Ever felt terrified to tell a boyfriend or girlfriend how much you needed their help or support? Or perhaps you’ve avoided bringing up an issue with a S.O. because you didn’t want to seem inadequate or unlovable. Maybe it was you who bounced on a partner or friend when their needs felt too overwhelming.
All of these reactions can arise when we feel vulnerable in relationships, explains Geraldine Piorkowski, Ph.D., author of Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy. Often, she says, because we fear having our deepest desires trampled upon, rejected, or unfulfilled.
We're not saying that letting people in—especially when you're not used to doing so—is an easy process. But with a little bit of self-awareness and a few communication skills under your belt, you may just be able to lock down that loving, authentic, and mutually supportive relationship you’re afraid to admit that you yearn for. While this is sometimes scary, it is precisely what enables us to enrich our lives and grow.
No, You’re Not Weird
We’ve all struggled to open up to others at some point in our lives, says Jeffry Simpson, Ph.D., a social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. If you’ve ever balked at the mere thought of getting close to someone new, rest assured: That's normal. It’s instinctual and natural to avoid situations where we might get injured, he explains, even if that injury is “only” psychological.
Because the list of what we potentially lay ourselves bare to in relationships is endless—rejection, attack, lack of reciprocity, betrayal, or the loss our own autonomy, just to name a few—even the securest of people can feel a bit upended when forming romantically charged bonds. Sure, a lot’s at stake when we begin getting close with a new partner, but if we’d like to reap the benefits of having meaningful connections to others (a higher quality and longer life included), vulnerability is pretty much required. Development and validation of the Emotional Intimacy Scale. Sinclair VG, Dowdy SW. Journal of nursing measurement, 2006, May.;13(3):1061-3749.
Unfortunately, our fears of vulnerability are surprisingly common and heavily influenced by the earliest relationships we had. The more predictable, loving, and stable our relationships were with our parents, teachers, and friends as we grew up, the fewer apprehensions we have around letting others in once we become adults, research suggests.
But if we were deprived of adequate attention, given mixed messages, or abandoned in our early years, we tend to expect the same painful treatment from everyone else in the world—especially those we fall in love with, Simpson says. This can lead some of us to avoid romantic relationships (and sometimes, close friendships) altogether or try to eradicate unbearable angst by clinging to objects of affection too inflexibly.
The more interpersonal or romantic wrongs we’ve experienced, the more our mind sends the memo: Remain on high alert.
And that's when our sneaky subconscious starts to trickle into our awareness. (Wait a minute, last time I felt this close to someone, they rejected me/cheated on me/told me I was “too much.”) The more interpersonal or romantic wrongs we’ve experienced, the more our mind sends the memo: Remain on high alert. “Not only are you more fearful of getting close if you’ve been through troubled relationships—including parents divorcing or infidelity—but you’re also on the look out for conflict and more likely to consider it as very serious,” Piorkowski explains.
This can look like anything from taking on so much work that you never have quality time with your partner, to keeping flings so short-lived that others rarely get the chance to see who you are beneath your professional or social identities. Keeping people at a distance like this can feel self-protective, but it may not help you in the long run. (So-called “avoidantly attached” people report lower overall quality of life and less happy marriages).
It may also take the form of fretting over our partners, obsessively calling, texting, or e-mailing them, or inflaming minor conflicts rather than “just letting things go”—all of which comes with an equally unsatisfying set of consequences, like relationship dissatisfaction and divorce. Perceptions of conflict and support in romantic relationships: the role of attachment anxiety. Campbell L, Simpson JA, Boldry J. Journal of personality and social psychology, 2005, Jun.;88(3):0022-3514.
Hang in there if all this sounds too familiar. There’s a silver lining embedded in the potential pitfalls—and part of teasing it out involves clarifying how much of your trepidation is all in your head.
How Not to Freak Out in the Face of Vulnerability
Remember, conflict is not the death knell of a relationship, Piorkowski says. Ironing out issues, maturely discussing differences of opinion, and rectifying mistakes is part and parcel of ongoing, healthy partnerships. Following the steps below can help you hone these essential skills.
1. Touch base with yourself.
Keep track of how you’re feeling, Piorkowski recommends. It can help to jot down the emotions you feel from breakfast to bedtime—and how you acted on those emotions—in a diary. Becoming more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors helps clue you into what’s really going wrong and what needs to change in order for you to feel better.
And if you find yourself acting out in ways that are self-destructive (think: cheating; lying; drinking, eating, or exercising in excess; or avoiding your partner by staying late at work even when you don’t really have to), note that as well. Each is a sign something’s amiss.
2. Talk about it.
Once you get clear on what you’re feeling, bring it up with your partner. At the very least, Piorkowski says, talking about what’s going on with you (without blame or judgment) can foster feelings of closeness and mutual understanding.
3. Get a reality check.
No matter how sane we are, all of us hold beliefs about reality that can muddy how we interpret a significant other’s behavior, studies show. (Think: reading way too much into a single-worded text or assuming someone is cheating on us when they’re actually just getting drinks with their friends.)
Check in with your partner as well as close friends about whether they see you as overreacting, tense, or critical.
“The clearest way of getting a handle on this is to check in with your partner as well as close friends about whether they see you as overreacting, tense, or critical,” Piorkowski says. Rather than invalidating what you’re feeling, it can help to have a different perspective on whether your emotions—and the actions that follow from them—are in line with the facts of what’s actually happening.
4. Ask for what you need.
Do you feel you’re not getting enough quality time with your mate? Do you want more of their attention—physical, emotional, or both? Maybe you’d like them to tone down their criticism or request they be more mindful of your needs for personal space. Ask for what you need in a loving way, without nagging or accusing, advises Piorkowski. If they care about your well-being, chances are, they’ll understand. Try, "I really care about you, but when you speak to me in that tone, it’s really hurtful and makes me want to shut down. Can you try couching your feedback a little more kindly?"
Or "I love G-chatting/texting with you during the day but sometimes it can make me get less done at the office. Maybe we can try talking on the phone during my break, or updating one another on our days once we’ve left work?"
Whatever it is you want, says Piorkowski, you’re certainly lowering your chances of getting it if you avoid asking for fear of driving them away. (And if they’re repeatedly unwilling to adjust their behavior in a way that makes you feel comfortable then they may not be the best match for you… which is better to know sooner than later.)
5. Help your partner feel safe.
Being emotionally intimate doesn’t just mean being in tune with or talking about all our feelings, beliefs, wishes, and needs. It also means being empathetic toward what’s going on in our partners' heads. Luckily, Simpson’s research shows there’s a lot we can do to allay our partner’s apprehensions around getting close.
If they have anxiety that you don’t love them (or that you’ll leave them), but you have no inclination to do so, point out counter-examples that refute their worries. Remind them, kindly, how much you care, and that you woudn't be here, investing time and energy in the relationship, if you didn’t want them to be in your life.
If your partner has a penchant for pulling away, Simpson suggests assuring them you’re willing to take things at a pace they’re more amenable to.
It’s totally normal to be afraid of opening up to someone you’re romantically involved with. But the more honest we are with ourselves, the more we communicate with our partners, and the more effort we make to support the people we fall in love with, the better our chances become of finding satisfaction with someone else.