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Relationships • Mature Love
How to Be Vulnerable
We can state the matter starkly: we cannot be good lovers if we don’t know how to be vulnerable.
We make ourselves psychologically vulnerable whenever we let a partner know some of the ways in which we are weak, needy, scared, immature, incompetent or just plain odd — that is, some of the ways in which we are human. To be vulnerable is to dare to take off the usual cloak of normality and sensibleness with which we navigate the world and for once, to show someone who we really are, with all the fragility and unusualness implied. We might, as vulnerable people, admit to a desire to be mummied or daddied, to curl into a ball, to cry over a so-called small thing, to be reassured about an apparently minor flaw, to call up our lover every ten minutes, to suffer from anxiety or paranoia, to speak in a regressive voice or to hug a favourite stuffed animal.
It’s a hugely complicated step to confess — in front of someone we fundamentally want to impress and secure the affection of — that there are basic ways in which we fall short of what a proper adult is meant to be like. A certain kind of no-nonsense partner might well tell us sternly to grow up, complain about us to their friends and make hasty moves to end the relationship.
As a result, we often lie, not for advantage or thievery, but in order to hold on to a love we desperately depend on. We pretend to be strong and unafraid. We put on a show of being someone else. Such acting works in many contexts. An uncomplaining, breezy competence and unemotive intelligence can make us an ideal employee, an admirable committee member and a thoroughly respectable citizen of the modern world.
But in an intimate relationship, this form of caution is fatal. Our fears and inadequacies don’t vanish because we have hidden them; we don’t get any less child-like or odd because we have learnt to seem sensible. We simply end up living with someone who cannot know us — and who, because they are likely to take their lead from our own reserve, cannot show themselves to us in turn. We enclose ourselves in a prison of mutual deception.
The heroism of vulnerability
To dare to be vulnerable involves a faith that, whatever we are inwardly most afraid and ashamed of in our own natures, must have counterparts in other people. We cannot be alone in our oddities. The only people we could assume are normal are those we don’t yet know very well. But once we are past their flawless exteriors, every other person we meet — and especially the person we are now dating — will have their share of follies: they will suck their thumbs, be scared of ghosts, have psychological compulsions and worry about the size of their ears or the state of their friendships. We are guaranteed not to be alone in our strangeness and neediness.
To be vulnerable is in essence to let a partner catch sight of a side of us that dates back to childhood: the distant time when we feared mummy would never come back, when we cried and no one comforted us, when daddy shouted at us and we were frozen with terror, when a rough friend told us we were a baby for still loving our stuffed elephant, when no one wanted to play with us in the school yard, when we tried and tried to explain and granny was still angry. To be properly, fully, vulnerable is to take the other into the frightened, small places of our past, and to let them see that we’re still in significant ways the little, distressed person we once were. Honest, vibrant love is an encounter between two vulnerable children who otherwise do a very good job of masquerading as adults.
Why we flee from our own vulnerability
What makes people reject the offer of vulnerability? The strength they display is an indicator of how punishing they have had to be towards their own fragile inner selves; it’s a measure of how fast they had to grow up. If mummy dismissed their nighttime fears, they will have had to try to tell themselves — desperately — that mummy was right and that cry-babies really are disgusting. They perhaps deflected the rough boys’ taunting of Minko (who granny knitted while they were still in the womb and whose trunk had half disintegrated under the intensity of their hugs) by throwing the little soft-toy in the bin. They managed their traumas by siding with those who hurt them. They focused on keeping their room tidy, passing exams and learning how to do business. And so they came to fear the very thing that they now most need: an enfolding, restorative and profoundly understanding tenderness towards their traumatised early selves. In a grim paradox, to have words of empathy whispered to them lovingly in the dark only reinforces their deepest fears; their protective shell snaps ever more tightly shut at the approach of sympathetic love; they respond to their own needs with panic and self-disgust.
We learn to be vulnerable by understanding that those who conveyed the imperative of a tougher (non-crying, non-fragile loving) self were profoundly incorrect and in their way, deeply traumatised themselves. Mummy was dismissive of our fears not because she was impressively astute in her theories of human development but because she was struggling with her own history of unattended need; the anti Minko ‘friend’ wasn’t showing us the real path to being a grown up — they were inflicting on us some of the unkindness that was in other contexts directed towards them. We need to go back and convince ourselves — perhaps with a touch of anger — of how misguided our agents of ‘growing up’ really were.
Finding a partner with whom we can be vulnerable constitutes a supreme act of restoration. After a lifetime of denial and false strength, we stand to find in another the sympathy that was sorely needed, but unavailable, to us in the past. The old wounds can be gently tended; we become stronger by learning to speak the language of weakness. By letting our hurt, babyish selves into the relationship, we open the way to a more nuanced, fruitful, creative and accurate idea of what it really means to be an adult.