How to Be a Vulnerable Partner and Share Intimate Connection

Reality shows and Relationships

love watching reality dating shows.  Especially the more immersive, experiential ones (nod to OWN’s Ready to Love and Put a Ring on It, Lifetime’s Married at First Sight (MAFS) and 90-Day Fiancé, and Netflix’s Love is Blind, just to name a few). And kudos to the on-screen licensed therapists, relationship coaches, and counselors! Yasss, Dr. Nicole! Preach, Pastor Cal! We’ll miss you, Dr. Viv! Love, love, love!!! Ooooooh! I giggle with excitement and eager anticipation with the release of each new episode! 

I am awed by these couples!

As an Imago Relationship Therapist, I love that reality dating shows give viewers an inside look at marriage and relationships. Yes, I acknowledge the shows are heavily edited for television (i.e. for maximum drama, and minimum reality.) And they are set under bizarre circumstances, like unrealistic timelines and media exposure. Even so, the true relationship tendencies of the participants are often revealed. I cry with them, while admiring their bravery. I reflect on how I might handle their relationship dilemmas if I were in their shoes. And … yes, … I’m going to say it…I am awed by their mastery of relationship vocabulary! 

My ideal partner is…

Has anyone else noticed how everyone on reality dating shows now is looking for someone “authentically open, and doing their own emotional work?”  Reality dating show cast members get mad props for being “empathic,” “vulnerable,” and “in therapy,” but lose major points for being “closed,” “emotionally unavailable,” or (Lord forbid) “narcissistic.” For that reason as an Imago therapist, I’d like to go over a couple of emotional terms and expand on their definitions from a relational perspective.  What strikes me on these reality shows, and what I find in my work, is that people often use the terms freely, but often don’t fully understand these characteristics they say they are looking for in others. Or they misconstrue what they see, or think they see, in themselves.

“I feel like I’m sharing so much as far as intimate details,” she said.

“Basically you’ve just been telling surface-level stuff.”

“I didn’t know I was not expressing myself,” he replied. (Stacia and Nate, MAFS, Season 15)

By openness, I mean…

Yes, one aspect of openness has to do with being frank and not hiding anything (i.e. an “open book”.) Being open doesn’t exclusively mean a willingness to say anything to anybody no matter what. We aren’t necessarily open when there isn’t anything we won’t say something about. Openness means acceptance of, or receptiveness to change or new ideas. It means sharing not only facts or opinions about a thing, but also difficult emotions, significant impacts, and current relational manifestations of that thing.  Openness is a state of being. One in which we can objectively yet compassionately look at ourselves. Freely and fully sharing our experiences with others indicates openness. Genuinely consider new possibilities like:  

  • things our partners could be right about, 
  • things we could be mistaken about,
  • relationship therapy,
  • ways our upbringings have shaped the way we are,
  • new sexual positions, or
  • the validity of our partners’ otherwise confusing and unfamiliar perspectives.

If we are not demonstrating openness, we probably:

  • are highly emotionally reactive to certain topics (easily triggered, popping off, escalating, evasive, avoiding),
  • cringe at the idea of having regular in-depth conversations with our partners about our relationships and our associated feelings within them (Eeew, eye contact! Eeew, feelings!),
  • can’t acknowledge the relationship difficulties our own habits or reactions create or describe and implement our work to improve them, or
  • can’t seem to appreciate our partner’s (often very different) perspectives.

“Vulnerability to me is danger, if I show you everything, it gives you power over me, and you can play me how you wanna play me, and that terrifies me.” “I’m trying to be more vulnerable but I’ve never seen my mom cry in my life so it’s just really what I saw growing up. And for me, it’s just like I had no choice but to be a strong woman and a part of being strong was not being sensitive, it was not being vulnerable.” (Alexis, MAFS, Season 15)

By vulnerability I mean…

Vulnerability is often incorrectly associated with weakness and with embarrassing, over-the-top (often tearful) emotional expressions. However, vulnerability means different things to different people.  Being vulnerable requires lowering one’s emotional defenses. This involves a form of exposure, susceptibility, and therefore perceived emotional risk.  However, contrary to Alexis’ fears above, it doesn’t have to mean revealing one’s deepest darkest secrets at inappropriate times, or willingly giving one’s control over to others.  

Imago Relationship Therapy can help you too

Imago Relationship Therapists help clients meet one another’s shared vulnerabilities with validation and empathy.  Expressing vulnerability within the context of safety, without fear of shame, blame, or criticism from others, can lead to the development of deeply intimate connections.  With practice, these connection-building expressions can eventually occur routinely and feel quite natural.  
Depending on our experience, showing vulnerability can be:

  • uncomfortable, challenging, and even scary,
  • a welcome release of fear and a way to be truly seen and understood,
  • a key to a deeper connection with loved ones, or
  • ultimately, a sign of inner strength, and a facilitator of emotional growth.

Rather than expressing frustrations in unhealthy ways, it’s important to be able to accurately describe and effectively request that our partners meet our emotional needs in relationships. Book an appointment with an Imago Relationship therapist today!