A few weeks ago, I asked folks on my social media pages “when it comes to making a relationship work, you have to have____”. I got a huge variety of incredible and thoughtful (sometimes humorous) answers. Trust, respect, patience, preserverance, compassion, all made the list- and I 100% agree with all of that.
But arguably one of the most important ingredients for a successful and happy relationship wasn’t listed anywhere. And to be honest, I wasn’t surprised one bit. This virtue is often thought of as a fault. Something to be avoided at all costs. But give me a few minutes and I’ll tell you why vulnerability is at the very tippy top of my relationship “must have” list.
Every moment of relationship growth is due in part to one or both partner’s willingness to be vulnerable. The start of a relationship? Someone had to be vulnerable and make their feelings known to the other person knowing it could be the start of something awesome… or just end up reeeaaallly awkward. Moving the casual relationship into a long term kinda thing? One partner put their vulnerability on the line knowing they could either get a deeper more meaningful relationship or come off as needy. An engagement? Someone had to be vulnerable and ask their partner to commit to forever with them knowing it could go awry and their heart could be broken into a million tiny pieces.
All these giant relationship milestones required vulnerability to be able to happen. But vulnerability needs to happen in those other moments too. The ones that no one else really knows about or commemorates- like asking for your partner to meet a deep need of yours even though you feel silly asking for it out loud. Or sharing about that new thing you want to try in the bedroom because “maybe my partner will think I’m weird”?
Maybe it’s admitting to your partner that you were wrong after you were 100% convinced of your rightness 20 minutes ago. Sometimes it’s letting them into that space in your mind that scares you because you aren’t sure that you’re normal for thinking/ feeling it. Perhaps it’s an old wound that you don’t like to show to anyone.
Whatever those moments are, they are the ones that bring the two of you closer and move your relationship further along on the growth chart. Those moments are often scary because we don’t know how our partner will react. Or if it will change their perception of us. All we know is that we are handing over an unprotected chunk of our hearts hoping it doesn’t get smooshed.
Many couples come into my office furious with one another or completely and utterly disconnected. Somewhere along the way they got the message “I can’t trust you not to hurt me” so they shut it down any glimpses of vulnerability. Anger and emotional distance are a really great way of getting some armor around yourself.
Unfortunately, that armor also keeps out love, joy, closeness, intimacy and well, all the good stuff. As we progress in therapy, it’s almost the rule (and not the exception) that the anger and contempt are really just protecting the hurt, loneliness, sadness, and maybe, even grief.
When partners start to take their armor down and share what’s REALLY going on (sometimes they don’t even know themselves at first) it allows the other partner to step up and say “I hear you. I see you. I’m here”. And that, is the crucial first step in rebuilding trust in a relationship and it’s the necessary ingredient for intimacy.
We aren’t going to always get it right when it comes to supporting our partner or getting the reaction, we hoped for in being vulnerable. But if we ever hope to have a fulfilling and meaningful relationship we have to keep trying.
Yasmine Binghalib is a Relationship Specialist and Licensed Marriage and Family therapist in private practice in Placerville, California. You can learn more about her and the services she offers by going to eldoradocountytherapy.com