Vulnerability has been linked almost exclusively to the expression of feelings. Most couples who grace my office tell me that they want the other, usually the male partner, to be “more vulnerable.” Often that means, “I want him to express his feelings.” Well, yes, that is a good thing to do, but folks, expressions of feelings are NOT necessarily acts of emotional vulnerability. True, many cultures teach males not to feel, and if, by chance they should actually happen to feel something, keeping it to themselves is the order of the day. That, depending on the social context, MAY constitute vulnerability when a boy or man expresses a feeling. But that ‘s another future post.
In the context of a relationship, I submit that vulnerability is much more complex, generally misunderstood, and ill defined. Here, in my opinion after sitting with thousands of couples over 32 years in practice, is a practical, accurate way to describe vulnerability: Vulnerability is the act of saying the unpopular. When we say something unpopular, to what are we vulnerable? REJECTION. Plain and simple rejection. What tends to be “unpopular?” HONESTY. Why? Because honesty may lead to painful consequences.
Why do new found lovers put their best foot forward? Acceptance. Or if you want to be more cynical about it, they wish to avoid rejection. One young woman explained to me she would never tell a man on the first or second date she had a chronic STD. “I want to wait until I know he likes me, because that way he will be less likely to reject me when I give him the bad news.” In other words, ‘ I’m going to lie to him until I think he can handle it to my liking. He won’t mind.’ Interesting. I wonder how she might feel if the tables were turned.
One man dated a woman for five years before he told her of his vasectomy. (I know, I know, she could have asked, but she didn’t). The subject was elevated to reality because of marriage discussions, when she mentioned her desire to have children. His lie of omission was then revealed. In a pool of tears she sadly asked him why he kept that secret. He told her he did not want to be rejected.
She told him that had she known up front, she would have viewed him as unselfish, honest, and willing to take the risk to be vulnerable, all values she cherished. She did end the relationship, but she made it very clear she did not end it because he did not want children. She ended it because of his lack of integrity. This was the story of a man unwilling to be vulnerable. The price he paid for protecting his vulnerability came at the expense of his integrity. Ironically, his lie rendered him much more vulnerable than he every imagined.
When he naively asked her how it would have been for her to know this on their first date she replied: “I would have felt some disappointment, but I would have respected you. We could have at least talked about it. Then I would have had to weigh how I would deal with having a wonderful partner, versus having children. But neither of us would have wasted five years of our lives because of your fear, and lack of integrity.”
That is not an unusual scenario. Most of us can think back on various situations where we were vulnerable to rejection, and threw our integrity under the bus in order to avoid a particular vulnerability, only to have it backfire.
That does not mean not to feel fear in the face of vulnerability. It means that when you feel fear in the face of vulnerability, respect it, but honor your integrity, and respect yourself and your partner. You will never regret not throwing your integrity under the bus. And yes, anything we throw under the bus hurts, but remember this: selfishness thrown under the bus hurts less then trashing integrity. Throwing selfishness under the bus leads to more humility. Selling out integrity eventually leads to humiliation, heartache, and reinforces poor self concept.
Wishing you a satisfying relationship,
Jim Hutt, Ph.D., MFT
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