Letters from Esther #31: Inviting Vulnerability

By Esther Perel & Mary Alice Miller

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Shall We Begin?

“How can I invite my partner to be vulnerable?” This is a question I get asked a lot, and it came up quite a bit in my Valentine’s Day workshop this year. Our primary exercise was to write a letter to a loved one using my prompts, such as “how have you been changed by knowing this person?” and “how do you enhance this person’s life?” After we wrote our letters, so many of you wondered aloud in the chat box: “how could I ever get my partner to do this…for me?”

Questions around “inviting vulnerability” come up all the time in my work with couples. A common dynamic I see has one partner who openly shares their feelings—the light ones and the dark ones—and who complains that their partner won’t share in the same way.  “Why won’t you talk to me?” they plead. “You should be able to tell me anything. Don’t you trust me?” For them, “emotion speak” is the expression of intimacy and they experience their partner’s silence as avoidance and distance. It clashes with their belief that we shouldn’t have to experience rejection in intimate relationships. “I tell you everything; you share nothing with me!” 

Much as it hurts, we are not entitled to unrestricted access into the private thoughts of our loved ones. While we can invite someone to be vulnerable with us, we cannot force it. And while we can ask for an invitation into our partner’s inner life—“what’s on your mind?”—we can’t demand admittance. To me, the concept of “inviting vulnerability” tends to focus too much on the latter word: “vulnerability” and not enough on the former: “inviting.” This is the word that gives us a practical path to the thing we want most: intimacy—but it also carries the most risk. When we extend an invitation to someone, we also have to acknowledge the power that comes with their freedom of choice. When we ask “will you join me?” they can say yes, no, or maybe another time. But how they respond has a lot to do with how we invite them. 

Brené Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure—that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control.” Building on this apt definition, I’d like to add that if we want our partner to be vulnerable with us, we have to accept that true vulnerability is not a mandate. It’s a possible outcome that grows out of closeness and trust. And there is more than one way to develop that.

The nice things our partner does for us, those attentive little gestures, the sharing of projects in a spirit of collaboration—these, too, are vulnerable acts. A priceless smile or a well-timed wink expresses complicity and attunement, especially when words are unavailable. There’s a reason why, thirty years on, Gary Chapman’s “The 5 Love Languages,” endures as a relational Rosetta Stone for determining how we prefer to give and receive. 

If we want to invite vulnerability—if we want to allow deep intimate bonds to live and breathe in our relationships—we have to take on the risk that comes with invitation. Write your love letter and give it to them. Invite them to read it. Let go of the expectation that they will write one back. Let go of any expectation at all. What can happen when we allow someone to experience our love how they choose, without the pressure of identical reciprocation? The answer may surprise you.

Let’s Turn the Lens on You 

Questions on Vulnerability from Inside My Office

  • What is a vulnerability that you grapple with?
  • What would you say is a vulnerability that your partner grapples with?
  • How would you describe your relationship to that vulnerability within them? 
  • (Has your response to it been supportive or has it been a bit unhelpful?)
  • What’s a vulnerability that used to be hard to talk about?
  • What’s a vulnerability that has been central to the development of your self-acceptance?

More From Esther

“In Long Term Relationships When Are You Most Drawn To Your Partner” / a new blog article 

​​Faced with the irrefutable otherness of our partner, we can respond with fear or with curiosity. We can try to reduce them to a knowable entity, or we can embrace that which makes them enigmatic. When we resist the urge to control, we preserve the possibility of discovery.

“The Other Three Little Words: I Love You, But—What Are We?” / a recent blog article

The rise of the “situationship” has elongated the dating phase, elevating a different set of “three little words” to the pantheon of important relational dialogue. “What are we?” isn’t simply a kickoff to commitment. It’s a question with complex motivations and outcomes. 

Apply to be in the new season of my podcast “How’s Work?” / Apply Here

The pandemic has made us re-evaluate all of our relationships but perhaps most dramatically our relationship with work. I invite you and a colleague to apply to have a session with me for the new season of my podcast How's Work?  We are looking for work pairs, co-founders, colleagues, managers, or any combination to join me for a session to explore the future of work together.

Conversation Starters

A compendium of highly recommended sources of inspiration and information

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