Vulnerability in Relationships
The Risk and Reward of Intimacy
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | August 2017
Intimacy requires sharing sacred parts of our heart, disregarding normal protections and allowing vulnerability.
Is your relationship struggling, failing to provide comfort, continually marching through the same unhealthy cycle? You are not alone. We expect a lot from our close relationships. The world can be scary, combining resources with others can lighten the load, making 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 written laws that pushes for social connections. When connections are frustrated, we hurt.
When an important relationship struggles, emotions activate, alerting danger and we seek relief. The alarm system distributes important but vague information; we know something is wrong but not sure exactly what it is. We interpret the cause the best we can, relying on experience. Unfortunately, often we misread the information, assign faulty causes, and garble with responding in an appropriate manner, missing the underlying causes. We get upset; we blame. But triggered emotions often are caused by a variety of causes. Most couple clashes have complex causes, involving a variety of factors. But we simplify and blame the partner, seeking relief by pointing to the most salient cause that preceded the dispute. Assigning a single cause ignores the contribution of our sensitivities, our contributing behaviors, and responsibility for the health of the relationship. When our path to restore happiness to the relationship is to “fix the partner,” We condemn the relationship to the continued drama of finger pointing hysteria; each clash a contest to prove that the other is 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 flaws easily identified. We all have imperfections, annoying traits, personal limitations and irritating foibles. This is our human condition. Partner’s flaws are convenient scapegoats, tie the failing to the animal and slaughter it. We make our partner the chump. If our relationship’s success depends on a perfect partner, we are in trouble. Just pack your bag and leave now.
Blaming isn’t a conscious choice. We typically affix blame without a meticulous investigation. We blame because we are upset and “you” must be the cause. It’s automatic, I hurt—you’re the reason. Change now. Please! This automatic response to discomfort invites subtle manipulations—the self-righteous charge to fix our partner in our honorable resolve to save the relationship.
The underlying belief creating the response cycle goes something like this:
"If my partner would just change ______ then everything would be okay, and we would be happy."
Blame, manipulation, and hoping a partner will change seldom solves the relationship woes. Instead, the misdirection of attention incites more distress. The sharp criticism (and underlying assumption of fault) grates on already sore feelings, increasing insecurity, demanding defensiveness, and destroying closeness. Under the context of a flawed partner future interactions suffer; a negative sentiment clouds the issues, with behaviors and words given a negative interpretation. The slight annoyances become unsolvable issues, the dirty dishes a symbol of deep selfishness, tiredness a sign of indifference. Once we shift our subjective interpretations to point and a partner’s character flaws—the blame perspective—we interpret new situations through this filter (I am a victim); instead of working with a partner, we take the charge to mold our partner. Oddly enough, narcissist gladly welcome this approach, with all attention focused on them, they can deflect the work, demand your attention, and accuse the world for their flaws.
As the labeled victim, we interpret our partner's insensitivities as demeaning. The victim attitude releases responsibility to examine ourselves. Instead of personal action (where we have control), we focus on the partner (where we have no control). Manipulation becomes the game, and hurtful separation the outcome.
The sharp criticism (and underlying assumption of fault) grates on already sore feelings, increasing insecurity, demanding defensiveness, and destroying closeness.
Admittedly, some partners are awful. They may be rotten, self-absorbed and certifiably narcissistic. We can’t fix these mixed-up nightmares either. But most struggling relationships are typically not a mismatch between a loving person and a miserable brut but a gentle drift from good to bad caused by simple neglect where the relationship lacked sufficient attention to the positives. We usually aren’t the inevitable victim of a terrible person. For most, the best course of action is to focus on areas of personal responsibility, working on our imperfections, identifying our role in the escalating disagreements, and practicing self-soothing techniques. These changes are essential for a satisfying, healthy and happy relationship. Clinging to the perverted belief that we are terrific and our partner a dud, creates a war—not intimacy.
The strength of any relationship depends on the quality of interactions. The disagreements that occur must be successfully navigated with dignity. Disagreements handled with respect can be a positive experience, solidifying the relationship, even when the problem isn’t resolved. May problems linger, stemming from differences neither partner is prepared to abandon. Resolution isn’t necessary for healthy relationships. Strong relationships rely on respectful communication more than problem resolution. When we suffer from a neurotic demand of unified intentions, any variance signals danger. A friend, raised by a single mom, confided that her mom would ignore her for weeks after a disagreement. These experiences etch emotional wounds in her soul. Differences, instead of normal occurrences to skillfully navigate, become dangerous junctions predicting a lengthy and painful abandonment.
The complexity of human relationships creates risk that simple mindedness may not avoid. We never completely know how a partner will respond to conflict; overtime, as a partner responds with love, dramatic pasts can be over-ridden, and a new law written on our hearts. But ignoring our insecurities and opening to a partner in honesty creates vulnerability. Their unknown response to our honesty is frightening. They may use the intimate knowledge to manipulate or even hurt. Closeness in these cases involves risks and invokes fear. The more intense past pain, the more intense we protect in the present, suring up the walls around our hearts. After being punched, we flinch.
Close relationships require vulnerability. Intimacy without vulnerability is impossible. The more intimate a relationship; the more power the partner has to hurt. When fear reigns, the closeness becomes essential to stability. The peace of mind comes from forcing togetherness or trusting commitments.
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—co-dependence. The relationship becomes the only protection against social poverty. The imbalance of needs, lack of reciprocity, negatively impacts interactions.
Instead of gaining comfort from the strength of the relationship to protect against tempting alternatives, the insecure and abuser prefer to eliminate possibilities for comparison. Protecting the relationship through nasty isolations, constant invasions of privacy, and threats of violence or emotional attacks.
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 act 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. "I will nag about your weaknesses, you can nag about mine, but neither of us will change." The security derived from the relationship doesn’t come from a strengthening bond of healthy interactions but from two individuals who are incapable of surviving on their own; so, they remain together, holding each other down. This unconscious agreement creates dependency but limits intimacy. Instead of embracing differences and creating a base for growth, the relationship demands weakening of the individual to create greater dependency on the partner; it’s not satisfaction that keep these relationships alive but lack of other options. Our deteriorating self-image eliminates opportunities for 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 continually remind of inadequacy, drawing attention to the lack of attractive qualities, confidence is battered, and we resign to the conclusion we couldn’t exist outside the current relationship. These painful manipulations create unhealthy dependency; with the belief we have no other options, the relationship is ripe for more destructive controls. I wince every time I hear a love song declare, “No one can love you like me.” This screams an underlying ugly message, assaulting a partner’s confidence, and subtly reminding the partner they can’t leave. I love my wife dearly. She is lovable. As such, I understand that many others could, given the opportunity, also love her dearly. I don’t manage her loyalty by demeaning her confidence; but work diligently to strengthen the bonds through attentive respect—for her and the relationship.
We must mindfully watch for destructive patterns, notice instances of blaming and nagging while ignoring personal responsibilities. We must stand as a sentry at the post, guarding against the insidious enemies that creep into marriages and relationships. We must continuously create positive interactions, expressions of love, trust, and caring. These are the elements that strengthen.
Positive change is difficult, requiring slipping from the habitual and mindless actions of the past. Positive change is scary, inviting new vulnerability. By altering normal path of action, two things may occur: the relationship will grow or be exposed. Some people are unwilling partners, fearing openness and the vulnerability of change. They don’t want trust, support and companionship. These people prefer security from degradation and control. We can enjoy the blessings of intimacy only when willing to allow some risk.
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