If you think vulnerability is something to be ashamed of, think again. "Vulnerability is not weakness," renowned author and research professor at the University of Houston Brené Brown says in her 2010 TEDxHouston talk on the subject. "I define vulnerability as emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. It fuels our daily lives." More good news? Learning how to be vulnerable in a relationship can fuel stronger, healthier, and more meaningful bonds than perhaps you've ever imagined.
"Vulnerability is emotional openness and putting yourself into a position in which you are exposed and willing to be open," says Shelley Sommerfeldt, PsyD, clinical psychologist and founder of online couples coaching practice called the Loving Roots Project. "It's also the skill of being aware and acknowledging your emotional state rather than deflecting, avoiding, or denying your feelings." As Sommerfeldt points out, while many people incorrectly identify vulnerability as a weakness, "it is actually a strength that requires confidence in oneself and your ability to embrace challenging situations."
Of course, embracing vulnerability with a romantic partner(s) is not a done-and-dusted task. "Being vulnerable in a relationship is letting your guard down to connect in a raw and open manner," Sommerfeldt notes. "It means putting your heart on the line, even if that means heartache." That might sound like an ouch, but vulnerability encourages the most authentic version of yourself to come to the forefront. (Consider that a mega-awesome skill in the long run, no matter the relationship.)
Ready to go all-in? Vulnerability requires you to be connected to how you process emotions and express thoughts and feelings to your partner openly and honestly. Ahead, learn how to be more vulnerable—and why it can be so freakin' hard to do so in the first place.
Why is it so difficult to be vulnerable?
"The word vulnerable comes from Latin and means 'wounding,'" says Angela Amias, a couples therapist and co-founder of Alchemy of Love, which provides relationship programs for couples. "Not surprisingly, vulnerability often has a negative association, especially in Western culture where it’s seen as the opposite of being strong."
But, contrary to popular belief, opening yourself up to vulnerability also means opening up to the possibility of pain (and you gotta be pretty strong to be willing to do that). In fact, it's kind of a requirement if you want to feel intimacywith someone, romantic or otherwise. "The ultimate truth about love and relationships, the truth that most of us want to avoid, is that loving another person means opening ourselves to the possibility of being hurt," says Amias. "Being vulnerable requires you to share from your heart and that creates the potential for being hurt or rejected."
When someone tries to avoid having honest conversations with their partner (the same applies to potential partners) for fear of being hurt, Amias says that results in the individual being closed off—no matter if they're on the receiving end of love or pain. "Keeping yourself closed off so you don’t get hurt means you can never be close to another person," she adds. "Healthy relationships require that we learn how to open up and share from our hearts. You have to be able to listen to your partner and be open to being affected by their words and their feelings, even when it’s difficult or painful."
"Healthy relationships require that we learn how to open up and share from our hearts."
"We can resist being vulnerable as a coping mechanism and means of emotional protection," Sommerfeldt says, echoing Amias. "Many people may consciously or unconsciously believe they are protecting themselves by being closed off or not addressing complex emotional issues." But this can create tension between partners, especially if they feel unloved or a lack of emotional connection within a relationship.
"A distant, shutdown, or emotionally-unavailable person can desire closeness and connection with others but have difficulty expressing this," Sommerfeldt notes. "When that happens, their relationships can suffer by feeling neglected or distant."
Thankfully, if you make a commitment to self-reflection and work, you can totally boost your vulnerability IQ.
How can I start being more vulnerable in my relationship?
Ready to open yourself up to connection, no matter the result? (I know, gulp.) Here are seven expert-approved tips to get you started:
1. Check in with yourself.
Cliché but true: The most important relationship you’ll ever have is the one with yourself. "When we have built a habit of avoiding or just burying our emotions we start to lose sight of how we actually feel," says Monica Denais, a licensed professional counselor who works with high-achieving millennial women entrepreneurs. "Checking in with yourself by working with a counselor and/or journaling can help you deepen the level of understanding of yourself and your partner."
2. Engage in self-soothing.
Once you begin to have an awareness of how you are feeling and your emotional process, Sommerfeldt says it's essential to engage in calming techniques that may reduce the discomfort that arises. "The act of self-soothing means that we provide comfort to ourselves in order to feel more emotionally solid and balanced," she notes. Some options to flex these muscles, she says, include taking a few deep breaths, repeating positive affirmations, or engaging in healthy self-talk.
That may be easier said than done at first, but keep at it. "[Self-soothing] starts with small steps in expressing how you are feeling and sitting with the uncomfortable emotions as they come up," she says. "With more practice and exposure, we begin to build confidence and feel better through the process."
3. Schedule regular check-ins with your partner.
Think penciling it in with your partner is ridiculous? Not so, says Denais. In fact, she recommends scheduling a 30-minute weekly check-in with your better half. "Ask each other 'What went terrible today? What went well?'" she advises. "Giving a little glimpse into your day is the perfect practice for sharing the bigger stuff we tend to avoid." Denais adds that it’s important to set boundaries about how much you’re willing to share as you start to grow this practice.
4. Get outside of your comfort zone.
Listen up, folks: It’s important to talk about the hard stuff. (Yep, the things you really want to avoid in the first place.) "Through facing these uncomfortable and challenging emotions, we can build tolerance and begin to feel more confident in our ability to be open and vulnerable," says Sommerfeldt. "When we embrace emotional or difficult conversations, rather than fleeing from them... they become less scary." With practice, along with self-soothing and staying grounded in the present moment, "we can slowly let our guard down and begin to have a more open and honest relationship with ourselves and others," she adds.
5. Try this vulnerability exercise.
Speaking of stretching beyond your comfort zone, consider this couples exercise from Amias: Sit quietly, back to back, while focusing on breathing together, with the eventual goal of synchronizing your inhalations and exhalations. "This practice can feel really awkward at first, but it’s a great way to practice vulnerability because it’s outside of most people’s comfort zones," she says.
Bonus points: Amias says this practice of breathing together will also help you learn how to listen more effectively, both to yourself and to your partner (and vice versa), which will only serve as a benefit to future conversations.
6. Be a better listener.
Put 👏 down 👏 the 👏 phone 👏 . It almost goes without saying, but for the tough convos, limit the distractions. That means no cell phone, no TV, no playing chess on the computer. Instead, focus on making eye contact with and listening to your significant other, says Amias. "Being vulnerable in your relationship requires being fully present with your partner," she explains. "Listen with the intent of understanding where they’re coming from, rather than just waiting for your turn to talk."
Curiosity, Amias adds, will also help you become a better listener: "Be curious about how your partner is feeling and why, and also be curious about your own feelings, too."
7. Weave more vulnerability moments into your day.
Feel like you're stuck in a rut? Amias says that's pretty common for couples who have been together for a long time. "Their relationship feels routine and familiar," she says. There's safety in the recognizable eb and flow of your day-to-day, but that also makes it easier for couples to stick to unchanging habitual conversations and routines with their partner, leading to complacency.
"When working with couples to improve intimacy, I often advise them to focus on becoming more vulnerable with each other," Amias says. "It can be strangely intimidating to think about trying something new with someone you’ve known for 30 years." One of her go-to techniques? Spend an extra ten minutes in bed in the morning, just silently looking into each other’s eyes. "[It] can be a powerful and very vulnerable—the experience of connection. It’s this sort of simple moment of intimacy that couples find they’ve been missing most in their relationship."