While it can feel safer to avoid expressing our true selves in a relationship, this is a risky strategy for anyone who wants to connect meaningfully. Acting pleasant and agreeable when we don't feel that way might help us get along superficially. But hiding our true feelings and needs from a partner causes distance and resentment. If we're basically compatible, by showing her or him who we really are we create a more satisfying relationship.
Many of us hold back from expressing our true feelings, wants, and needs to a relationship partner.
What’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that we then miss out on getting the kind of relationship we really long for. We feel frustrated when we don’t feel understood, don’t get our needs met, and don’t know what’s on the other person’s mind.
Kathy’s story shows how holding back because one fears being hurt can harm a relationship, and how speaking from the heart, kindly and respectfully, can help connect with a partner more meaningfully.
Kathy wanted to get married. A successful dentist in her thirties, she found dating confusing. “I meet men and a lot of them seem interested. But sometimes I’m attracted to a man and spend time with him and it turns out he just likes me as a friend.” After she’d seen Bill a few times, Kathy reported, “He said to me, ‘I like you,’ but how am I supposed to know what that means?”
“Why not ask him? suggested her counselor.
“I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”
Kathy could say to Bill, smiling, “Thank you. I like hearing you say that. I also wonder, do you mean platonically or . . . ?” In whatever words she might chose, by asking Bill politely what he means, she would be being vulnerable because his response might disappoint her. She wants a romantic relationship that leads to marriage. By asking him to explain, she’d be likely to gain clarity about whether to spend more time with him.
But Kathy hadn’t learned that it was okay to be so direct. She didn’t want to put him on the spot, she said. But perhaps she didn’t want to risk that he would break her romantic fantasy bubble. As long as his intention remained vague, she could hold on to her hope that Bill might be “the one.”
Is Vulnerability Worth the Risk?
Being vulnerable means communicating in ways that express our true feelings, thoughts, wants, and needs. Yes, doing so can be risky. If Bill were to tell Kathy that he viewed her as a friend, business associate, or client, and she had hoped to hear him say something more romantic, she would have felt disappointed and hurt.
But however he might respond, being vulnerable with Bill would pay off for Kathy. If he said that he wanted to date her and she learned that he was marriage minded, she would continue to get to know him and see where things led. If he’d said that he liked her only as a friend, she would move on to finding someone with more potential for marriage.
Another way Kate avoids being vulnerable is by insisting on paying for herself on dates. Most men prefer to pay, at least for the first date, according to research conducted with men of all ages.
Being Vulnerable Means Letting Go of Trying to Control
For Kathy, allowing a man to treat, and thanking him would convey her own vulnerability. She thinks she is protecting herself by paying her way. She believes that many men think that buying her dinner entitles him to make a romantic or sexual overture and to expect her to accept it. Paying for herself is her way of trying to control the relationship, to make sure whatever happens is on her terms, not his.
Controlling behavior is the opposite of being vulnerable. Kathy would be true to herself by recognizing that most men don’t expect the payoff she imagines they do; that it’s fine for a man to treat and that her “thank you” is all he expects. If he does expect romance or sex to result, she can say, “No, thank you!”
Benefits of Vulnerability
Being vulnerable means being in control of yourself, not trying to control someone else. By hiding our true selves, we can avoid having to experience awkward situations, disagreements, and hurt feelings. But think about what we might be losing when we hold our real feelings — the chance to connect meaningfully with another. By being vulnerable, we’re more likely to gain a fulfilling, lasting relationship.
Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of bestseller Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You've Always Wanted, is a psychotherapist in private practice. A former executive director of a family service agency, she worked professionally in family and children’s services, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry departments for the City and County of San Francisco. www.marriagemeetings.com