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Vulnerability and Pain

I don’t know many people who love pain. I think most of us try to avoid pain to some extent. We admire athletes and competitors who push themselves for physical excellence and performance. I have friends who are Olympic weight lifters, ballet dancers, and marathon runners. Each of them manages pain in some way for the sake of a desirable outcome.

Emotionally, we learn really early in life to avoid painful outcomes. We learn to modify behaviors and reactions to create desirable outcomes. We learn if we sass mommy, we may suffer the pain of loneliness and separation through a time-out. We learn the pain of disappointing a parent or other attachment figure. In school, we learn early who the ”cool” kids are, who the “mean” kids are and how to avoid them noticing a weakness they could use to their advantage.

We become so skilled at self-protection it becomes automatic and we don’t know we’re doing it. Our brains pick up information in expressions, scents, movements, words and tones that it has identified as being a sign that pain could be coming. There‘s something really amazing about how our brains are created to read the signs and create almost automatic responses.

As a marriage therapist, I often find myself marveling at how well protected a client is and how unaware they are that a perceived danger may not in fact be a threat but a partner‘s attempt to protect him/herself. It’s easy to see from an external third person point of view. But, from inside the mind of a husband or wife who is self-protecting it can be very difficult to see.

Much like physical walls and armor, while excellent for protection from external dangers, our protective parts/postures limit sight, perception and closeness. When we enter an exchange already cloaked in full armor and walls erected, the perception of danger will be heightened, our ability to truly see and understand the other drastically diminished.


Sherry, who has intense fears of abandonment uses her control over the tasks of running her home and over her children to create a safe and predictable environment. Joe, her husband, was attracted to the stability of her highly efficient and controlled life. He struggled with that and was impressed by her. She was attracted to his adventuresome spontaneity that kept their dating life exciting and mysterious. Add 15 years of marriage and 5 kids and what once was new and exciting feels unsafe, unstable, stifling, critical and overwhelming.

Sherry’s need for structure and control only increased with children and a busy schedule. She longed for support in her attempts to remove unknowns, but instead felt unseen and unappreciated every time Joe told her to ”relax” or “come sit with me”. She perceived him as blaming her and being unhappy with her. She felt unable to relax. If she stopped for too long, perhaps this neat tidy life would fall apart. Joe wonderded where his fun flirty girlfriend had gone.

Now, when they interact each one is poised to receive a criticism, insult or complaint. They emotionally ready themselves by putting up walls and ensuring no vulnerability can be detected.

When we do this, what we often fail to notice is that instead of communicating about necessary

things (like our emotions, desires and needs), our defensive parts are fighting with our loved one’s defensive parts. If we keep going down this road we can protect ourselves right out of intimacy, understanding, closeness, connection and all the wonderful rewards of partnership that drew us in to begin with.

I guarantee two things to all people. If you desire intimacy with another human, at some point you are going to be hurt. Humans are fallible. Even the most well intentioned insightful, emotionally intelligent person is going to hurt someone they love. That shouldn’t be the lion’s share of your experience, but if you are intimate it is unavoidable. The second thing is this, the more you avoid vulnerability and try to self-protect, the less intimate your marriage will be.

Sometimes vulnerability is not safe. Sometimes we need help learning to be safe for those we love. Some times our perceptions don’t accurately represent the feelings or actions of others. In all these cases, it’s best to get help from a therapist who can guide you to a healthier more satisfying partnership.

I do believe that most people can benefit from some therapy. We all learn maladaptive ways of relating and therapy can help us learn new relationship skills. Some of us though, would do well to begin with self assessing. Are you so caught up in a defensive posture that you no longer see the heart and intent of the one you love? Have you created a caricature that doesn’t resemble the person you know them to be? What would it be like to take a moment and imagine all the defensive posturing falling away like bits of armor? What would it be like to hear beyond the harsh word and be really curious about how your partner may be hurting? Imagine yourself an Olympic Athlete able to manage the risk and potential pain of vulnerability as you attempt connection with your partner. The beginning of this process (or any healing process) starts with you. In a marriage where there is no abuse present, it is possible for one partner to impact change by lower the weapons of defense, taking a deep breath (or several) and attempting to see what is going on on a deeper level. Do you know how your spouse feels? Do you understand their hurt? Have you been curious about how they are receiving the messages you send? Walt Whitman said "Be curious, not judgemental." In this context, I'd say, "Be curious, not defensive." Another person's experience of you can be totally valid and real to them without necessarily being your intended impact or even making sense to you.

Challenge for today - seek to understand your spouse on a deeper level. When it is safe, lower the defensive barriers so that you can see and hear.

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