Relationships can be difficult, frustrating, emotional, wonderful and amazing. Relationships are what make the field of marriage and family therapy so unique. There are multiple different “keys” to keeping a relationship growing and thriving. The biggest contributors to a healthy relationship are connection and vulnerability. You probably read that last statement and thought something like, “Yeah, connection is important” or “There must be better options than vulnerability”. Whatever your thoughts were after reading that statement, it speaks to your personal values and beliefs about what makes a relationship work. I would like to give you another option to consider when working with clients who are struggling in their relationships, rather those be friendships or romantic in nature.
What is an Intimate Relationship?
Let me first start by defining the terms utilized in this post through my clinical lens and how I explain these concepts to clients. An intimate relationship can fall into multiple different categories: friends, lovers, spouses/partners, and even family. To further break down that term, intimacy is “a mental and emotional sense of well-being in a relationship; a deep connection with someone that requires us to have a firm understanding and appreciation of the other” (Arangua, 2020). Intimacy is what bonds a relationship and makes each individual want to do/be a better person. This is also one method of defining a healthy relationship primarily because it is a sense of well-being and safety. So why am I defining what an intimate relationship is and how does that relate to vulnerability and connection? Arangua (2020) stated, “real intimacy creates a safe space for both people and actively tries to maintain that sense of security for one another”. This is the foundation for connection and vulnerability. Without a safe space, vulnerability cannot exist.
"Real intimacy creates a safe space for both people and actively tries to maintain a sense of security for one another"
Importance of Connection
As human beings, we strive for and are built for connection. Brené Brown stated, “connection gives us purpose and meaning in our lives” (TED, 2011). This need for connection is what brings clients into therapy offices with presenting problems such as “I feel isolated”, “I feel alone”, “I feel like something is missing in my life” or “I feel disconnected from others”. Connection makes us feel whole and that connection with others can provide purpose and direction in life when everything seems like it is falling apart.
Let us consider an example of how important connection is in our lives.
A mother of a newborn baby presents for therapy after quitting her job to stay home with her new child. She is struggling with purpose and direction in life because she was raised with the value and belief that a person finds their purpose on this Earth through working and supporting their family. By working through the connection lens in therapy, this mother realizes that her purpose in life has changed because now she is securely connected with her newborn baby and striving to help them grow and develop. This new connection is what has given her life purpose again after quitting her job and restructuring her personal values.
Connection with others can also lead to feelings of shame. Shame is defined in many different ways but the most comprehensive definition when reflecting on connection is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Shame in a nutshell is the fear of disconnection based on a perceived wrongdoing. While you might hear clients say, “I do not feel shame”, this statement is inaccurate. Shame plays a role in every type of relationship and every human is susceptible to feeling shame at one point (or more) in their lives. Shame comes across in statements like, “I am not a good enough mother”, “I am not thin enough”, “I am not pretty enough”, or even “I am not sexual enough”. All of these statements are rooted in the feeling of shame. Shame does not know bounds when it comes to relationships and can surface when a person is feeling insecure and even vulnerable.
Why Talk About Vulnerability?
As mental health professionals and specifically marriage and family therapists, we cannot talk about relationship struggles without talking about vulnerability.
In the words of C.S. Lewis, “to love at all is to be vulnerable” (Tsai, 2016, p. 171).
Vulnerability is an inevitable emotion when dealing with connection. Brené Brown stated, “in order for connection to happen we need to allow ourselves to be seen” (TED, 2011). This statement holds a vast wealth of knowledge in a short method, especially from the therapist perspective. Allowing oneself to be “seen” implies that an individual can be authentic and share not only their attributes and “good parts” but also their flaws and insecurities. This is the moment when vulnerability becomes an “icky” word for a lot of individuals. Revealing one’s flaws provides clarity that an individual is not perfect and instead shows that they are human. Exploring insecurities makes it easier for another individual to potentially hurt us by exploiting those insecurities or vulnerabilities. This internal battle is compounded by our need for connection. Without being “seen” and vulnerable, true connection with another human is limited and sometimes non-existent. In order to build and maintain a healthy relationship, an individual must be vulnerable with another because that is when true intimacy and connection can blossom.
Our Role as a Therapist
As a marriage and family therapist, our role is to facilitate an environment where individuals can be “seen” and vulnerable with their partners. One of our first tasks in starting therapy with a new client is to build rapport and help them feel safe in our office. We create a foundation for connection to grow and we emulate what a safe, emotional environment can look like between humans. This task can be accomplished in different ways yet one of the easiest methods is by viewing connection through an attachment lens.
Tsai (2016) stated that:
Attachments involve familiar patterns of emotional vulnerability and dependence; we care about the people to whom we are attached, in a way that renders us susceptible to distress when they are hurt or when our relationship to them is threatened or damaged (p. 170).
As a therapist, we create an attachment to our clients, and we care about their strides and falls. We can create a sense of worthiness for our clients by helping them feel love and belonging. Without fostering a sense of worthiness, we are indirectly denying their ability to connect and be vulnerable. Therapy works best when a client can be open, honest, and vulnerable about their struggles in life or their relationships.
Vulnerability can be difficult for some individuals primarily because they have experienced pain in the past related to their openness and authenticity. When this happens, people tend to feel that vulnerability only leads to hurt and pain. Our job as a therapist is to create an atmosphere where a client can feel safe enough to attempt a vulnerable connection with another. This is especially important in couples work because “when we allow ourselves to be completely open and vulnerable, we benefit, our relationships improve, and we may even become more attractive” (Seppälä, 2012). As humans, we are drawn to authentic people and continually search for our authentic selves. In couples’ therapy, it is imperative that partners can be vulnerable with one another because without that, there is no true connection or intimacy. Creating an environment where emotions are safe and occasional discomfort is necessary for growth, we are allowing couples to truly be “seen” by another and build an attachment that spans further than surface depth.
Arangua, M. (2020, May 12). How to Tell if You Have an Intimate Relationship. BetterHelp. https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/intimacy/how-to-tell-if-you-have-an-intimate-relationship/
Merriam-Webster (n.d.). Shame. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved November 5, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shame
Seppälä, E. (2012, September 5). The Real Secret to Intimacy (and Why it Scares Us). Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/feeling-it/201209/the-real-secret-intimacy-and-why-it-scares-us
TED (2011, January 3). The Power of Vulnerability | Brené Brown [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o
Tsai, G. (2016). Vulnerability in Intimate Relationships. The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 54(Spindel Supplement), 166-182. Doi: 10.1111/sjp.12183