‘Vulnerability is like gold.’
I made this statement during a conversation with my sister this week. The words came out inelegantly, though, I thought. I tried to figure out another way to express what I meant. We were talking about how sometimes in relationships, couples just come to what seems like an insurmountable brick wall in relating with one another. A wall that is invisible to everyone else. It’s hard for anyone else around them to put a finger on exactly what the problem is because there’s often no ‘major,’ visible incident for others to witness. The relationship involves neither physical nor verbal abuse. There’s no child sexual abuse. There’s no sudden discovery of another wife, or of a child fathered outside the relationship. None of ‘the biggies,’ in short.
And yet, for some reason, the couple just can’t seem to connect. And then they get to the point where they’re not sure they even want to anymore. There are two walls built: one around each partner. It’s no longer even clear which wall was erected first and why. It seems almost easier to each party to just remain within the confines of their individual walls – a place where there is some semblance of safety, no matter how momentary this may be. Reaching out is just too hard. Excruciating, really.
I made another attempt: ‘Vulnerability is precious. It’s like a special gift. A sacred gift, almost. If the recipient doesn’t value it, or know what to do with it, then it’s hard to keep giving it. It’s akin to throwing your pearls before swine.’
I winced a bit at the last sentence even as I said it. Not the best choice of words, but my sister got it. She understood that I didn’t mean that letting yourself be vulnerable isn’t worth it. It is worth it when the person you’re engaging with gets it, appreciates it, and knows what to do with it. I just meant that it’s tough (and probably even pointless) when the person doesn’t get it.
We could both really appreciate what it’s like being in that tight spot.
When I was married, I remember being puzzled about how my then spouse seemed to have this desire (need?) to see me cry. I honestly didn’t get it back then. With my recent reflections on vulnerability, I think I understand it better now. He would periodically remark that he’d never seen me cry (although he had – just rarely). He would say it almost in a frustrated fashion.
We’re from different ethnic groups, and there was this one time that he got back really late from a trip. We were visiting his village and I stayed back with his mother and our son. People began to wonder where he was and what might be wrong. We were all happy when he got back and the people in the compound surrounded him with greetings of joy and relief. He turned to me and mentioned casually that a woman from his ethnic group would have met him in tears. He didn’t say it in an insulting way, but the fact that I’d heard this before (‘A woman from [insert name of hometown] would be crying by now, thinking she’s now a widow …’, etc.) made me wonder if I needed to do anything differently. He would say it almost as if he felt like he’d missed out on something.
Maybe I’m just too pragmatic for my own good. It wasn’t unusual for him to get back late from such trips. It was pretty much the norm. I just got used to it and came to accept that he’d be late, but he’d be back.
I now see that crying, to him – the idea of my crying – probably signified that I’d given up myself fully to him. That I wasn’t holding back. That I was vulnerable. Maybe this was a gift that he hoped I could repeatedly give.
Now that I’m taking the time to think about it, I realize that in order to allow myself to be completely vulnerable, I need a certain level of assurance: Do you know what to do with my hurt? With whatever it was that led me to tears? Or does it make you feel uncomfortable? Helpless? When I bare my soul, when I strip down to nothing … do you know how to cover me? Or do you leave me there, naked, shivering and ashamed, because you’re not sure what to do with me?
Think before you answer.
And understand that your leaving me there doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad person (although it can). Sometimes, all it means is that you simply don’t have the tools to deal with me when I’m all undressed, when I don’t have it all together. After all, I’m The Calm, Composed One. The One That Never Loses Her Cool. The One That Always Has It All In Check. The Level-Headed One.
To rub this in further (and to my greatest shock), I had just finished typing the paragraphs above when a visitor stopped by – a young lady in her early 20s. I put my laptop aside and we chatted for about a twenty minutes when she said, ‘Please don’t be offended, but may I ask you a personal question? Do you ever cry?’
I was astounded.
‘Of course I do. That’s such a spooky question, given what I was writing about before you got here. Why on earth do you ask?’
‘Oh, I guess it’s because I just see you as so strong. I seem to cry about my problems all the time, and I just see you as such a tough person – like someone who is able to handle her life so well …’
‘Nothing could be further from the truth, though,’ I protested. ‘I’m actually extremely sensitive and not tough at all. I cry like everyone else, even though sometimes I feel like I don’t have the time to. I might not create a lot of time for it, but I do have my moments when I just let the tears come for a couple of minutes.’ I’m pretty good at not giving myself an excuse to wallow in depression, but I’m just like everyone else. In fact, those that know us well (including my sisters) would describe me as the ‘softest’ and the most emotional out of all the 4 girls in our family.
I don’t think I convinced her, though. I then realized how difficult it must be to see me and come to terms with a different side of me when you already have a totally different perception of who I am. How hard it is to allow me to be all the other things that I am, too. And so when I do dare to show a different side of myself, you’re thrown for a loop. It’s a vicious cycle: you’re thrown for a loop and therefore unable to treasure my gift. I take that as rejection and decide to keep my valuables to my sweet self. Without understanding exactly why, you sense that even though I’ve poured myself out to you, I’m still withholding some important drops. This makes you withhold a part of yourself, too. And the cycle continues.
Thinking about these things led me to look up the word ‘vulnerability.’ Someone defined it this way: ‘Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them.’
This explains why it was so hard (impossible, really) for me to really share my father’s death with my husband when I was married. As badly as I felt about it, I just couldn’t bring myself to cry in his presence. The ability to do so actually seemed beyond me. My tears would just automatically dry up. I felt like he hadn’t earned the right to see my tears. I felt like when he’d seen them before, he hadn't quite known what to do with them. I felt like I had been left uncovered and alone. Therefore, I didn’t understand why there was the expectation that I would put myself in that position again and again.
Vulnerability. It’s like gold.