How To Be More Vulnerable In Your Relationships

Opening yourself up more deepens your relationships and helps you feel less alone. And it’s a lot easier to do than you think.

Originally Published: 
Man drinking beer with friends being vulnerable

Please share a little more. You’ve heard the request once or a hundred times, and you can’t argue with it. You want to be more vulnerable not only with your spouse, but also with your friends, because you know what it does. It lets you express more parts of yourself. It gets you closer and that makes you feel less alone. It’s an overall win, because as Avrum G. Weiss, a clinical psychologist and author of Hidden in Plain Sight, says “we are relational and tribal creatures.”

Still, you avoid it. Maybe it wasn’t encouraged where you grew up, or you tried once, it backfired, and that emotional scar tissue makes it difficult. Maybe you don’t do it because, well, it’s scary. Sharing threatens the status quo and while it might work, it could also bring rejection and shame. That, says Daniel Singley, a San Diego psychologist, can be “kryptonite to dudes.”

There’s another fear as well. Being vulnerable brings up feelings, sometimes more than you want, and the reaction is to shut them down. With friends, you may bust balls, sending a Not Welcome signal to any talk that isn’t about sports, movies, or other approved topics. With your spouse, you might say, “Think rationally” or “Stay on point,” when they open themselves up a bit more, Avrum says. While this might sound helpful it’s really a way of protecting yourself.

But vulnerability doesn’t mean pouring everything out. It can be more subtle. It can be whatever you want. So if you to open up to others more, what does it look like, and how do you know if you’re sharing too much or too little? There is no one model to follow, but there are a few pointers to keep in mind.

What Does Healthy Vulnerability Look Like, Anyway?

Before anything, it’s good to define what vulnerability is, since, as Weiss says, it’s easy to think in extremes. It’s crying. It’s not screaming. “Not true,” he says. Vulnerability can be either of the aforementioned and a lot of subtler things, like saying, “I don’t really know” or “Not my best moment.” It’s about making a point to share more about yourself with other people.

“It’s just about being more open,” Weiss says.

A common decision is to not do it with everyone. You find a handful of people, based on a gut feeling that they’ll be receptive. The roadblock, Singley says, is that you can put “asterisks” by those who seem cool — the work colleague or fellow basketball coach. No, not them. Gotta keep things separate. What if they said something? So you don’t try.

But it’s in your best interest to try.

When you do, start small. John D. Kaplan, psychotherapist and co-director of Marriage Labs in Canton, Massachusetts, says to play fill-in-the-blank. “Something happened this morning and it got me feel so ________.” Angry. Stressed. Freaked out. Be honest.

Singley says that you don’t even need feeling words; just talk about work-life balance. Try: ‘I have no idea how I’m getting everywhere this weekend.’ It’s as universal and understood of a dad topic as you can get.

The biggest thing is to stay in the moment. The past is too heavy; the future too vague. “The present is always most personal,” Weiss says. The content itself is secondary. It’s all about how you say it. ‘We’re redoing our kitchen,’ offers nothing. But, saying ‘talking to contractors always gets me a little nervous,’ gives the person something to pick up on. “There’s a connection there, not a veneer,” Kaplan says.

That’s at least the hope, but the X factor is you don’t know. They could respond by giving no reaction, dismissing you entirely, or showing genuine interest. Everything is good information, but don’t make too much of anything. If it doesn’t work, you try again. If it does, you try again, since one point doesn’t make a pattern, Singley says.

The key is to pay attention and the big thing that people forget is that you have to look at the other person, another scary prospect. But Weiss puts it like this: Would you give a presentation with your eyes closed? Exactly.“You make hundreds of connections you don’t know based on what you see,” he says. “We have an amazing ability to be connected with people at levels that science doesn’t understand.”

How To Be More Vulnerable With Your Spouse

The same rules for vulnerability apply with your significant other, but there’s an added layer. You can’t just walk away as you can with a friendship. And there’s also a paradox, Weiss says. The closeness of the relationship makes it easier to both take risks and avoid them, because “you have more to lose.”

The challenge comes when you’re in a conversation and expected to share something, and you’re stumped. The usual “I don’t want to talk about it” is a complete shutdown and probably an ongoing source of their frustration. The better approach? Saying something like, “I don’t feel comfortable answering that right now.” It’s honest and it’s vulnerable because it’s real, Weiss says.

But the comment implies that there will be a later, and that’s on you. If you’re still nervous, open with, “This might be awkward,” or, “I just need you to listen.” It’s Communication 101 but you’re prepping your partner, causing them to ease up and listen, making it easier for the vulnerability to come out, Kaplan says.

How Much Vulnerability Is Too Much?

There’s no set quantity. What’s benign to one person can be overwhelming to another. It goes back to paying attention. If you see the other person shutting down with their words or actions, it’s an obvious sign to dial it back. But Weiss says it’s more important to watch yourself. If you’re starting to talk less and be less open, it’s become too much for you.

Maybe it was the time or place. Maybe you went out too strong when the desired pace is what Weiss describes as “stair stepping.” You go up one. The other person meets you and goes up another. But you can pinpoint these factors and tweak them for the next time. The answer is not to give up.

“It didn’t not work because it was a bad idea,” says Weiss.

You keep at it, and the more you do it, the less monumental it will feel. You’ll eventually find your tribe and realize that other people, especially guys, are glad, even thankful, that you took the lead. As Kaplan says, “They’re all hungry. They’re all looking for more.”

But that worry that comes with being vulnerable? That never fully goes away, because you’re always sharing something new and going deeper. That pushes the boundaries and can be unsettling, but the unknown is where the benefit lies.

“When you get closer with another human being, it has everything to do with happiness, success and health,” Weiss says. “You feel known and accepted. You’re just gonna be a lot happier.”

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