As a therapist, I see a common self-defeating pattern in clients: they hold back from expressing their authentic selves — their true feelings, wants, and needs — to their relationship partner.
By not communicating our true selves, we miss the opportunity to gain the kind of relationship we long for. We feel frustrated when we aren’t understood, don’t get our needs met, and don’t know what’s on the other person's mind. Communicating openly usually fosters a more emotionally and spiritually fulfilling relationship.
Elizabeth's story shows how holding back, because we fear being hurt, can harm a relationship. It also shows how speaking from the heart, kindly and respectfully, can help us to connect with a partner and with others, in a more meaningful, satisfying way.
Elizabeth came to see me because she wanted to get married. A successful accountant, she found dating confusing. “I meet men and many 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, Elizabeth told me, “He said to me, ‘I like you,’ but how am I supposed to know what that means?”
“Why not ask him?" I suggested.
Elizabeth looked shocked. “I couldn’t do that,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”
She could say with a smile to Bill, “Thank you. I like hearing you say that. I also wonder, do you mean platonically or …?” In whatever words she might choose, 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 Bill what he means, she’s likely to gain clarity about whether to spend more time with him. She’s also letting him know that she is open to hearing him talk about his true self and to revealing her own authentic self to him.
But Elizabeth hadn’t learned that it is okay to be so direct. She didn’t want to put Bill on the spot like that, she said. But perhaps she didn’t want to risk him breaking her romantic fantasy bubble. As long as his intention remained vague to her, she would be able to think that Bill could be “the one.”
Is Vulnerability Worth the Risk?
Being emotionally vulnerable means communicating what's in our minds and hearts. Yes, doing so can be risky. If Bill had told Elizabeth that he viewed her as a friend, business associate, or client, and she had hoped for something different, she would have felt disappointed, rejected, or hurt — feelings none of us want to have..
But being vulnerable with Bill would pay off for Elizabeth, however he responded. If he said 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 said that he liked her only as a friend, she would move on to finding someone with more potential for marriage.
Being Vulnerable Means Not Trying to Control Another
Another way Elizabeth 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 my research conducted with men of all ages. “Let him treat you, at least the first time,” I suggested, “if he offers.”
For Elizabeth, allowing a man to treat and then thanking him would convey her own vulnerability. She thinks she is protecting herself. She believes that many men think that paying for 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. Elizabeth 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, to that she can say, “No thank you!”
Benefits of Vulnerability
Being vulnerable means being in control of yourself, not being in control of the relationship. Yes, it can feel safer to be with a man (or woman) you think you can control. You can avoid having to experience awkward situations, disagreements, and hurt feelings. But think about what you might be losing — the chance to connect meaningfully with a potential or actual spouse. By being vulnerable, you’re more likely to gain a relationship that’s emotionally and spiritually fulfilling and lasts a lifetime.
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