To Be or Not to Be…Vulnerable

August 8, 2017

lockI received an article from a reader named Vicki that immediately struck me as worthy of discussion/debate here at HUS. It’s from the Sydney Morning Herald, an Australian newspaper that has run some interesting articles about relationships over the years. In Why do we expect relationships to work instantly? writer and actor Koraly Dimitriadis argues that the best relationships may be the ones that seem the least promising in the beginning. It’s not a theory I’ve heard before, so I was interested to hear how she developed it.

KD and her boyfriend had no connection for a really long time because neither displayed any vulnerability. She appears to be in her mid to late 30s and has a new boyfriend after seven years of being single. She describes herself as having been apathetic about relationships while dating and confesses that “my latest fling declar[ed] he was not up for my emotional baggage.” I mention this because she’s developed a jaded cynicism, but she’s also had many dating experiences from which to draw insight.

When KD began dating her boyfriend, he sent up many red flags:

  • Unresponsive to communication
  • Little motivation to see her
  • Friendship vibe, no romance

“When my now boyfriend came into the picture, the dynamic was so disjointed and confusing I just assumed he was just another one-hit-wonder. He didn’t seem that keen. He would take ages to respond to my messages. We weren’t spending that much time together.

And the whole thing felt like a friendship. He couldn’t possibly be the right guy. If he were it would be instant. Friends advised me that he “wasn’t that into me”, that he was a snail, and that I should move on.”

Not only did KD not move on, she suggested to him that they make the commitment to be in a relationship:

“The truth was we needed time to open up. Seven months down the track and it’s only now that I feel like we’re comfortable. Even the way we agreed to be in a relationship was awkward. I just suggested we try it out. And it really helped things (after some hesitation!).

But the truth is, up until very recently, it’s been really hard. And it still is.”

Why is it so hard? Aren’t relationships supposed to be easy in the first months when both parties are infatuated and accommodating? KD stresses the weight of all that emotional baggage:

“If you’ve had your heart smashed to pieces in the past, if you’ve been let down by a partner you trusted with your life, why wouldn’t it take time to trust again? And the older you are, the more baggage you’ve got, the more there is to sift through.”

Fair enough, at least she is self-aware. What’s really hard for her is sticking it out, trying to form a secure attachment rather than running away and avoiding attachment altogether. But KD doesn’t maintain her objectivity. She believes that other people are lying when they describe relationships without daily hard work and sacrifice.

“I wondered recently why people aren’t really honest about what relationships are like on the inside. I love my boyfriend and I want to share my life with him for as long as it lasts, but I can admit it’s fraught with challenges. Yet every day I make a choice to keep working at it, and I guess that’s what makes it rewarding.

By choosing him I am sacrificing my single, free self. I am inviting complexity into my life in exchange for comfort and love. I am not afraid to vocalize this. Many people are however, painting a pretty portrait to the outside world.”

Frankly, I don’t know if it’s important for KD to realize that most successful relationships begin differently than hers did, and that other people may find it easier and even pleasurable to become attached to someone. But I do think it’s important for you to understand the difference. Most people don’t describe good relationships as being “fraught with challenges” or envision perpetual struggle with their life partner.

Finally, KD offers her theory that healthy relationships are characterized by difficulty in the form of challenges and problems you work through together:

“I think there is a real danger in believing that when a relationship is difficult it isn’t normal…maybe if things are too easy, it’s a sign that things aren’t so good.

Maybe the signs that a relationship is healthy is that there are challenges and problems that you work though, both individually and as a couple, to evolve and grow into the best people you can be.”

I see a couple of problems with this argument. First, not all problems are created equal. All couples must navigate and negotiate conflict, but not all conflicts are the same. “You didn’t call to let me know you’d be half an hour late” is not equivalent to “You never respond when I call or text.” If a relationship is problematic or you must admit that “we have a lot of problems,” there may be just cause for a lack of confidence and trust in your future together.

Overall, I experienced a negative visceral reaction to the article, but I was curious to know what Vicki thought. Here’s what she said:

“I agree with her that relationships take time and effort but I also believe that if they aren’t chasing or putting effort in at the beginning of the relationship, they aren’t into you enough.

And yes, maybe they are shy or they are hurt or they have emotional baggage, but so does everyone. And dating is about being vulnerable and putting yourself out there. So if you are that emotionally damaged, then you shouldn’t be trying to date/meet someone, if you know you aren’t ready.”

Vicki’s right that the key here is vulnerability. You can’t have love without embracing that risk. If your heart has been smashed to pieces then you need to heal before you can love anyone again. KD may have spent seven years single, but she doesn’t seem ready for secure attachment. It doesn’t sound like her boyfriend is either.

Coincidentally, I recently received an email from Ramit Sethi, a superstar finance blogger who sells courses about how to make money online. He begs god (his little g) to spare him from “sugary-sweet quotes about vulnerability.”

“Is anyone else sick of this shit? It seems like everyone around us is telling us to be more vulnerableVulnerability can get you a bunch of likes, or it can even get you a TED Talk…”

Sethi rejects the “virtue signaling” in praising vulnerability:

“Do you notice how people think being vulnerable makes them “courageous”?

  • Having trouble in your relationships? Find the “courage” to be vulnerable and everything will be ok.”

Here’s the full article: Please…stop writing about how vulnerable you are.

Sethi makes the point that vulnerability is only attractive when it’s accompanied by high status. When high-status people make mistakes and then express regret, we forgive them quickly. We may even like them better than before. But if a person has lower status and makes the same mistakes, he’s just a loser. For Sethi, the best strategy is to aim for high status without vulnerability, a combo he calls “Accomplished and Aloof.” He admits that he’s not very relatable and that many people don’t find him likable, but he’s fine with that. And he just got engaged, so….

If KD has asked my advice early on I would have joined the chorus of friends who advised her to move on. Maybe that would have been bad advice, I don’t know. She has stuck it out for seven months and she feels good enough about her relationship to write about it in a major newspaper.

What do you think? Based on KD’s description, what are the odds of this relationship working out long-term?

What is the sweet spot for vulnerability? Is it to be used sparingly as a strategy, or is it a key building block in relationships? Do you agree with Sethi that it depends on status? Is it different for men and women?

What do we need to do to be “ready” for relationships? Is the goal to make ourselves less vulnerable so that we can enter into them, even if they are fraught with difficulty? Can we have a real connection with someone else if we’re not willing – or able – to be vulnerable because of our emotional baggage?

Speaking for myself, I want it all. All or nothing. I don’t want to halfway it and brace myself for daily relationship challenges just so that I am not single. I’d rather remain single until I have worked through my emotional baggage, because each new failed fling or relationship adds to that baggage. Pretty soon it becomes a mountain, and that’s a very tough thing to move.

Let’s discuss!