It Really Is Complicated
“It’s complicated” seems to have had its birth in discussions about relationships. Despite being complicated, there are stable considerations that cross-over all love relationships. One prominent factor in particular, although not commonly noted, is that love requires the ability and willingness to be vulnerable.
Some of us do not have the readiness, perhaps due to our upbringing, or we are temporarily stalled as a result of the current events in our life. What’s more, if the new love has his or her issues as well, the future is likely to be bumpy, at best. Not enough vulnerability freezes a relationship, but too much will melt it.
Vulnerable literally means “able to be wounded.” In common usage we refer to being vulnerable when we’re feeling fragile and emotionally penetrable. The way most of us think about being vulnerable is that it is not a pleasant experience and it is to be avoided if at all possible. The association is to weakness, rather than to strength. Perhaps so, but the ability to be vulnerable, and to tolerate vulnerability is essential to love.
From the first time our feelings are hurt as children we begin to struggle with the issue of vulnerability. How much of ourselves do we expose, how much of ourselves do we suppress in order to be loved? Although we don’t have the words for it, we observe our parents to see how they handle feeling vulnerable. If our parents are guarded and closed, they serve as role models for exercising emotional caution. The old adage, “Don’t show too much of yourself because theywill use it against you,” becomes part of our unwritten life rules.
In contrast, if our parents are open and bold in exposing who they are and how they feel about things, we are likely to enter the world with refreshing courage. However, even if our childhood experience has been positive, an adult love relationship presents a challenge. For it is in this experience, a love relationship, where the potential for feeling vulnerable is greatest.
Let’s Count the Ways
There are innumerable ways to feel vulnerable—when you are frightened of losing the love and respect of your partner, when you’ve done something that turned out badly, when you’re afraid that someone will discover your limitations—and we’ve all suffered through some of them. In an effort to stay on top of the situation, it’s common to turn the tables and go on the offensive.
Rather than face the feeling of vulnerability some people withdraw, others become critical of someone else or hide the feeling of vulnerability behind humor or laughter, and still others, especially in a new and not fully established love, simply bail. This is most likely to occur when someone enters a relationship and they are not emotionally up to the experience of vulnerability that comes with a growing love. Perhaps it is too soon after a break-up, or it is on the heels of a loss, or maybe while the pain of other let downs are still prominent. In all of these instances the readiness for more vulnerability is likely to be lagging.
Building Emotional Muscle
Is all this to suggest that those of us who are not quite ready for the vulnerability that comes with a new love hide-out instead? Not at all. In fact, that would likely be counter-productive. Some suggestions in preparation for a lasting love when you are recovering from loss or other heart wrenching experiences:
*Take some time to yourself. Whether it be catching up on some reading, getting back to the gym, simply taking long walks, or perhaps hanging out with and catching up with some old friends you haven’t seen in a while. Whatever soothes you and doesn’t emotionally challenge you will provide time to get yourself together.
*Rather than acting on the belief that you must be in control, practice letting go. As well as you can, avoid tightening the grip on your feelings. Many of us fear losing control. However, if you give expression to your feelings and resist the temptation to be defensive, you are less likely to lose control. Getting angry or crying, for example, is not being out of control, but merely expressing intense feelings. In fact, the very fear of losing control usually results in denying feelings—feelings that will prevent your ability to tolerate healthy vulnerability.
*When you are feeling up to it, spend time with a friend or family member you trust and feel safe with; use self-revealing statements to sensitively share your feelings. This may appear to reduce you to a weaker position, but in reality the opposite is true. It is an experience that will build and strengthen your ability to tolerate vulnerability. In fact, a special kind of inner strength is summoned when genuine feelings are asserted.
Following the guidelines above will assist in providing the strength and courage to love well; to muster the courage to be vulnerable without feeling overwhelmed.
Joel Block, Ph.D. (DrBlock.com) is the author, most recently, of The 15-Minute Relationship Fix: A Clinically-Proven Strategy to Repair and Strengthen Your Love Life