May 23, 2013 by aggiesez
Personally, I loathe feeling vulnerable, which often happens when I have to do something difficult in a relationship. Like I did this week: I had to tell a lover I’d been seeing for a couple of months — who I like very much, enjoy spending time with, and have come to consider a good friend — that we needed to stop dating.
Why did I come to this conclusion? Based on some things we’ve gotten to know about each other, I recognized a clear propensity for him to eventually trigger some Very Bad Old Buttons™ in me — which would cause me to blame him, stop liking him, and end our friendship which I’ve come to value.
This wasn’t due to carelessness or callousness on his part. He’d actually been treating me quite well. But like everyone, he’s got his own baggage which affects how he behaves in some situations. I’m very grateful that he was aware of and honest about his baggage; in my experience, many people aren’t so frank, and those kind of surprises suck. Unfortunately, his particular baggage seriously conflicts with my own. I could see big trouble ahead, and it was unlikely that either of us would manage to unpack our respective baggage in time to avert that crash.
So I felt pretty vulnerable all the way around:
- Vulnerable that if I kept dating him because I was enjoying how good things had been between us so far, just letting the future take care of itself, that almost certainly I’d end up getting hurt in a way that would lead me to trash our friendship. (And I always fear losing a friend far more than I fear losing a lover.)
- Vulnerable due to concern that he might think I was judging him or treating him as disposable. I truly respect him and didn’t want to hurt or insult him.
- Fear that by having this conversation, he might get angry and end our friendship.
- Worst of all, fear that after we’d stopped dating I might eventually discover that our friendship didn’t really matter to him anyway — something I’ve had too much experience with in some prior breakups. It’s a sore spot for me. When I say I want to stay friends, I always mean it.
Because I felt so vulnerable, like him very much, enjoy what we’ve shared, and had such mixed feelings about this decision, I couldn’t just flat-out tell him it was over. For most of the conversation, the closest I came to that was to say, “I know what we should do here is stop dating before we do each other some damage. But that’s not what I want.”
Worse, I cried a little. I do that sometimes when I feel vulnerable. You must understand: I really, really hate to cry in front of anyone — especially when I’m trying to do something difficult and want to feel strong and sure. Fortunately, so far a few tears here and there have not proven fatal, just embarrassing. Even better, he didn’t let my tears throw him.
After talking for awhile we came to the mutual conclusion that we should stop dating, but continue our friendship. We learned some things about each other through that conversation. I told him that in the two bad breakups I experienced last year, what hurt me the most — even more than the stunningly shitty behavior of those former lovers — was how I’d beat myself up for months afterward.
After those breakups, I’d persistently kicked myself for being so damn stupid for trusting too much or too soon, for ignoring some neon red flags I honestly had noticed early on, or for hanging in there too long when things were obviously screwed and no one but me seemed interested in fixing the situation. I generally prefer to feel like the smartest person in the room, so I despise feeling stupid.
He looked at me and said, “Awww, Aggie’s a sore loser.” (Okay, he said it kindly. He teases a lot.)
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but dammit, I AM a sore loser! If I end up getting hurt when I allowed myself to be vulnerable, or to become more vulnerable than I was conscious of, then from my perspective that’s not just how things go sometimes — someone’s surely to blame for it! Probably me. Ideally me. Because if I’m ultimately to blame for my loss or pain, that means that by getting smarter I can control my risk in the future — and thus avoid experiencing pain or loss whenever I dare to put myself out there to connect intimately with someone.
Yeah, I know: that’s just dumb. You can’t have connection without vulnerability and risk. Genuine human connection requires emotional openness, which means being vulnerable. Expecting perfection or omniscience from myself, or maintaining the delusion that I can control anything that involves other people, are merely flavors of self-sabotage. Color me obvious.
The not-so-noble side of solo polyamory
To be perfectly honest, one reason I’ve preferred living solo and being polyamorous is to avoid the pain and loss I’ve always associated with vulnerability. While many people equate solohood and non-monogamy with personal vulnerability and risk, I’ve found just the opposite.
For instance, when I feel free to exercise lots of autonomy in my life and relationships, I feel more personally secure and stable. Also, I really like knowing that no matter what happens with my love life, it won’t wreak havoc on my living situation or finances if my relationships end, fade or otherwise change. For me, less entanglement = less long-term risk and less day-to-day stress.
Similarly, one reason I prefer to have more than one lover at a time is that if one relationship ends I probably won’t have to go entirely without affection, intimacy and sex. (In fact, as I write this, just having shifted one intimate connection from dating to friendship, I still have one other lover — a less frequent and less intense connection, but still a good one that I enjoy and value.)
And in the bigger picture, through being solo poly (and especially with having some stretches where I’ve had no lovers at all) I’ve become far more conscious of what my needs for human connection are, and how I can meet them through friends, family, community, and events, not just through lovers or partners. That’s helped me become more resilient and happy — but truthfully, getting my needs met in diverse ways has a slight ulterior motive: to dodge vulnerability.
Generally I’m not driven by fear, and I’m far from risk-averse. I am quite willing and able to shoulder huge risks in my life. For instance, I’ve consciously chosen not to have a live-in primary partner who might also serve as a financial and logistical backstop. I’ve also chosen to be self-employed for over 15 years now, since I think I’m far more reliable than any employer. Yet I still fear feeling disconnected, unloved, and (especially) emotionally vulnerable. I sometimes go to great lengths to avoid those emotions.
That can feel cowardly at times — but I know it’s just human. Vulnerability often is very uncomfortable because it’s inherently risky. We all seek comfort and security in our own ways, healthy and otherwise.
