How to be vulnerable with your partner

Being vulnerable with the people you care about is one of the best ways of developing close and fulfilling relationships. Self-help books extol the virtues of being more open with your partner - opening up and allowing yourself to be who you truly are, warts and all.  

But being able to achieve that level of vulnerability - and understanding and trying to deal with the things that might make that difficult - can be a delicate proposition.  

Why being vulnerable is so difficult

On the face of it, being vulnerable might not sound like a great thing. Being vulnerable means being in a position where other people can hurt you.  

It often means expressing the sides of yourself about which you have the least confidence or certainty, and allowing others to respond to them. It means surrendering some of the control you have over how others see you, and potentially compromising the image they have of you - an image you may have worked pretty hard to maintain! 

So clearly being vulnerable can come with risks. But the crucial thing about vulnerability - and the thing that makes it such a brave move to embrace - is that it’s only through taking these risks can you gain the rewards.  

It’s only by allowing yourself to become someone who could be hurt that you can experience the sense of closeness and fulfilment that vulnerability can also bring. It’s only by surrendering a certain level of control that you can experience a higher level of mutuality in your relationship - a sense of knowing each other more honestly, and being able to trust each other more deeply.  

In short, while vulnerability can be scary, it’s usually worth it.  

How can you be vulnerable in relationships?

Vulnerability in relationships can take all kinds of forms.  

The most obvious of these is simply sharing how you’re feeling with your partner. That might sound obvious, but it can be harder in practice than you might expect, especially if you’ve got into certain habits of communication - perhaps without even realising it.  

So, on a simple level, being vulnerable might mean telling your partner what’s on your mind. It might mean giving an honest answer when your partner asks how you are (instead of automatically saying ‘fine’).  

It might mean explaining if something has made you upset, and resisting the temptation to express this indirectly instead - by making passive aggressive comments or becoming distant.  

It might mean being open about your feelings on the relationship itself. That could include openly stating your level of commitment to your partner, or your hopes for the future. Or it might mean making a point to have a proper conversation about any elements of the relationship that you feel might be problematic - and trying to tackle them, rather than hoping they go away.  

And of course, vulnerability doesn’t just have to be about things relating to conflict. It can also mean being willing to show positive emotions around your partner, or express physical affection. These are actions that can feel scary or exposing too. Being vulnerable can sometimes mean telling someone you care about them, or even just giving them a hug.  

What can get in the way of vulnerability?

There are lots of reasons why someone might not want to be vulnerable. The first of which we’ve already stated: it’s hard! Even if you haven’t had that many specific experiences where being vulnerable caused you to be hurt, it’s still a difficult thing to do 

And of course, many people have had negative experiences with vulnerability. These might have happened at any time of their lives, but it’s particularly common for people who grew up in environments where sharing their feelings wasn’t encouraged or rewarded to feel wary about doing it when they are older.  

For some people, that might mean their parents actively discouraged expression of feelings. They may have been punished for crying or getting angry, for instance, or shamed if they became too excitable or happy. This might be because their parents were deeply uncomfortable with emotions themselves, and didn’t know how to receive or respond to them in others.  

Or, perhaps more commonly, it might mean that their parents never effectively modelled the expression of emotion in the family home. Their parents may have struggled to express feelings healthily themselves - bottling things up until they all came out in big arguments, for example, or expressing emotions indirectly or via passive aggression.  

These kinds of experiences can leave children - and the adults they become - cautious and guarded about the idea of being open with how they feel. Often, this feeling is very deeply ingrained, having been reinforced over and over by years of the same patterns occurring. 

How do you learn to be more vulnerable with each other?

At the heart of the process is getting into the habit of expressing - and listening to - emotions. That might be as simple as, once a day, expressing some element of how you’re feeling, sincerely and openly. One of the things that can be tempting if you struggle with being vulnerable is sharing your emotions along with some kind of negative behaviour - like saying how you feel, but then immediately making a joke, or apologising. It’s important to try not to do this - but to simply express yourself, and then stay in that moment.  

And for the person hearing this, it’s important to mirror this process. People who struggle with vulnerability often struggle to accept feelings too. Again, it can be tempting to make jokes or express some sense of awkwardness - or even to respond negatively or say something defensive. But part of getting used to being open together is allowing yourselves to sit in the moment and allow it to breathe.  

You may find that, by trying to do this regularly that you and your partner develop your capacity to be vulnerable quite quickly, and that you see a real difference within a month or so. The important part is keeping at it - working hard to override any negative patterns you’ve gotten into so you can replace them with positive ones.  

It can also be useful to try to practice these ideas outside of your primary romantic relationship too. The skills we use in one area of our lives are usually transferable to others, and it can feel less pressured to try some of these things out more casually.  

Being more vulnerable with your friends you may find, makes it easier to do the same when you come home to your partner. It can make the habit feel like one you’re practising generally - not one you only have to focus on in intense bursts, or when the stakes feel higher.  

And, of course, the other benefits speak for themselves: just as being more open with your partner can help you feel closer and more trusting of one another, so the same can go for the other relationships in your life too. 

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