Marisa Guerin, PhD – June 1, 2021
We women have a complicated relationship to vulnerability. (Men do, too, for other reasons, but this reflection is about women.) On the road to adulthood, women must figure out how to manage their strength as well as how to manage their vulnerability, which can be physical, legal, or emotional. Sometimes the price we women pay for the trade-offs we make is to sacrifice our capacity for intimate and trusting relationships, which depend on our willingness to be vulnerable with others.
For generations, images of strong, capable women caring for their families or working the land have existed uneasily with the realities of the precarious status of women in a world that privileges men, especially in cultures where women are treated more like possessions than persons. I actually didn’t understand this dimension of physical vulnerability until I was a young adult, when I spent about a month living in a Latin American country.
I was left quite sobered by the contradictory expectations and realities of women and girls in that place. On the one hand, the music on the airwaves was awash in beautiful love songs, expressing devotion and desire; the media proclaimed national pride in having the most beautiful women in the world; women and even very young girls dressed in ways that heightened their attractiveness and sexuality. On the other hand, this was a society in which girls and women were routinely sexually abused, even within families; a place where infidelity was a given; a culture where the opportunities for the rest of a woman’s talents, intelligence, or gifts were severely limited.
I came home to my life in the US with totally new eyes, aware for the first time of my vulnerability as a female person, feeling solidarity for the first time with women (even in my own country) who are marginalized and oppressed. I felt gratitude for my father, brothers, men-friends and co-workers. I had not appreciated how rare it might be that the men in my social world considered me a complete person, and treated me with respect, and that my human rights were recognized by the law in my society. I thought to myself, “I won a lottery that I didn’t know was operating: namely, if I was going to be born a woman, at least I was born here, in this social world.” Needless to say, this lottery operates also in terms of my being white, and being able-bodied, and not impoverished, and all kinds of other totally unmerited gifts.
But then, here is the paradox. Vulnerable as they may be, women are also very strong people – maybe it’s a compensatory strength. Certainly, their families depend on their resilience, bravery, determination, and can-do. The contrasting cultural images of women’s fragile beauty and sturdy power can be ironic. My mother always felt it was amusing when she would be gallantly helped, like a fragile flower, to step down from a car on date night – after having flipped mattresses and hauled laundry loads earlier in the day as she kept house for a family of nine. Like most mothers, she had physical stamina as well as a strong spirit and mind. In the home, in neighborhoods, in the workplace, in religious life and in public service, women make a difference. The capacity, smarts and fortitude of women will not be denied, even if it will take a long time for the world to honor them.
But what might be the shadow side of this brightness that offsets our underlying vulnerability? What does it mean for us? How does being powerful and strong impact our relationships?
One possible cost of over-identifying with strengths is the denial of any vulnerability at all, especially emotional. Weakness, doubt, insecurity, awareness of failures, fears, wounds, yearnings – these real dimensions of our hearts leave us vulnerable to hurt. They can get stuffed into a closet, barricaded
behind our valiance. We ride out into the world like Joan of Arc on her horse, lance at her side, armored for battle. No one need see that we can bleed, too. But we lose a great deal if we guard our hearts so closely.
All of us are made for love. We may have a partner relationship, a devoted furry companion, a big clan of family members, a tight group of friends, or a vowed community of sisters – the form of our close and supportive relationships can be enormously varied. But what doesn’t vary is this: the key to unlocking trust, freedom, and unreserved affection in a close relationship is being willing to come to the other unguarded. The heart that is defended is not available to be embraced in its deepest truth.
The risk in vulnerability is the risk of being honest. Of being candid, unvarnished, undisguised, unprotected with what is tender in our hearts and maybe scary to say. Often, you can tell you are speaking a vulnerable truth because the body reacts, too. Sometimes the heart beats faster, or tears form, or there is a catch in the throat. Honesty reveals us.
Every once in a while, perhaps on a melancholy day, I find myself in a teary place over memories or feelings that overwhelm me. Then, if I hear my husband Mike approaching the room where I am, I have a choice to make. I can blot my eyes and take a deep breath and put on a happy face. Or I can say to him, “I’ve been crying just now”…. and let him into the moment, tell him about it, trusting that he will comfort me and let me cry it out. Which choice I make depends on the situation on that particular day –especially if the feelings have to do with him in some way – but I have no doubt about which option holds the potential for more trust and more mutuality in our relationship. It works the same way if he is the one who is filled up and feeling vulnerable.
Clearly, this is not the kind of interaction that you are likely to have in any old moment during the course of the day. In fact, sadly, one can go years without that kind of authentic connection. First off, we have to be in touch with how we feel in the first place, not glued to a screen. Next, emotional safety is important, and it is not always assured. Enough time is important. An unavoidable issue might prompt a word of honest, vulnerable truth. Or the weariness from carrying burdens alone for too, too long. But when we have spoken what is hard to say but true, spoken without anger or defense, and if we have been heard and received with understanding, then tension is released, we feel lighter. The closeness is real.
This is what intimacy feels like. The shutters we have closed to protect our tender, vulnerable selves are the ones we must take the risk to open, in the right time and place. Inside is our heart, and when we open, there is another, too.