If I said the word vulnerable, what would you think of? I think of a rabbit. In my backyard there is a little wild rabbit that comes every few days to eat the lettuce I leave out for it. Now we’re pretty newly acquainted, this rabbit and I, but I’d like to think I’ve been consistent enough with my leafy offerings that I’d have earned its trust. Yet every time I try to approach it, it crouches down in the grass and it’s terrified. Its ears are tucked close to its body, and it’s quivering. Every little hair and whisker on its velvet tiny body is trembling. It’s actually heartbreaking how scared it is. Its whole being is crying “don’t hurt me.”
Now why do I feel the need to approach it? I don’t know. I’m the big boss human who owns the yard? I have this world peace vision where the rabbit runs to me and cuddles me, obviously grateful for the greenery I’ve so graciously provided it. But I digress…
I’ve since stopped trying to get close to my visitor. But I’ve been thinking about it (he/she?) since. We recently moved to a new area and we’re meeting a lot of new people. Especially in our church home (as they say here in Texas). I think of that rabbit a lot when I’m introducing myself to someone. I feel vulnerable.
A friend approached me once. Her marriage was really struggling and they had decided to see a therapist. In a session between her and the therapist, the therapist suggested that she needed to be more vulnerable in her marriage. “What does that even mean?” she asked me.
Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, needing to be vulnerable? Especially if you think like I do about my little rabbit. Why does the rabbit quiver? Because it has no way to protect itself, it’s completely exposed. All it can do to save itself from me is run. But in a healthy relationship, a couple is vulnerable. Both of them.
What does that look like? When do you feel vulnerable in marriage?
I feel vulnerable when I’ve made something new for dinner. When I show my husband a new outfit. Sometimes when I do something dumb, like splurge on something in a moment of weakness, I feel vulnerable. I feel vulnerable after a fight. I feel vulnerable when I’m trying to figure out if I should say sorry. Some of these instances I feel just a little vulnerable. And others make me feel way more vulnerable. But how is it helpful?
I’m not suggesting you get into fights and do dumb things to make you feel vulnerable. When I say you need to be vulnerable in marriage, I’m saying when you feel anxious or concerned you turn towards each other. Remember my rabbit, how all it can do is stand there or run? I’m telling you don’t run. Being vulnerable in marriage is trusting that the other will be careful with your tender feelings.
Granted it takes some trial and error. Sometimes we forget that our spouses have given us this stewardship over their hearts. When we forget that, it’s easy for us to get riled up about whatever issue rather than see our loved one for who they are. Sometimes we can really hurt them, or maybe they really hurt us.
In some cases we’ve been hurt a lot. How do you trust again when you’ve been hurt a lot? You have to be vulnerable. There does come a point where you need to protect yourself and stop the abuser from having opportunity to hurt you. But I’m talking about the everyday instances, not your extraordinary exceptions. To know if a relationship can ever feel vulnerable again, you have to give it a chance.
This is why so many therapists agree that trust is essential to a healthy relationship. You have to trust that the other will be mindful of you. When you’re vulnerable with your spouse, you’re trusting they won’t hurt you.
Vulnerability can be terrifying. Especially if you’ve had a traumatic past, vulnerability can seem like the last thing you should do. How can lowering your defenses help you be happy? It takes patience. It takes forgiveness. It takes courage. Sometimes it takes help from trained professionals, and that’s okay.
When you see someone being vulnerable with you, sharing their tender feelings, admitting their faults, coming out of their shell, catch them. We are afraid to be vulnerable with others because non-responsiveness can hurt too. The more you try to be there for others as they are vulnerable, the easier it will be for you to be vulnerable too. Sarcasm or joking about your feelings is an attempt at being vulnerable, but isn’t sincere and can be hurtful or misinterpreted.
Being vulnerable is being genuine. People may mistake this as a weakness. It’s not. To be a vulnerable person is to be brave. It’s to step out of your comfort zone. When you are vulnerable, especially with your spouse, and that person responds to your vulnerability, it is such a beautiful thing. They are telling you “I see you. I hear you.”
I’ve heard this process of being vulnerable and receiving someone else’s vulnerability called “witnessing” before. I think that’s really beautiful. When someone is vulnerable with you, in a sense they are baring a bit of their soul to you. You are witnessing that. Acknowledging the moment, the gift they are giving you, you are witnessing their light.
How would our lives be if we were more vulnerable? If we were more genuine? What would politics look like? What would our discourse with one another look like? If we saw each other, if we witnessed each other? I’d imagine we’d be a lot more understanding, a lot more forgiving, and a lot more patient. Sounds like things we’d want in our marriages, doesn’t it?