Vulnerability is easy in the first blush of love. . . prior to the onset of those emotional papercuts destined to occur in any long-standing relationship. Between my husband, Doug, and me we have over 65 years working as therapists with couples and individuals. One would think vulnerability would come easy to such trained professionals. And it is true that we intellectually know how to fight fair, use “I” statements and express vulnerable feelings. But we, too, have personally experienced from each other those emotional papercuts that occur over time, and like everyone else, we can automatically move into self-protection when we sense emotional danger. For unlike our canine companions who love unconditionally because of their extraordinary ability to “be in the moment”, we humans have a tendency to store up every slight that occurs especially in our relations that matter the most. And therefore, ironically, it is our most important relationships that ultimately invite the greatest defenses.
So what are our chosen defenses? At times of emotional distress, Doug is likely to seek refuge in an emotional cave, hoping to calm himself and avoid further pain. I, being sensitive to abandonment, pursues him, hoping for connection and validation of my experience. The more I pursue, the deeper he can move into his cave, a dance step that leaves us both frustrated and hurting.
An easy response to such a dance step would be to back away from any topics that might evoke such pain. We’ve all seen the couples out to dinner with nothing to say to each other no doubt because so many topics have become ‘taboo,” a technique that can certainly work for some, but at a cost of emotional intimacy and connection. For those of us who yearn for more, who want a deeper connection that feeds us on a more soulful level, there is a call for greater courage and determination. Why courage and determination? Because to choose vulnerability requires a decision to risk greater emotional pain. . . to trust that our partner/friend/family member will respond in a manner that is sensitive to the baring of our underbelly. How ironic that such exposure is actually the key to an emotionally intimate relationship.
For us, this decision to risk doesn’t happen automatically when we’re in the throes of great distress. We often times find it difficult to focus on our own plate of feelings. It’s so much easier (and safer) to metaphorically stick our fork into our partner’s emotional spaghetti. No doubt our training as therapists lends itself to this habit. We’ve learned through experience, however, that sometimes a “time out” is necessary to give us both an opportunity to self-soothe and pause long enough to find the internal strength and courage to go deeper with our own feelings. To the reader this may all sound like hard work It is.
But every time we are able to catch ourselves when we’re headed into an emotional tidal wave, every time we can put the well-being of our relationship and each other first and “call it” before the damage occurs, and every time we can “go to the basement” with our most vulnerable feelings, we create more and ore golden threads of connection. For both of us, the choice of placing our most vulnerable feelings in the hands of the other where those emotional tendrils are held with such kindness and care can generate the most healing experience of all. We believe that an intimate relationship can be an incredible spiritual journey, a call to rise each day and choose to love each other in spite of the differences that surface along the way. To be able to heal from the ruptures of our pasts while learning to love deeper and more fully in the present is the greatest opportunity of all.