While self-sufficiency and autonomy can help us weather the storms of life, they can also rob us of true intimacy.
For a relationship to be balanced, partners must be able to depend on one another, and feel that they are needed and appreciated for the support they give. If we have been let down in the past, the prospect of needing someone can be frightening.
Opening up to our partner can make us feel vulnerable and exposed, but vulnerability in a relationship is the most important ingredient of having a trusting, intimate companion.
Vulnerability is often seen as a weakness, but it’s actually a strength. Dr. Brené Brown, a renowned expert on vulnerability, explains that it’s really about “sinking into” the joyful moments in life — daring to show up and let ourselves be seen.
She writes, “When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives.”
In her landmark book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Given this definition, the act of falling in love is the ultimate risk.
Love is uncertain. It’s inherently risky because our partner could leave without a moment’s notice, betray us or stop loving us. Dr. Brown cautions us that putting ourselves out there also means there’s a greater risk of getting criticized or feeling hurt.
Take a moment to consider that you might be sabotaging relationship after relationship if you don’t get to the root of your fear of being vulnerable.
If you’re afraid of showing weakness or exposing yourself to your partner, you might not be aware that your fear is preventing you from being totally engaged in the relationship. You might be freezing out the opportunity for love because you’re afraid to let your authentic self shine and to share your innermost thoughts, feelings, and wishes.
What drives your fear of being vulnerable with your partner?
- Are you fearful of exposing parts of your personality that your partner may find unacceptable?
- Does keeping a distance make you feel safe and in control of your emotions?
- Are feelings of shame stopping you from exposing your true feelings or talking about tough topics?
- Do you fear that your partner will abandon or betray you?
For many, a fear of intimacy may translate into testing a relationship by picking a partner who is wrong for them — people play it safe by distancing themselves.
One of the first questions I ask my clients is, “What is it that stops you from being vulnerable and intimate with your partner?” Notice that I don’t ask, “What do you think your partner should do differently?”
Surprisingly, most individuals answer, “I’m not sure.” My response is that it’s time to examine their fear of vulnerability and the ways they might be sabotaging their relationships.
So what can you do if you’re paralyzed by fear or unable to risk being vulnerable with your partner?
First, you need to acknowledge it. Fear doesn’t go away on its own — it tends to morph into something else. Did you ever notice that trying to be perfect and walking on eggshells doesn’t work because it drains you of energy?
Here are the top reasons why vulnerability in a relationship can lead to intimacy:
- Vulnerability increases our sense of worthiness and authenticity.
- Vulnerability helps us feel close and connected to our partner, yet achieve our own sense of identity.
- Being vulnerable helps us ask for what we want and avoid stonewalling (shutting down or distancing ourselves from a partner).
- It allows us to build trust in others and to become fully engaged in an intimate relationship.
- Being vulnerable allows us to open our heart — to give and receive love fully.
According to Dr. Brown, disengagement is the most dangerous factor that erodes trust in a relationship. The only way to avoid this is to risk being vulnerable with your partner by asking for help, standing up for yourself, sharing unpopular opinions, and having faith in yourself and your partner.
The ultimate risk is allowing yourself to fall in love, which requires letting go of control and of the fear of being hurt or abandoned.
While all relationships present risks, they are risks worth taking. Even if you have been abandoned or cheated on, you can surrender your shield and allow your partner in. Healthy partnerships are within reach if you let go of fear and believe you’re worthy of love and all of the gifts it has to offer.
Here’s how you can allow yourself to be vulnerable with your partner and start improving your relationship:
- Visualize yourself in an honest and open relationship and work toward allowing yourself to be more vulnerable and open with your partner.
- Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about accepting nurturing and support from your partner.
- Remind yourself daily that it’s healthy to accept help from others and is a sign of strength rather than weakness. Don’t let your fear of rejection or past hurt stop you from achieving the love and intimacy you deserve. Practice being vulnerable in small steps and keep a journal, or talk to a therapist or close friend about your progress.
- Create a more trusting relationship with a partner by giving yourself permission to be vulnerable and take risks — one where you can be comfortable sharing your dreams and being your authentic self.
Intimacy can be an important source of comfort and provide predictability in an uncertain world. The truth is that all relationships end: through breakup, death, or divorce. Why waste time being preoccupied with fear of your relationship ending?
It’s possible to be vulnerable to others without losing parts of yourself. By doing this, you’ll be able to restore your faith in love, trust, and intimacy.
Terry Gaspard is a licensed therapist, author, and college instructor. For more information, visit her website.