Leading with Vulnerability: a technique for couples in conflict

I work with a lot of couples who cite communication problems as their chief complaint. “We just can’t seem to talk to each other” and “He doesn’t listen to me” are common refrains. Certainly, this is a real issue and some progress can be made in learning more effective ways to communicate with one another, especially when it comes to feelings. We practice using I statements, not blaming or being defensive, but the most effective, and perhaps the most difficult technique is what I refer to as leading with vulnerability.

I was actually a bit surprised when I looked up the wiki definition of vulnerability: "Vulnerability" derives from the Latin word vulnerare (to be wounded) and describes the potential to be harmed physically and/or psychologically. Vulnerability is often understood as the counterpart of resilience

To be wounded! No wonder we humans are so quick to resist being vulnerable with one another. No one wants to be wounded, and yet . . . we must risk being wounded in order to grow and experience deeper connection. And as the definition points out, the result of risking vulnerability, or it’s “counterpart” is resilience. So showing up with our feelings and sharing them will actually make us stronger! That is a concept I wish everyone could really get.

So, what do I mean when I tell couples to lead with vulnerability? What I’m trying to get at is that when talking, and especially when talking about something difficult, start with your own emotions. Here’s an example of how one might typically bring up a common issue versus how to do it by leading with vulnerability:

Typical statement:

“Why do you always leave your dirty dishes in the sink? Don’t you think I have better things to do than clean up after you?”

Leading with vulnerability:

“I feel really frustrated when I see your dishes in the sink. It makes me worried that you don’t respect my time.”

See the difference? The first statement invites defensiveness by focusing squarely on the partner (notice the overuse of “you”). The second statement shifts the focus to I/me and makes the emotions of the speaker the point rather than the behavior of the partner.

You can probably see why this might feel vulnerable. Rather than focusing on your partner’s behavior, which you might feel quite justified in doing, you have to stop and ask yourself, “how does this make ME feel?” And in asking that question you might come face to face with some uncomfortable feelings; fear, anger, sadness. These tend to be the feelings we all would rather avoid. But unfortunately, avoiding feelings doesn’t actually make them go away.

And that’s just the beginning of the vulnerability! Because when we are honest with our partners about our deepest feelings, we risk being hurt, maybe even rejected, by them. There is a chance they will say something along the lines of “well so what? I don’t really care that you feel frustrated.” And that would indeed be wounding.

Most of the time, however, offering up your own vulnerability makes it possible for your partner to do the same. Sharing your feelings touches your partner’s heart, and that actually makes them feel safe to share their own true feelings. So instead of the dirty dish fight ending in more accusations and emotional withdrawal, it might go something like this:

Partner: “I didn’t realize my dirty dishes bothered you so much. I definitely do respect your time and I will try harder to remember to clean up after myself so that you don’t feel that way.”

Maybe it sounds like a fairytale ending, but I think it might be worth a shot. After all, according to wikipedia, practicing vulnerability will make you stronger!