Tuesday, February 20, 2007

When conversations become blogs...

I was talking to an old friend the other night about her boyfriend problems. A long story short, she made him aware of something about the relationship that troubled her, only to have him respond negatively. "I made myself vulnerable, and what did I get? Confrontation!" she complained. It got me thinking about the nature of vulnerability and when in life we learn the possibility of being hurt by it in our relationships. Why is sharing ourselves, opening up if you will, so difficult even in long standing relationships?

It seems as though we share the positive things easily--the things that make us happy, what provides pleasure--even when those things are silly. It's mildly embarrassing that I can't get enough of cheesy dance movies, but that's a cute quirk at worst. No one has stopped calling me because of my obsession. But what about the negative? What we struggle to keep back are the negative feelings--what causes hurt, sadness, self-consciousness. Surely there are people who have never experienced a great degree of this in their relationships, those unselfconscious souls who share energetically with those they are close to. But honestly, I know about two of those people.

The rest of us live much more guardedly. Are we all jaded cynics or is defense of our soft-spots just the way life has to be? Isn't that what the whole concept of love is built on--the idea that somewhere out there is another soul who will love us no matter how twisted or weird we are, that they will be just as strange, and we'll live out our lives together in the equilibrium of mutual oddity?

What my friend and I decided was the worst of it was that theres really no way around vulnerability. In the bonding process at the beginning of a relationship (or even friendships), we have to share with each other. We start small with the superficial; "I like to eat giant bowls of chocolate chip ice cream while I watch horror movies," or "I once cracked my head open during a bicycle accident when I was 10." But sooner or later, usually before the direction or potential longevity of the relationship is clear, we have to begin stripping ourselves. Think about how exciting it is to be on the receiving end of this experience; it's a tease, it's seductive, we can't wait to find out the next thing about this person. And the fear is similar I think to literally taking one's clothes off, losing all the camouflage. No one wants to stand (either literally or metaphorically) before the object of his/her desire , exposed to whatever degree and have him/her say, "Ewww!"

But it's a risk we all take eventually if we want to grow together. The older we get, the more and more difficult it becomes. Psychologists often say that we learn our first model of relationships in our families--what we can/cant do, say or feel and the consequences of breaking those expectations. Maybe repeated phrases like, "Nobody likes a whiner" keep us from sharing legitimate frustrations with future partners. And then there are phrases that most women can relate to: "Nice girls dont..." Just fill in the blanks and think of all the pieces of ourselves that we've held back at the risk of seeming "un-lady-like." Not to discriminate, males are under just as much pressure. What about all those social norms about providing, being competitive, or not crying? Millions follow these roles at their own expense. Even the enlightened among us at some point struggle with the norms weve been taught. I've heard versions of the following from almost all my friends at one time or another: "Does she think I'm too sensitive?" "Does he think I'm a freak because I want sex more often than he does?" "Is she turned off because I make less money than she does?" "Will he date me if he finds out I'm a feminist?" And the examples could go on and on.

And if we fear these differences enough, we will hide them and hide behind our defenses to avoid being called out or rejected because of them. We've all had these techniques reinforced by past relationships that didn't work out. From the superficial--"Well, I LOVE camping, so obviously this will never work out"--to more hurtful proclamations of our supposed deficiencies--"You're too obsessed with work," "You don't share your feelings enough," "You just dont excite me anymore"--leaving that person thinking, "Great, I'm not outdoorsy enough, I'm not relaxed enough, I'm too shy, I'm too fat/thin/old, etc."

We carry these insecurities right along with us into our future relationships and do our best to conceal them, afraid that if it gets out that we don't like baseball or are slow to bond with our partners friends that he/she will kick us to the curb. By doing that, we are limiting the relationship because we are really imposing limitations on what we believe the other person is capable of. By never giving him/her the chance to truly know us, we are missing out. And then we wonder fruitlessly why our relationships are so superficial, or we blame the other person for not caring enough.

I'm not advocating sharing with wild abandon on the first date or even the third--"Hi, nice to meet you! I fear spiders and abandonment. What are you going to order for dinner?" But when the partner is worthy, we can start sharing in good faith. How do we determine the worthy? That's the trick; we don't really know, but as the give and take continues and the trust builds, we can begin letting go of more and more.

I don't know about you, but in new relationships (or friendships), I've come to recognize the ingrained fears that arise, not because of anything this person has done but because of past experience. The true issue, the real potential for personal growth comes when after we hit the wall of our own pre-formed limits, we can identify that the person in question has not been the one responsible for offending our vulnerability and we can go beyond ourselves and give that person a fresh opportunity to know us.

My friend Mel (a wise, wise woman) once said, 99% of relationships end in breakup, as we only marry (or long-term commit) to about 1% of the people we date. That said, theres no guarantee of success when we share ourselves; just because we share our deepest fear with someone doesnt mean he/she will be there in ten years or even ten minutes. But if the possible goal of human existence is to know god, know others and know ourselves, and ironically, we grow in each category by practicing the other two, then isn't the potential worth the risk? Isn't the experience of the journey greater than the ending? Rather than seeing vulnerability as weakness, can't we see it as a tool of flexibility to become more and more ourselves whatever the nature of our relationships? It's a growth process into balance...I won't become transparent with my loved ones over night. But this is a theme that has recurred in conversations I've had recently, and I'm genuinely interested learning how to present my true self and knowing others for who they really are as well.


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