“Vulnerability” is a word that is commonly associated with psychology. In this context, vulnerability refers to the familiar experience of being emotionally exposed to the possibility of attack or harm.
Usually, we shy away from being vulnerable. Most people aren’t quick to share their deep-rooted fears, feelings, or insecurities. Most people don’t share how much money they make, how their shalom bayis is doing, and which kid they are struggling to maintain a relationship with.
For the most part, this is an accurate application of boundaries. It would not be appropriate to walk around town wearing our hearts on our sleeves, divulging our most personal information to anyone within earshot.
There are, however, two relationships where vulnerability is of paramount importance.
The first of these relationships is the relationship with ourselves. Though being vulnerable is often a struggle because of the fear of judgment, it is a relevant struggle nonetheless in the inner-workings of our minds. We struggle to admit our limitations even to ourselves. We don’t like to look in the mirror and admit, “I need to take time to engage in self-care to do a better job as a parent/spouse,” or “I don’t need to complete every one of my chores before I deserve a break.” These admissions are lined with implicit imperfection. They are factors that reinforce the difficult truth: that we are imperfect and will remain as such for all of our days.
The resistance to embracing any semblance of fragility may come from multiple core fears: the fear of being conditionally loveable (loveable only when reaching the level of success or accomplishment that one should be able to attain), the fear that one’s life is like a house of cards - so unstable that one slight misstep may watch the whole thing come crumbling down, or the fear that we may be less remarkable than we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe. Whatever the case, avoiding vulnerability in this way is a form of being dishonest with oneself.
We often have the greatest of intentions with this dishonesty. We may present a dishonest representation of ourselves because we fear complacency. We may believe we are selling ourselves short, rather than shooting for the moon. These concerns are founded in reality. Complacency is poisonous. Shooting for the moon is of the utmost importance to unlock our potential. That said, a dishonest valuation of our current struggles, needs, weaknesses, resentments, and fragilities is obviously counter-productive. A dishonest valuation is akin to trying to jump as high as you can without your feet being firmly planted on the ground. We need to be completely in touch with where we are holding and what we are struggling with before we can accomplish anything by reaching higher.
The other relationship that requires high levels of vulnerability is marriage. We hear time and again that communication is key. “Couples need to be willing to have the difficult talks.” “Every couple fights, but it’s about how you move on together - how you grow together as a unit.” These words are truthful, and they are important. They don’t, however, contain much advice on how to use strife to further our connection with our spouse.
Dr. Sue Johnson, a Canadian psychologist and the founder of the wildly successful “Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy,” has answered this question with profound clarity - and the answer lies in the power of vulnerable expression. Dr. Johnson teaches that every person has core attachment fears or attachment cues. These are emotional “raw spots” that, when aggravated in a relationship, result in either explosive or withdrawn emotional reactions. These raw spots tend to follow a pattern between men and women, but obviously there can be a lot of crossover.
In women, the most common raw spots are well expressed in Western culture. Women need to be heard, seen, understood, validated, supported, and unconditionally accepted. They need to be cherished.
The most common raw spot a man tends to possess is his ego. Inside every man (or at least the vast majority), there lives a six-year-old boy in a superman cape, daydreaming about the heroic adventures he is destined to go on. This boy lives long into adulthood, and looks to impress, gain respect, and be admired by his surroundings. Most important of all is the admiration of his wife. The rugged, macho, GI-Joe-wannabe that often seems to be unfazed by emotions is a softy who needs an ego stroke on a semi-consistent basis.
When these raw spots collide, it can lead to a vicious cycle. When a wife feels unsupported and expresses dissatisfaction, the husband’s ego is hurt, thus activating his raw spot. This further distances him from behaving in a supportive manner, and around and around we go.
Dr. Johnson, after five decades of research, found vulnerable expression to be a major ingredient to stopping this cycle in its tracks, and used this idea to develop a modality of marriage therapy with a 75% success rate with 80% sustainability.
When we fight, we fight about batteries. We fight about air conditioners. We fight about carpool. We fight about “you always” and “I never.” What’s really going on underneath your complaint? Excuse me for sounding like a therapist, but what are you really feeling? Is it just “annoying” that he won’t do carpool this week, or are you really scared that he isn’t able to see you? To see what you’re going through? To see how tired you are and step in for you, reminding you that you are supported? Does this make you scared that he doesn’t love you? Get you? Understand you? See you? If you answered yes to any of these, I guarantee that hasn’t been communicated clearly.
“But Nissan, I tell him all the time that he doesn’t care about me!”
I hear you, I really do. Why not try the following after you’ve both had some time to calm down: “When I asked you to do carpool and you said no, I couldn’t help but feel alone. I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but I was so tired and wanted you to show me you loved me and everything was going to be okay and you had my back. When you said no and ended the conversation, I felt lonely. I know it may be unreasonable, but I’m struggling to shake this feeling.”
When she asks you to do carpool, is it really just “selfish” that she’s asking this of you? Or are you worried she doesn’t appreciate how hard you work? Are you scared that she doesn’t think your work is difficult? Are you scared she thinks you’re lazy or that your life is easy compared to hers? Are you scared that she thinks you’re not man enough because you’re supposed to do the heavy-lifting and she’s not noticing how heavy your load is?
Why not try sharing this: “When you asked me to do carpool this week, it may sound silly, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that you don’t value how much I do. I felt that you don’t think I’m manly because you do so much work and I’m not there for you. I felt that you weren’t satisfied in our relationship because I don’t do enough.”
Here’s the formula: One side shares their vulnerable attachment fear, while the other listens empathetically, then validates and reassures. Then switch places.
The starting point is to realize why this is so scary. We don’t like to be that honest. It leaves us emotionally vulnerable to judgment. It sheds our protective shell and allows others (or ourselves) to see us for who we really are. It’s scary, and it leaves us feeling exposed. It challenges us to be honest with ourselves, and share that honesty with the ones we love. But in spite of our fear, honesty remains the best policy.