Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
I hear over and over from women who email or meet with me: "Why can't I allow myself to be vulnerable with men?" Or: "How come I feel like running every time he seems to take our relationship to the next level?"
Theresa, an outgoing twenty-nine year old, reflects on an interesting trend she has noticed in romantic relationships when she says, "I always tend to go for guys who don't make a lot of money. I think it's because I like to be in control of money. I like to know a guy needs me or might depend on me."
Although Theresa is by no means wealthy, she is still a competent professional who makes a decent salary. Her choice of partners who lack career ambition reflects her need for others to depend on her, and to rely solely on herself for financial security.
For a relationship to be balanced, partners must be able to depend on one another and feel they are needed and appreciated for support they give. If they have been let down in the past, the prospect of needing someone can be frightening. Women with a fear of depending on their partner usually aren't aware of it. Often they complain that their partner is not meeting their needs.
The vast majority of the women that I've interviewed over the last several years for my book Love We Can Be Sure Of describe themselves as independent, steadfast, loyal and conscientious. They are hardworking, trustworthy, and self-reliant -- and pride themselves on these traits. They may feel self-assured and autonomous -- confident they can take care of themselves while others can't. The truth is that self-reliance is a double-edged sword. While it has many virtues, it can rob women of true intimacy and the type of partnerships they deserve.
Many women who are fearful of love fall into one of two categories. They are either fiercely independent, or become enmeshed with their partners and constantly look to them for approval. Our society prizes independence and it's encouraged in divorced or high-conflict families when parents are preoccupied with their own issues. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with working hard and becoming self-sufficient. But at its root, self-reliance is about fear of being vulnerable.
It's unfortunate that we often equate vulnerability with weakness. In her landmark book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Given this definition, the act of falling in love is the ultimate risk. Love is uncertain. It's inherently risky because our partner could leave us at a moment's notice, betray us, or stop loving us.
Take a moment to consider that you might be sabotaging relationship after relationship if you don't get beyond your fear of being vulnerable. Your fear of showing weakness or exposing yourself to others, for instance, might be preventing you from being totally engaged in an intimate relationship. You may be freezing out the opportunity for love because you are fearful of sharing your inner most thoughts, feelings, and wishes.
Do you find yourself falling into one or all of the following relationship patterns?
• Being attracted to partners who want different things from a relationship or have values that are at odds with yours?
• Ignoring red flags such as dishonesty, possessiveness, or jealous tendencies?
• Staying in a relationship too long even when you or important people in your life observe that you seem unhappy or feel mistrustful of your partner?
• Pursuing a partner who is distant or overly dependent on you even though you know deep down inside that they will never meet your emotional needs?
Self-reliance and intimacy are seemingly at odds with one another. In some households, children don't learn how to be truly vulnerable, close, and trusting of others. Some of the women I've interviewed were independent mostly because the only person they could rely upon is themselves. They taught themselves to become self-reliant because they were perpetually scared of loss. Feeling vulnerable and bewildered, and terribly alone, they felt they had to make things up as they went along.
Reigning in self-reliance will help you build a trusting relationship. When you first discover that your independent nature sometimes prevents you from true intimacy, you may be unsure about how to change this pattern. It is often hard to decipher whether self-reliance is positive or negative. Becoming more conscious of your partner's needs and the value of mutual understanding is critical to developing lasting love.
Steps to Achieving Vulnerability and Intimacy
While all relationships present us with risks, they are risks worth taking. The following steps will guide you on your journey to being vulnerable and intimate with a partner:
• Determine if your self-reliance is extreme or moderate. If it's extreme, pinpoint the source of it and examine your thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs.
• Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about accepting nurturing and support from your partner. Like Theresa, you will probably have to resist the urge to be independent and self-reliant around hot-button issues such as money, work, or family matters - like where you might celebrate holidays or go on vacations.
• Visualize yourself in an honest and open relationship and work toward allowing yourself to be more vulnerable with your partner - let him nurture you. Vulnerability is a critical aspect of intimacy.
• Remind yourself daily that it's healthy to accept help from others and a sign of strength rather than weakness. This might also apply to your work setting. Don't let your fear of rejection stop you from achieving trusting, intimate relationships. Surrender your shield and let others in.
Taking ownership of your own unhealthy patterns that prevent you from true intimacy is crucial. You must let others in and embrace the idea that you don't have to go through life alone. Healthy partnerships are within reach if you let go of fear and believe you are worthy of love and all the gifts it has to offer.