Les Amants I, Rene Magritte
Les Amants I, Rene Magritte

An important aspect of our emotional lives is the experience of vulnerability. One of the fundamental secrets (not a well kept secret) for relating in ways that bring about warmth, goodwill and intimacy is to be vulnerable with your partner. Every day marriage partners stop themselves from feeling vulnerable. People say things like, “I am not going to put myself at risk.” Or, “Why would I want to hurt?” Some people have difficulty recognizing their vulnerable experience. They say things like, “I am not aware of the sorrow you and my wife say you sense in me.”

Many people learned to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable, long ago, from parents whose own limitations seemed to be instructions to lead an armored life. Some people grew up in families in which vulnerable experience was neither expressed nor noticed. A significant purpose of couple therapy is to help you learn that your vulnerability is a good and trustworthy aspect of your life and your relationship. This most often involves learning how we protect ourselves so that we can make a choice. With other people, it’s necessary to learn how to have the experience of vulnerability. A partner’s empathy, care, and tenderness is always crucial to a person learning to value their own vulnerability.

The experience of vulnerability is almost identical to the experience of fear. In your body they register in almost the same way. Fear is our alert system for physical survival. Vulnerability is the experience of being open to physical or emotional wounding. With fear we necessarily mobilize fight or flight to ensure our physical survival. With vulnerability we may have learned to mobilize our fight or flight response to ensure our emotional survival – but at a cost to the better part of our humanity.

The experience of fear is painful almost beyond description. But if a grizzly bear or a shark is about to annihilate you it’s better not to (and no one ever does) hang around and reflect on the experience. When your father or mother was crushing in their rejection or criticism of you, it was neither safe nor possible to reflect on the experience. For a child the annihilation of the small, depending self is not unlike the annihilation of the physical self by shark or bear. And for the adult, who, like all adults, is dependent on their partner for love and regard, the possibility of rejection or criticism can feel equally crushing.

There are survival guides that recommend positive and useful strategies to protect us from shark or bear annihilation. There are no handy guides for the young child who feels the annihilation of the depending self. But the human psyche has abundant, flexible, and creative resources for self-protection. One could think of these defenses as more evolved and structured fight or flight responses. We can go numb. We can disassociate from ourselves. We can create an inner world of not caring. We can turn against our own self to create the illusion of oneness with our destructive parent. We can attempt to eradicate all of our vulnerable dependency. These are just a few simple descriptions of the many complex things we do to protect ourselves. Each of these things we do to ourselves get lived out in one way or another in our marriages. (Because, naturally, in our marriages we face the same depth of need for our most important other person.)

In protecting ourselves from the bear we stop the fear and avoid the danger of our physical demise. In protecting ourselves from the hurtfulness of a parent or a partner we stop the experience of vulnerability and compromise a part of ourselves that is most human and able to connect.

Some children grow up with parents who display very little emotional vulnerability, and rarely notice the emotional vulnerability of their child. People who grow up in such families often do not notice their own loneliness or need for comfort. They also do not notice these experiences in their partner. Often, their first recognition of this trouble in their marriages occurs when their partners become dissatisfied with the lack of emotional connection in their relationship.

Marriage is an opportunity to allow our vulnerable selves to touch and be touched by the most important person in our life. This opportunity is one of the fundamental challenges of a committed relationship, which evokes, by its very importance, all of our efforts to both protect and to reveal oneself.

To meet this challenge we each must learn to value and support our own vulnerability. We also have to seek and find the ground between us where vulnerable experience can grow. This can bring tremendous satisfaction to both partners. When couple therapy goes well, it does so, in part, by helping each person in their goal of learning to open, support, and reveal their vulnerability in the presence of their partner. When couple therapy goes well, it does so, in part, by helping each partner develop the empathy necessary to make it safe for this kind of self-revelation of vulnerability.

A vulnerable thanks,

Robert Ogner, May 25, 2008