Recently I watched the TED talk I have posted above by Anne Power.

In it she explores the pioneering work of John Bowlby, particularly in relationship to Attachment Theory.  But what struck me particularly was one of her final sentences

“Vulnerability is the heartbeat of all intimate relationships”

Linking that to my own therapy practice working with both individuals and couples, I was struck again by the fact that it is a deficit in vulnerability that is often the primary cause of difficulty in making relationships work.

As Bowlby showed many decades ago our childhood experiences often result in deeply rooted patterns of behaviour – be that an Anxious Attachment strategy or an Avoidant Attachment strategy (see Anne Power’s talk) – that become normal for us in our adult life and do not permit us to comfortably express our own vulnerability.  The result, which I see repeating itself so often, is that the heartbeat of connection in an intimate relationship goes missing to the dissatisfaction of those concerned.

If that is bad news then the good news is that new patterns of behaviout can often be learnt and relational change can take place as people explore their vulnerability together and individually.  As Brene Brown puts it in her remarkable work

“Vulnerability is about having courage to show up and be seen”.

Such courage does, of course, require considerable bravery especially if a person feels shame and the hurt that goes with it, but there are ways even this can be addressed.  So what are the patterns of behaviour that I seek to encourage in people to affect these changes…

  1. Recognise and acknowledge to yourself how difficult you find it to be vulnerable. You can do this without having to put the blame on anyone for this.  Your parents, or main care-giver, may not have been able for whatever reason, to provide the security that you needed as a baby and as a child, but it is better to seek to accept that as something that happened rather than expending a great deal of energy blaming them.  As Anne Power says, ‘All behaviour makes sense in context’ and recognizing that is a huge step forward in itself.
  2. Seek to take manageable risks. Expressing your own vulnerability is a slow process to learn and to practice.  Seeing a therapist can greatly help, as can a series of small steps in sharing it with a partner or close friend.  You will need also to be patient with yourself – these patterns of behaviour are deeply entrenched and you don’t have to be perfect to be succeeding in changing them.
  3. When things go wrong, ask yourself what has been going on for you. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of self-reflection and it may help your own development to keep a journal along the way.
  4. Be honest – express your needs – and if someone hurts you, gently let them know that they have done – for they need to know the hurt they have caused. Often too this will enable them to open up as well, for we all have unseen vulnerabilities, so enabling a deeper level of connection than previously.
  5. Maintain as much perspective as possible on the brighter side of things. Whilst it is true that some partnerships become too toxic to be rescued, and the best thing to do is to withdraw from them, there are many more that can be rejuvenated and which will begin to provide the closeness we all seek. 

“There can be no intimacy – emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy – without vulnerability.  One of the reasons there is such an intimacy deficit today is because we don’t know how to be vulnerable.  It’s about being honest with how we feel, about our fears, about what we need, and asking for what we need.  Vulnerability is glue that holds intimate relationships together.”  Brene Brown.

Sarah Fletcher