“Open,” not just “vulnerable”
I was talking this stuff over with one of my closest friends, M the Blind Sage. He knows me well and has seen me and my approach to relationships evolve considerably over the last decade. And he’s one of the smartest people I know.
“You realize that’s fucked up, right?” he said. “You can’t have all the good stuff from relationships without being vulnerable. Most people see the good stuff too. Why do you have a problem with that?”
Duh. Yeah. Why, indeed?
Being a writer, I decided to experiment with an editorial approach to reframing my crappy relationship with vulnerability. I’m going to set aside the word “vulnerable,” since it’s so loaded for me, and instead try to be more aware of when I’m being emotionally open. Not just with lovers, but also with friends, family, people I encounter as I go through life, and my feline overlords. And with myself.
Coincidentally, this week another friend sent me a link to a 2010 TED Talk by Brené Brown on the power of vulnerability.
OK, Brené Brown could be my long-lost twin sister from Texas. She’s enormously practical and empirical, yet she delves into endlessly mushy, thorny issues about how people feel and connect. And she keeps doing this, even though it’s deeply unsettling for her.
In Brown’s research into what helps people overcome shame and fear and live wholeheartedly, she discovered a common theme: that “wholehearted” people (who are not driven by shame and fear, and who tend to have happier lives) embrace their vulnerability. They believe that what makes them vulnerable is also what makes them beautiful and worth loving. They don’t consider vulnerability to be either excruciating or wonderful, but simply necessary. (Forgive me for linking to a self-help book, but Brown’s Daring Greatly may be worth a look if you struggle with vulnerability. I’m reading it now.)
I want to get to that point. I want to be more at peace with feeling, and being, vulnerable emotionally open.
One of the things Brown talks about is how people who aren’t comfortable with vulnerability tend to numb themselves, cut themselves off from their emotions past a certain point. Some people do it with drugs, alcohol, and overwork. I do it with cynicism, snarkiness, fierce independence and by expecting that things will probably fall apart badly. (Which is probably why I find zombie movies so cathartic.)
In many ways, when it comes to my sexual or romantic relationships, I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It doesn’t really matter what form of relationship it is. I felt this way long ago when I was still trying to be monogamous. I felt this way when I was married. I felt this way when I had long-term boyfriends, or short-term flings. I felt this way on first encounters, and after years together. I felt this way during times when I had no lovers at all.
I know I can change this nagging fatalism, because I don’t generally feel it in my nonsexual friendships — even the ones that get rocky sometimes. I generally trust my friends (including some who were once lovers) to be there for me, to work with me, to accept me as I am and what I have to offer, and to not throw me under the bus or toss me out with the trash. (Or even if they do, or I do, we’ll work it out eventually and reconnect. I’ve accomplished that several times.)
Nothing in life is forever — certainly nothing that involves other people. We die, we grow, we change, we get sick, we screw up, our desires and needs shift, we get abducted by aliens, shit happens. The trick is to learn to be open to connecting intimately with people knowing that there are no guarantees.
Which is probably a big reason why I’m polyamorous: So much of the culture of monogamy is tied up with the myths of “always,” “everything” and “forever.” Personally, I’ve never bought that crap. If deep love and commitment that lasts for decades happens, it happens — but it’s not my goal. And I don’t ever want anyone to promise to love me until death do us part — they might as well promise to stop the earth on its axis, or turn me into a magical rainbow-pelted unicorn. Yeah, right.
All I truly desire from any intimate connection is for us to be good to and for each other in whatever way feels right for us, for as long as it feels right, while being true to ourselves and fair to others. That could be a few weeks or a lifetime. But then, a lifetime could be just a few weeks, or a few minutes. Like Janis Joplin said, get it while you can.
Anyway, right now I’m trying to consciously embrace being emotionally open, come what may, in large ways and small, every day. Including by doing things like, well, this blog post! (And showing a draft of it to my newly-former lover, to make sure he’s OK with what I had to say that involved him before publication, not knowing whether he’d laugh or think I’m nuts, or just ignore it. He did read it, and is fine with it. I appreciate that.)
That doesn’t mean I will take stupid risks with my heart. I still believe in moderating how deeply and quickly I get emotionally invested in a lover, especially when I see red flags or don’t know a lover very well yet. But it does mean having faith that even if I gamble big and lose, that heartbreak or bitterness won’t kill me. I will feel the pain and the loss, lick my wounds, and get through it.
And it won’t even really screw up my life, because I’ve chosen not to leave myself vulnerable open in that particular way. It’ll just hurt. I was raised in NJ, so I eat hurt for breakfast.
In the case of parting with my lover this week, looking at our situation I believe it was the right choice and not just a simply fear reflex. Also, continuing our friendship is a choice to remain vulnerable open to him in a way I can embrace and handle.
And in the bigger picture of my love life, continuing to be open to new affection, friendship, connection, and perhaps even some deeper commitment and interdependence someday (but not living with a primary partner!) requires willfully becoming, and staying vulnerable open.
Maybe I’ll eventually get to be less of a sore loser when my relationships don’t go well or end well. That’s just exhausting, it hurts more, and it doesn’t really help anything.
POSTSCRIPT: After taking some time and talking it over, my former lover and I decided to resume dating and try to manage our respective baggage so it doesn’t drop on anyone’s toes too hard. So: I have myself an opportunity to practice being aware of, and get comfortable with, my own
vulnerability emotional openness. Fortunately this comes with lots of fun and great sex! I continue to be a work in progress.