When Carol (not her real name) first came to see me I learned she was a Marine with a childhood history of being physically abused by her mother. She was also a single parent, very motivated to achieve and succeed, and desperately unhappy in her marriage. Carol vehemently stated that she did not want to be married and that she had married her husband for stability and not for attraction or passion. She loved him, as a person, but wasn’t interested in him as a lover, and furthermore was resentful of his mistakes and what she perceived as weakness.
This does not sound good, right?
But, believe it or not, Carol’s story ends in loving and rosy success.
In our final session Carol said that she had recently looked into her husband’s eyes and said, “I love you so much and you are the handsomest man I have ever known”.
What?!!! From disdain and divorce to love and deep connection – how does that happen? (In 3 short sessions, I might add).
One word folks – vulnerability.
Brené Brown notes in her research that vulnerability is the great human connector. And, there are several myths surrounding vulnerability, one of which is that vulnerability equals weakness.
Carol believed this myth hook, line, and sinker. She had built a very large wall around herself and believed that she needed to be strong, independent, and achievement oriented in order to take care of herself and her son. Her childhood had taught her that showing feelings was weakness and that above all else she had to protect her soft squishy underbelly of vulnerability.
However, Carol had an important strength – and it wasn’t her ability to bench press her own weight! Carol was willing to challenge her own beliefs and to see how things that had protected her in the past were no longer serving her. Carol was able to try something new even though it was uncomfortable and a little scary.
So, when I suggested to Carol that her disconnection from her husband was perhaps related to her inability to receive him, that her wall of strength was preventing love and connection, she listened. She also accepted that the myth she believed, that vulnerability equaled weakness, was not true. She was able to understand that it is a brave action to share our tender emotional parts with someone else, a significant act of courage to be vulnerable.
With some guidance and suggestions on how begin to be vulnerable Carol went home and tried it out. She was an excited and willing agent of her own change.
And, she came to the next session beaming and overflowing with joy and love for her husband. She had decided to share with her husband some of her experiences in her childhood and about her mother that she had not told him before. And, he received her wonderfully (good for him!). He then shared some soft squishy parts of his own back with her.
Connection! From this simple space of vulnerability Carol and her husband continued to build on their connection and, as she said, grew quickly from roommates to in love lovers.
The ripple effects were also astounding to Carol. She felt happier than she ever has. Her son’s distracted behavior improved in school. She and her husband became more affectionate and sexy than ever. And, her husband began to branch out and create his own set of friendships.
Carol marveled at how the simple, but initially uncomfortable process of being vulnerable had such profound consequences in her life and that of her family.
I pointed out to Carol how powerful she was, how her choice to be different put all the positive change into motion and that it had nothing to do with her initial blame on the faults of her husband and her desire for him to be different. Her choice to be different offered her husband an opportunity to be different also. Profound, right?
OK – so one caveat. Carol’s husband played a big role here. And, hearing the stories she told about him, I suspected he would be receptive to her vulnerability. He came through as a shining knight without the armor and created a beautiful connection with Carol. When Carol shared the stories about her mom, he said ‘Wow, I didn’t know that. Now I understand why you keep distance from her, but I want you to know I won’t treat her differently’.
However, he could have been an a**hole. He could have said something like, ‘You think your childhood was hard, let me tell you about MY mom”. Or, “So that’s what’s wrong with you! I’ve always wondered what made you such a cold fish.” These kind of responses would have been devastating and would have shamed Carol and shut her down at the speed of light. An experience like that would have confirmed to Carol that keeping the wall up was the right thing to do.
So, vulnerability is a superpower of connection, but only with those who can receive it from us.
We cannot share our darkness, our shameful bits, and our weak moments with those who can’t honor that part of us. And how to tell whether someone is deserving of our vulnerability is a whole other blog post.
Are you withholding your vulnerability? Who in your life is deserving of your story? Who can you deepen your relationship with by showing parts of yourself that are not strong and shiny and perfect?
It’s not easy, but it’s worth it!