NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, March 17, 2022

Are You Afraid to Show Emotional Vulnerability in Your Relationship Because Your Partner Uses It Against You?

During a recent live talk about emotional vulnerability in relationships by sex and relationship therapist Dr. Esther Perel, who is author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic and The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, a participant raised the issue that her partner weaponizes her expression of vulnerability against her.  This is a common issue that comes up in couples therapy and it's the topic of this article (see my article: Emotional Vulnerability as a Pathway to Greater Emotional Intimacy in a Relationship).

Emotional Vulnerability in a Relationship

What is Emotional Vulnerability in a Committed Relationship?
Let's start by defining emotional vulnerability: Being emotionally vulnerable in your relationship means being open and taking the risk to show your most tender emotions to your partner.  Instead of avoiding these emotions or denying them, you let your guard down to acknowledge and express how you feel.  It means putting your heart on the line to be authentic with your partner.

Why is it So Difficult For Some People to Be Emotionally Vulnerable?
Many people learned in their family that being emotionally vulnerable is something to be ashamed of and avoided.  They were discouraged, and maybe even punished, for showing their deepest emotions.  They might have also learned that to reveal their tender emotions was considered an emotional burden to their parents (see my article: Understanding How an Avoidant Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

This is often due to their parents being afraid and ashamed of their own vulnerability.  This is what they learned in their family, and it's often an intergenerational pattern that goes from one generation to the next (see my article: Intergenerational Trauma).

When people grow up in a family where vulnerability is avoided, they don't know how to be open about their tender emotions in their relationships with loved ones.  They avoid it because it feels too raw and frightening. They might not even know what they're feeling because these emotions have been suppressed for so long.  

They don't have the words or the tools to access these emotions.  To an outside observer, it appears as if they don't have emotions.  But, actually, these people, who are often described as emotional "withdrawers" or "stonewallers," have a lot going on internally despite their outer appearance. Their internal experience is often one of fear or even terror, which they learned to hide. They learned that being emotionally vulnerable is dangerous.

Another common reason why people have difficulty expressing vulnerability is that they were hurt in one or more prior relationships when they opened up to their partners.  For many of them, the emotional trauma they experienced in the prior relationship(s) causes them to feel too afraid to take the risk to open up again.  

What to Do If Your Partner Uses Your Emotional Vulnerability as a Weapon Against You?
People who are uncomfortable with their own emotions are often judgmental or even cruel when their loved ones express vulnerability.  They might not even realize that it's their discomfort with their own vulnerable emotions that makes them act out against their partner when they're hurt or angry (see my article: Are You Emotional Needs Being Met in Your Relationship?).

Assuming your partner is unaware of how hurtful it is for you when s/he weaponizes your vulnerability, when you're both calm, you can try telling your partner how you felt when your words were used in this way.  

When your partner is aware of how hurtful it is and s/he does it anyway, this is a different type of problem. It might be that s/he learned to do this by observing his or her parents argue. It was internalized at a deep level so that this is their automatic response.  This isn't an excuse. You and your partner are still responsible for your actions regardless of the reason.  I mention it here so you'll understand why it might be happening.

If this is the case, your partner (or you if you do this) needs to unlearn this response by first becoming comfortable with their own emotions.  This is very difficult to do alone and usually requires either individual or couples therapy (see my article: How Emotionally Focused CouplesTherapy, EFT, Helps Improve Relationships).

If your partner is willing to change, the change might be small and incremental at first. This means, if you want to remain in this relationship, you'll need to be patient and manage your expectations in a realistic way (more about this below).

If part of the problem is that your partner is afraid of his or her own vulnerability, Esther Perel, Ph.D. emphasized that it's important to invite your partner to be vulnerable rather than demand it. You can't demand vulnerability because it doesn't work that way and it's counterproductive for what you want.

Whether or not your partner is willing to get help in either individual or couples therapy, only you can decide whether you're going to stay or leave (see my article: Should You Stay or Should You Leave Your Relationship?).  This is also an issue that can be explored in therapy.

Assuming you and your partner want to remain in the relationship, it's helpful for both of you to be aware that there are usually setbacks in the process of therapy.  Your partner might show progress being more vulnerable and being empathetic to your vulnerability, but then s/he might backslide. This doesn't mean that therapy isn't working--it means that setbacks are a normal part of the process (see my article: Setbacks Are a Normal Part of the Process in Therapy).

Getting Help in Therapy
Being in love with someone is inherently vulnerable, especially during the early stage of the relationship when you're both unsure as to where things are going. Some people can tolerate this vulnerability, but many people can't.

Although emotional vulnerability can feel risky, working with a skilled psychotherapist in either individual or couples therapy can help you and your partner to open up to each other in a healthy way.

Taking the first step of reaching out to a licensed mental health professional is often the key to having the relationship you want.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 or email me.