Men, Women, and the Healing Power of Vulnerability

While working with a couple this morning I was struck again by the power of vulnerability. For the first 45 minutes of the session I struggled to help the couple deactivate their negative cycle, to no avail. They went back and forth, the same old argument, the slights and injuries, the multiple ways that each felt the other had failed. It was a bit of a cliche, the wife asking for emotional closeness, the husband shut down and boiling with anger.

At a loss, I asked the husband, "What is it you need her to know about you right now?"

He paused, took a breath, and his eyes filled with tears.  "I really need her to understand how afraid I am," he said, his voice just above a whisper.

The pulse in the room changed entirely. His previously bristling wife reached over to touch him and rested her head into his neck.

"I do," she said. "I do understand."

This may seem mundane but it was a breakthrough. Raised by an abusive and hyper masculine father, the husband had learned early on that emotional vulnerability was not to be tolerated. To survive, he learned to fight, to be tough, to move toward anger as easily as fire to dry grass.

This early learning manifested in his neurobiology and his nervous system, then in his behavior. He learned that when he felt afraid, the best option was to rage. 

It's a sadly common story. Our culture is drenched in masculinity. As a boy you grow up feeling you have to choose between being "tough like a man," or a "sissy like a girl." Despite major progress in deconstructing these cultural paradigms, in my office I still see the vast majority of men struggling with how to express their emotions and vulnerabilities.

It's not just men asking men to be "manly." Women are often complicit in these narrative constructions, demanding that their spouses be both manly (whatever that means) and emotionally sensitive. It is often a confusing message, and many men come ill equipped to navigate this paradox.

But what I have also seen in my office are men learning how to open up, how to share fears and desires, and how to express vulnerability. When this happens it's inevitably powerful and healing for both the men and their partners. When men and women come to realize that vulnerability and courage are not competing but compatible, transformation occurs.

This can't happen soon enough, as our world is gravely in need of men and women who can model kindness, compassion, patience, and vulnerability. Our relationships and marriages depend upon it. Our childrens' futures depend upon it. And perhaps even the survival of our species depends upon learning that under all the rage is a small child yearning to be loved.

Maren Rush