Vulnerability is the Key to Healthy Relationships

To be vulnerable is to be open to experiencing what one is feeling within oneself. This calls for a heightened emotional intelligence – that is – having an ability to recognize emotions in oneself and put a label to it. This openness to tough emotions is the cornerstone of vulnerability. And paradoxically, this means that one has great strength and courage to face one’s own emotions. One has to be very courageous to be vulnerable. And once you and I start becoming vulnerable to ourselves, we begin to acquire the courage that we can sail through any emotion. Vulnerability is strength.

In several previous posts, we have seen how to go about increasing this emotional quotient in ourselves. In essence, understand that no emotion can ever do any harm to you. They come and go. Develop a witnessing attitude to all the tough emotions in you. Spend time sitting quietly, breathing deeply and take attention to various parts of your body. This is a common practice in Yoga Nidra – the Yogic practice of body awareness. This ‘body scan’ helps us come close to our bodies and integrate previously disconnected parts of ourselves. Awareness of one’s bodily sensations, increasing one’s understanding of one’s emotional intelligence. Fear impacts the region in the chest. Anxiety gives us butterflies in the stomach. Grief and loss affects the throat (‘the throat chokes’), anger is felt in the head and in between the eyebrows. Knowing this on a physical level helps us understand that emotions move through us but is not ‘us’.

Vulnerability is natural when we begin to take a curious approach to our feelings.

But what has this got to do with relationships?

Most relationships denigrate quickly over time because the couple gets into an attack and defend mode. Typical attacks are ‘You never listen to me’. ‘You are always messy’. Typical defenses are: ‘I don’t know how to please you anymore’. ‘this is who I am, take it or leave it’. Both attack and defense are modes of the ego. They come from a sense of fear. One attacks because one thinks that one has been personally harmed. Think of the time your partner turned up late for an important meeting. Immediately, the ego in us feels offended. And we have this impulse to lash out. Some of us, show passive resistance, which is just anger that is not expressed. In both cases, the ego in us feels ‘undervalued’ – ‘How can you forget if you love me?’. Defense is no different. One feels the need to defend and explain one’s actions to protect oneself. From what? From being belittled.

Attack and defense belong to a court and not to healthy relationships. Realize that if your relationship has descended into attack and defense, it is on shaky grounds. What then is the right way to address difficult situations?

Let’s take the former example where the partner turns up late for an important event. Immediately, you first feel wronged and angry. Before lashing out on the other. Take the time to observe the physical sensation of shortened breath, tightened chest and so on. Ask for some space and time. Use this to observe your body and through deep breaths, restore the calming effect of the parasympathetic nervous system. Once you notice the grip of emotions reducing on yourself. Ask yourself this, “What in me has reduced because he turned up late?”. Often, a part of us plays the devil’s advocate and says “This is just wrong. I had repeatedly told him to be on time. This is not expected of a partner”. This is an example of the mind developing a narrative of further justification (attack and defense) of why I am wronged. Gently bring back the attention on the raw emotion. By repeatedly doing this, we sever the link between the story and the emotion. This is the beginning of taking back control.

Once, we are in some semblance of balance, we can state our position very clearly to our partner. “I feel devalued when you do not consider what is important to me”. This is a statement of how you feel. As you can see there is no attack, nor defense. But more that what is verbalized, it is how you feel towards the other person that communicates more. Such non verbal cues communicate far more than words. By expressing how hurt you are and how sad you felt, you become vulnerable to the other. This is the only possibility of true and honest communication – the basis of every loving relationship.

Often, we do not like the feeling of vulnerability. This is because we were hurt in the past. This makes us build walls around ourselves. This wall may seem impenetrable and safe. Yet, it cannot hold back emotions for long. It cracks every now and then. And this shows up as anger. People who have fits of anger, actually do not know how to handle sadness. They want to run away from sadness. And this intolerance to one’s own sadness, manifests as anger. Anger simply means ‘I don’t like this’. What we are really saying is ‘I don’t like my sadness’ or in other words ‘I don’t like myself’. This is why angry people are often perfectionists and have trouble with accepting mistakes of others. They cannot face their own ‘mistake’ – sadness.

What if our partner does not respond with kindness when we open up to them? That doesn’t matter. Why should we change our innate character – our vulnerability – which is also our strength – just because the other fails to reciprocate with kindness? Yes of course, we do not behave saintly and give them permission to misuse our vulnerability. It might mean that we are with the wrong person. When we take a stand in openness and vulnerability, we know who we are. Taking a decision to move on, becomes much easier and with lesser regrets.

A vulnerable relationship is an open and honest one. Here both partners feel the freedom to come up to the other and say, “You know what, I felt hurt at what you said”. While the other patiently says, “Is that so? How did I hurt you? I am really sorry if I hurt you”. Such couples are lifelong learners. They want to understand the other, and themselves. Only such relationships stand a chance of maintaining care, love and intimacy over time.

In short, if we want deep, loving and intimate relationships, we need to face our dark shadows. Once we open up to ourselves and gain the courage to face our emotions, we can do this with our partner. And when both partners do this, knowing that they do not reduce or are not harmed by being vulnerable, this sets up the ideal condition for a shared growth – a shared discovery of oneself. Then, we realize that we are not that different in our deepest layers of existence. We both have similar fears – fear of death, fear of losing relevance in the world as we grow old, anxiety about money, about health, jealousy over our siblings doing better than us, concern for our children and so on. We are not really that different. When these feelings are respected, first in ourselves and then in the other – we feel loved, understood and respected for who we are – no matter how ‘damaged’ we may seem to the world. This gives us the understanding that we needn’t be too bothered by our emotions.

Then, and only then, can we have true intimacy.

The Rheinfalls in Schaffhausen. 2014

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