I’ve always seen myself as an open book. I’m candid about so many things in my life: my trauma, my mental illnesses, my alternative views on sex and relationships. People are often shocked at the level of openness and comfort I have in discussing my life. They ask how it’s so easy for me to be vulnerable.
Here’s the thing, though: it’s not easy. It’s something I struggle with intensely.
Vulnerability isn’t just about being honest, it involves revealing aspects of yourself that may be uncomfortable or embarrassing. For me, revealing that I’m on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants isn’t a big deal, because I’m not insecure about my mental illness.
However, telling someone that I view them as a life partner? Saying “I love you” first? Whew, honey, that’s hard as hell.
We resist vulnerability because we think we’re protecting ourselves. In some ways, it makes sense. You’re obviously not going to pour your heart out to your boss or share your greatest fears with your new neighbors. And in most cases, vulnerability is something that’s earned. We choose who we reveal ourselves to based on our level of trust.
But with that said, vulnerability can be a key to long term success in relationships.
Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston. During her TED Talk on the power of vulnerability, she describes vulnerability as a birthplace:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change.
For a strong relationship to be born, it starts with vulnerability.
Increased intimacy and closeness
Though everyone reacts to it differently, closeness is necessary. Vulnerability helps you facilitate closeness. But trying to form a connection while remaining closed off doesn’t work. So, while it might feel like you’re exposing yourself, fostering vulnerability will encourage you and your partner to ultimately protect one another.
It allows you to get to the truth (both ways)
It can feel particularly scary, but being vulnerable allows you to test the stability of your relationship. By putting everything on the table, you can see how your partner will receive the real you.
If the reception is unkind, then you’ll know you need someone who is more empathetic. If the reception is enriching, then you may be closer to finding a trustworthy partner.
This doesn’t mean they should like everything about you (because you don’t even like everything about you). What it does mean is you can move forward without the fear of judgment.
The action of vulnerability is just as important as the mindset of vulnerability. You have to start somewhere.
Don’t be afraid of conflict
The beginning of a relationship is called the “honeymoon phase” for a reason. You barely have any conflict because you’re not yet revealing your whole self. But your first relationship conflict really presents an opportunity to practice vulnerability through real communication.
If it’s handled in a healthy way, you can foster your relationship through your willingness to be vulnerable in conflict.
Get a little uncomfortable
You have to be able to tell the difference between unhealthy and uncomfortable. Vulnerability is inherently uncomfortable. If you want to reach a new level with someone, you must become comfortable with the growing pains. You have to acknowledge that the feeling of exposure won’t be amazing in the moment, but it’s healthy in the long term.
Ask introspective questions
Discovering more about yourself helps you to lean into vulnerability. Ask yourself questions like: Does my partner make me feel safe? What do I need to feel more comfortable? Does my partner need to extend more care, or do I need support that they can’t provide?
Lean into the moment when it feels right
Once, after a long night of drinking and dancing with my partner in the New York City summer heat, we found ourselves in a dive bar a few minutes before last call.
We’d actually had a conflict earlier that night that we handled surprisingly well, and I felt comfortable. I felt secure. So, I leaned into the ease of the moment and asked him, “Are you my boyfriend?” He laughed and said yes.
I knew what I was risking with such a big question. Yet, I trusted him to handle me with care. Often, our instinct to protect ourselves stops us from pursuing the needed conversations in the right moments — but don’t take these chances lightly.
Don’t forget about boundaries
Being vulnerable in a relationship doesn’t mean you should totally ignore boundaries. In fact, setting boundaries can encourage vulnerability. Coming to the table with clearly communicated lines will help to foster trust.
Unfortunately, there’s no absolute way of knowing if your partner is being as vulnerable with you as you are with them. It’s really for them to decide. That’s where trust comes in. But what you can do is extend the invitation.
Be vulnerable with them first
Act as an example. If you lead with vulnerability, you’re likely to receive it. Stepping out there first also lowers the stakes for your partner. Setting a safe tone introduces a safe atmosphere.
Don’t pressure them
Oftentimes, applying pressure to a situation shows that somebody feels unsafe. If you’re feeling particularly unsafe about your own vulnerability, you could react by pressuring your partner to get onto your same perceived level. But doing this only adds more stress to their journey toward trusting you. Patience is key. It will ultimately reward your relationship.
Reinforce your no judgement zone
Fear of judgment and fear of rejection are two big blockades to vulnerability. And these fears stem from negative past experiences. You can’t do anything about your partner’s past. But if you can reassure them that they don’t have to fear judgment or being rejected by you, trust will follow.
Overall, it’s important to understand why you’re seeking vulnerability within your relationship. Seeking a deeper connection is often a sign that things are getting serious, and a lack of vulnerability can hinder true intimacy. Let’s all do our best to make our partners feel as safe as possible! When you’re kind, you receive it in turn.
Gabrielle Smith is a Brooklyn-based poet and writer. She writes about love/sex, mental illness, and intersectionality. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram.