by Joyce and Barry Vissell
So many people struggle with their relationships. For many people, intimacy is a foreign language. And vulnerability … forget it! Show your partner your weakness, fear, pain, need for love? No way! That’ll make you look pathetic.
Sorry, folks. The opposite is the truth. The only real hope for intimacy is through vulnerability. The only real hope of having a loving, fulfilling, dynamic relationship is through showing your lover all of you – not just your strength.
In our workshops, Joyce and I teach and invite vulnerability. As each participant becomes vulnerable, he or she becomes more beautiful and attractive to all of us. In addition, each person’s vulnerability opens our hearts to our own vulnerability. This is the truth about vulnerability: when you share your human frailty, you become accessible, more lovable, and you give permission for others to not have to act strong all the time.
Have you ever bumped into a friend or acquaintance, asked them how they’re doing, and been met with, “I’m great. My life is perfect. My relationships are full of love. I am making lots of money.” It’s like they’re bragging. It comes across as superiority. Does it allow you to feel close to them? I doubt it.
I’m not encouraging you to walk around complaining about your life either. Running yourself down is not vulnerability. Self-judgment and criticism are not attractive unless you reveal your pain underneath it all. The pain is the vulnerability that makes you attractive. It’s your vulnerability that reveals your true spirituality, because it reveals your full humanity. True spirituality is holistic. It includes all that is human.
Joyce and I see so many couples who have all but given up on real connection. They live their lives like housemates, like ships passing in the night. There is no intimacy, no passion, and no joy. They desperately hide their vulnerability from each other – and, more importantly, from themselves. They’re trying to be too strong, too independent. They have learned even in their childhoods that vulnerability is dangerous. You get hurt if you show your weakness. You get rejected if you show your need for love. Maybe you even get ridiculed if you show your fear or pain.
There are no guarantees in life. There may be times when you do get hurt, rejected or ridiculed for being vulnerable. That’s the risk you have to take – but only if you want real love. The other choice – hiding your vulnerability – will more often than not keep you alone.
I need to make this more personal. I have been vulnerability-challenged for most of my life. Because of physical violence and lack of safety, I learned very early in my life to hide my weakness, fear, pain, and need for love. Early in my relationship with Joyce, she would tell me how much she needed me. I could never say those words to her. I had buried my vulnerability so deep that I couldn’t access it. I used to tell her, “Joyce, I love you, but I don’t need you.” Obviously, I didn’t have very many friends back then!
To prove that I didn’t need Joyce, I had an affair with her best friend. To my credit, I told her right away. I did not keep it a secret. But I also announced that I needed sexual relations with other women. Joyce felt she had no choice but to leave our marriage right away.
In that week after she left, I learned something that changed my life – vulnerability. At age 25, for the first time in my life, I felt the pain and sadness of a little boy – the little boy inside me. And I felt my need for Joyce’s love.
There is a story of a disciple who told his teacher, “I need to feel God’s love. How long must I wait to feel God’s presence in my life?” The teacher responded by taking the disciple down to the river. The disciple got excited. Perhaps he was about to get anointed in the holy river, and then all would be changed by the magic touch of his teacher. Instead, the teacher pushed the disciple’s head under the water and held it there a long time. When he finally saw the disciple sputter and struggle, and knew he was out of air, he pulled his head out of the water and spoke to the alarmed student, “When your need for God’s love is no different than your need for air, then you will really know God!”
Well, my need for Joyce’s love, in that week after she left, was no different than my need for air – and no different than my need for the divine. That need was truly part of my vulnerability, and the beginning of my journey into holy vulnerability.
40 years later, my need for Joyce’s love is still growing. So is my vulnerability, my need for God, and my connection with God.
If you are reading these words, I encourage you in the direction of vulnerability with those you love. Rather than trying to act strong all the time, show your humanity, your need for love, your fear, pain, or sadness. Show that vulnerable little girl or boy inside of you. Take the risk to see how much more love there is for you. Become truly attractive to the ones you love.
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA, who are widely regarded as among the world’s top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom, Meant To Be, and just released, A Mother’s Final Gift: How One Woman’s Courageous Dying Transformed Her Family.
Call Toll-Free 1-800-766-0629 (locally 831-684-2299) or write to the Shared Heart Foundation, P.O. Box 2140, Aptos, CA 95001, for free newsletter from Barry and Joyce, further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.org for their free monthly e-heartletter, their updated schedule, and inspiring past articles on many topics about relationship and living from the heart.