The Vulnerability of Intimacy Intimacy without Vulnerability is impossible BY: Troy Murphy |August 2017
Adobe Stock Images
Is your relationship struggling, failing to provide comfort, continually marching through the same unhealthy cycle? You are not alone. We expect a lot from close relationships. The world can be scary, combining resources with others makes the unmanageable manageable. Though our evolutionary history, those that learned to work within a group survived; those who failed often suffered and died. Imprinted in our DNA is a desire for social connections. When connections are frustrated, we hurt.
When a relationship struggles, emotions activate, alerting danger and we seek relief. The alarm system carries important information but we often misinterpret the cause of the alarm, responding in an unhelpful manner, ignoring the underlying causes. We get upset; we blame. But the triggered emotions may be due to a variety of causes. Most clashes have complex causes involving a variety of underlying factors. Seeking relief by blaming a partner for the most salient cause leading to the explosion limits healthy resolutions. Singular blame ignores our sensitivities, our contributing behaviors, and at least partial ownership to the health of the relationship. When our answer to restore relationship happiness is to “fix the partner,” We condemn the relationship to the repeating drama of finger pointing hysteria; each clash becoming a contest to prove the other more at fault. This never works.
Intimacy: An emotional and physical closeness with another person built around openness and trust. Intimacy provides the psychological need for acceptance, attachment and affection, allowing safe expression of emotion.
Blaming is easy; there are always easily identified flaws. We all have imperfections, annoying traits, personal limitations and irritating flaws. This is the human condition. Partner’s flaws are convenient excuses. If our relationship happiness depends on a perfect partner, we are in trouble. Blaming isn’t a conscious choice. We don’t affix blame because of a meticulous investigation of causes. We blame because we are upset and “you” must be the cause. It’s automatic, I hurt—you’re the fault—change now. Please! This automatic default to blame the partner begins subtle manipulations—the self-righteous charge to fix our partner and resolve the relationship problems.
The underlying belief:
"If my partner would just change ______ then we would have a loving relationship and we would be happy."
Blame, manipulation, hoping a partner will change seldom solves relationship woes. Instead, the misdirection incites more distress. The sharp criticism (and underlying assumption of fault) grates on already sore feelings, increasing insecurity, demanding defensiveness, and destroying closeness. Interactions suffer; a negative sentiment clouds the issues, behaviors and words never feel good enough, slight annoyances become unsolvable issues, the dirty dishes a symbol of deep selfishness, tiredness a sign of indifference. Once we shift to the blame perspective, we interpret new situations through victim’s eyes; instead of working with a partner to strengthen the relationship, we take an independent charge to mold our partner.
As the victim, we interpret our partner's insensitivities as demeaning. The victim mentality frees responsibility of taking effective action. Instead of action, the partner becomes the focus, manipulation the game, and hurtful separation the result.
"The sharp criticism (and underlying assumption of fault) grates on already sore feelings, increasing insecurity, demanding defensiveness, and destroying closeness."
Some partners may be awful. They may be rotten, self-absorbed and certifiably narcissistic. We can’t fix them either. But most relationships slowly drift from good graces because simple neglect, lacking sufficient attention on positives; not because we are the inevitable victim of a terrible person. For most, a better course is to focus on personal change, working on our imperfections, identifying our role in the downward escalating disagreements, and soothing our own discomforts. These changes are essential to enjoying a satisfying, healthy and happy relationship. Clinging to the comforting belief that we are terrific and our partner is a dud, casts intimacy forever beyond our grasp.
The strength of the relationship depends on the quality of the interactions. Disagreements will occur but can be successfully navigated with dignity. The problem may not be resolved. May problems linger. Strong relationships rely more on respectful communication than problem resolution. When a personal history of neurotic connections demanded unified intentions, relationship differences alert danger. A friend, raised by a single mom, confided that her mom would ignore her for weeks after a disagreement. These experiences etch deep emotional wounds into our souls. Differences, instead of normal occurrences to skillfully navigate, become dangerous junctions proceeding painful abandonment.
The complexity of human relationships creates risk. We never completely know how a partner will respond; overtime, as a partner responds with love, pasts etched into our souls can be over-ridden. But being open and allowing a partner to react to that openness leaves us vulnerable. Their unknown response involves risks and invokes fear. The more intense past pain, the quicker we abandon trust in the present, protecting against vulnerability. After being punched, we flinch. But close relationships require vulnerability. Intimacy without vulnerability is impossible. The more intimate a relationship; the more power the involved have to hurt. The closeness of the relationship becomes essential for stability. Being vulnerable is not a sign of weakness. Sharing resources—mental, social, and material—creates strength.
As individuals and partners, we have multiple responsibilities, requiring a balanced approach. Even in strong relationships, we shouldn’t abandon the self. We should wisely continue to grow individually, strengthening skills, enjoying hobbies, and maintaining competitiveness in the workforce. Security of a relationship provides extra resources to continue personal growth; sadly, many completely neglect the self, creating unhealthy vulnerability. The relationship becomes the only protection against poverty. The imbalance of needs may influence interactions. We must guard against complacency. The individual needs to be protected, as well as the relationship. Personal paths must continue to be pursued. Perhaps, this is the ultimate balancing acts of living—the individual and the relationship.
Dependence is neither healthy nor unhealthy; it can be either. Sometimes dependency is an unconscious agreement supporting individual stagnation. The security derived from the relationship doesn’t come from a strengthening bond of healthy interactions but from two individuals incapable of surviving on their own; so, they remain in the relationship. The unspoken stagnation agreement creates dependency but limits intimacy. Instead of embracing differences and creating a secure base for growth, the relationship demands weakening of the individual to create greater dependency; it’s not satisfaction that keep these relationships alive but lack of other options. Our deteriorating self eliminates attractive alternative others. We stay because we can’t leave.
Opening our heart in these oppressive and limiting relationships becomes dangerous. Self-disclosures are used as weapons. Digging jabs to prove inadequacy, reminders of lacking talent, confidence, or skilled enough to exist outside the relationship. These painful manipulations create unhealthy dependency expanding likeliness for more destructive behaviors. I wince when I hear a love song declare, “no one can love you like me.” I hear the underlying assault on the partner’s confidence. I love my wife dearly. She is lovable. As such, I understand that many others could, given the opportunity, also love her dearly.
We must mindfully watch for destructive patterns, notice instances of blaming, nagging a partner for weaknesses while ignoring personal responsibilities. We must stand as Sentry at the post, guarding against the insidious enemies that creep into our marriages and relationships. We must continuously invite positive interactions, expressions of love, trust, and caring.
Positive change is difficult, requiring slipping from the habitual. Positive change is scary openness invites vulnerability to our partner’s reaction. By escaping the norm, two things may occur: the relationship will grow or the weakness of the bond will be exposed. Some people are unwilling partners, fearing openness and vulnerability. They don’t want trust, support and companionship. These people prefer security through degradation and control. Smartly and safely plan your escape with professional help. We can enjoy the blessings of intimacy but not without some risk. Choose wisely.