing that he can take care of his own needs. He’ll deny or pretend that he really doesn’t need much from the relationship, that he can really be self-sufficient, on his own.  This may work to some extent but, unfortunately, at a cost. Over time, the couple will grow further apart until they’re really very isolated and alienated from each other. Their long-term feelings of emptiness could eventually set either one of them up to leave the relationship or even have an affair.

As I said before, all of these tactics—dominating, accommodating, and avoiding are workable in so many ways day-to-day when things are going smoothly. But as issues become more important and conversations more sensitive, they keep us safe but distant, unable to feel real closeness.

What we Get Out of These Strategies

We don’t use these strategies because we don’t care about our relationships. We use them because they protect us from being vulnerable or hurt. It’s easier to blame or attack, retreat, or pretend everything is okay rather than have a real conversation in which we could be hurt.

Unfortunately, the strategies not only seem to protect us from being hurt but they also become ways of manipulating our partners to get what we want. We harm our relationships by learning to play games rather than communicate deeply and authentically.

What Vulnerability Looks Like                                                                                                                                                                                                                couple talking

The alternative is to learn to be more vulnerable in our communication. To be more vulnerable means to expose our true feelings, ask for what we need or want, talk about our fears and failures, and say what we really think. When we’re vulnerable we are in the present moment. Our posture is open and eyes and face are soft. Our words are gentle. Our hearts are compassionate towards ourselves as well as our partners.

Self-Responsibility as a Key to Vulnerability

I want to connect this concept of vulnerability back to some of my posts on self-responsibility. It’s a lot easier to be vulnerable if we’re willing to be responsible for our experience because we aren’t giving our spouses so much emotional power. We recognize the importance of supporting ourselves. We have our own backs, so to speak. Even if, or when, we get a response from our partners that we don’t like, we still support ourselves. We are the primary source of our validation and this self-support makes all the difference to a healthy relationship.

What about You?

So, how vulnerable are you in your relationship today? Can you say what you think and ask for what you need in a soft way and without fear? And are you willing to learn to be even more vulnerable in the way you communicate in your relationship? There are risks, but also incredible rewards.

Something that makes it easier to be vulnerable is when you and your partner practice vulnerable listening. In fact, learning to listen well makes it possible for you and your partner to become more vulnerable in your communication, to openly disclose your feelings, thoughts and needs. I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

2 responses to “Being Vulnerable in Marriage”

  1. Kent says:

    Great post. It often feels so risky to be vulnerable. Scary! Thanks for the tips to give me ideas on just how to go about it, to give it a try.

    I really enjoy your blog posts.

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