Being vulnerable isn't always a good thing.
All couples come to experience the raw buttons of their partner. Happy couples understand each other’s imperfections and enduring vulnerabilities, while unhappy couples use these enduring vulnerabilities as fire power in the heat of a battle. Instead of holding hands, they point fingers.
Steven and Ruth met while traveling through Brazil five years ago. Both are in their late thirties, and both had a difficult childhood.
Steven was abandoned by his father at the age of 6. He felt like a burden because his mom constantly stressed about money and his childhood expenses. Ruth’s mother divorced her dad and moved 400 miles away. Because Ruth’s father was a workaholic, she spent most of her time at her dad’s girlfriend’s house. His girlfriend often shut her in the basement because she “needed silence.”
As a couple, they travel to faraway lands. Yet these exotic trips are full of conflict.
While in Thailand, Steven lost Ruth just before they were going to get on a boat to visit another island. Assuming Steven would wait by the dock, she wandered off to get some fresh coconuts to drink. After 7 minutes of waiting, Steven’s mind went into panic mode. He freaked out and ran down the streets looking for her.
When he saw her walking towards the dock, he was enraged.
“Where did you go?”
She looked at him with big eyes as if to say, can’t you see? There are two coconuts in my hands...
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I had no clue where you went to!” Steven shouts. “What were you thinking? The boat is about to leave!”
Ruth doesn’t respond. She thrusts a coconut in his arms, grabs her bags, and sits on the boat alone. Steven feels upset that Ruth is ignoring him. Like she doesn’t recognize that he’s stressed out.
He remains there, stewing for the duration of the ride. When they arrive at the dock, the tension has vanished over the waves, but the underlying issue was never discussed or resolved. The issue lurks below the surface like a shark, eagerly waiting to attack in the next conflict.
Every individual has a handful of issues that breaks us down. These issues often originate in our childhood and are carried into our adult relationships.
The essence of our issues can typically be placed under three things that cut to the heart of our insecurities:
For anxious/needy personality types:
- Fear of abandonment
- Separation distress (if alone for too long without connection)
- Fear of being a burden
For avoidant/independent personality types:
- Feeling trapped and out of control
- Fear of being too close (leads to rejection)
- Fear of being blamed
Steven and Ruth are oblivious to each other’s insecurities and how they’re slowly being pushed apart. They are unaware that their shared childhood abandonment is bleeding through their connection.
Steven’s insecurities cause him to believe:
- He is a burden that becomes his partner’s problem.
- His partner struggles to trust him.
- His partner would leave him at any time without a care in the world.
Ruth’s insecurities cause her to believe:
- She has to do everything alone.
- Everyone is unreliable and she can’t count on her partner.
- Other people’s expression of emotion is overwhelming and childish.
As you can see, the boating incident shows how successful they are at pushing each other’s buttons. They did nothing to relieve the other’s distress.
Ruth was insensitive to Steven’s fear of abandonment by not telling him where she was going, and she was shocked at his anger. Steven was insensitive to her withdrawal when he was upset. He was unprepared to make amends when he found her.
I don’t think Steven and Ruth intentionally wanted to hurt each other. But their lack of expertise on each other caused them to both be in the dark about understanding vulnerability in relationships as they floundered in hostile emotional territory.
They both remain helpless to each other and they both struggle to repair the situation, ruining their relationship one misunderstood moment at a time.
Happy couples, on the other hand, understand the intimate details of what breaks their partner and what builds them up. Couples that understand when their partner is feeling down and can get a sense of why without asking. They also know how to repair the bond and remedy the situation.
Learning new ways of loving that create healthy relationships requires more than just a mindset shift or the latest relationship tools. It requires healing your attachment brain through healthy connection with others. Doing this requires vulnerability, personal growth, and acceptance that your partner and you are dependent on each other.
If we choose to enter into a relationship, we are choosing to accept all of our partner’s history and baggage. Imagine if your partner took responsibility for your past injuries received by the hands of people they’ve never met and were consciously sensitive around these delicate topics. How would you feel if your partner did that for you? Amazing and loved, right?
Love is a conscious choice made every damn day that says, “I’m here for you through everything. I’m even here through the shit that has hurt you in the past and still hurts you today.”
Couples who last together accept each other “as is” and take responsibility for each other’s care. Baggage and all. When their partner becomes distressed they can relieve it. When their partner is joyful, they amplify it. When their partner needs space, they understand and have a mutual plan to reconnect.
And yes sometimes our partners are a real pain in the ass. After all, we are too, sometimes. Your role of the being your partner’s lover requires you to care for them, even when they are a pain in the ass.
Love requires courage. The courage to be vulnerable and stay open to our feelings even in conflict, even when we are hurt and angry. Love bids us to stand connected with our lover, rather than shutting down emotionally, even when it is difficult to do so.
The only way to love and become experts on each other is to mutually work together to understand one another. As couples do this, conflicts stop being about who is winning and who is losing. Instead, conflicts become a catalyst for closeness that creates a win-win for both partners.
This article was originally published at KyleBenson.net. Reprinted with permission from the author.