Balancing Vulnerability and Boundaries for Improving Intimacy

Cheerful young gay couple being romantic indoors. Two romantic young male lovers smiling at each other while lying on the couch in their living room. Happy young gay couple bonding at home.

Many people seek couples therapy to enhance their intimacy because they often grapple with feelings of loneliness, disconnection, and invisibility. But why is this? Why is intimacy such a challenging aspect for so many couples?

When we examine the word “intimate,” its true meaning is closeness—a type of closeness that enables another person to know the parts of us that we keep closest to our chest, the parts we are most reluctant to share with the world.

Ah, now it’s starting to make sense…

 To foster intimacy, we must be willing to allow the parts of ourselves that we typically hide to be seen by another. We conceal only what is most vulnerable. Therefore, to be intimate, one must be willing to be vulnerable with another.

However, for many of us, vulnerability was not rewarded in childhood. How many of us were taught to be strong but never taught how to be weak? What I mean is that we were not taught how to be when we were weak or vulnerable. If we weren’t taught how to sit with our most vulnerable feelings, we certainly were not taught how to be with another person in that vulnerability.

No, most parents are very uncomfortable witnessing their child in pain, and understandably so. Unless they learned how to deal with their own painful feelings and feelings of helplessness, they would certainly not be able to sit with those emotions manifesting in the physical emblem of their most vulnerable selves, a living, breathing mirror of their own inner child.

So, what do these parents do when their child is in pain and vulnerable? Well, these types of parents make some effort to prevent their children from experiencing these painful feelings. Some will be dismissive and say the child is overreacting, while others will try to fix the problem too quickly to avoid sitting with the emotion. They will tell the child everything’s OK and it is no big deal, which is ultimately just another way of being dismissive. 

In all these scenarios, and many more I haven’t mentioned, a child learns that difficult emotions, vulnerability, and weakness are not acceptable to others. If they want to maintain a relationship, they must hide those feelings somehow; many will even learn to hide those feelings from themselves, struggling to find intimacy with themselves as a result

Now, I want to mention another scenario that is also possible. Some parents are actually comfortable with their children having painful emotions or showing weakness and are not comfortable with their child showing strength and independence because it helps the parent feel that their child depends on them, making such a parent feel more secure in the attachment and more valued in being needed. With a child who grows up in this sort of toxic scenario they may find that they have the opposite problem: they have trouble showing their strength. In this case, it’s the showing of the strength that would be the true intimacy because it’s the strength that is the vulnerability. In other words, a person who grew up this way might feel, even if just on an unconscious level, very vulnerable in showing their strength because they learned that strength is not what keeps people around.

So, you might be starting to notice that developmental histories such as these create a conundrum in adulthood when we want to be intimate with our partners. If you learned that the only way to keep a relationship is by not sharing your most vulnerable parts, and yet, on the other hand, as we’ve established, the only way to truly experience intimacy is to share at least some of those vulnerable parts, and it’s easy to see how this would create a very frustrating internal conflict. And we must remember that all of this gets wired into our nervous system, which is part of our unconscious processing. Even if you’re telling yourself it’s safe to share some part of yourself, your nervous system might not believe you because of what it’s learned in the past.

Now, I want to talk a little bit about boundaries because I just want to be clear that in no way am I suggesting that, to be a good person, you need to strip yourself emotionally bare and be vulnerable to everyone you’re in a relationship with. I say this because I have sometimes come across, particularly on social media, where a therapist is sharing how to establish intimacy and connection with a partner, comments that give me the sense that many people don’t understand that such relationship advice is particularly geared towards intimacy with a partner who is safe enough to be intimate with. This is partly our fault as therapists for assuming this is understood. So, I’m not going to assume, and I’m going to say it very clearly here: Please do not extrapolate the messages in this blog post to mean that you should be vulnerable with just any person you meet or with an abusive partner.

Another part about boundaries is that when we are looking to let our partners in a little more, we should be careful not to push ourselves too much. Again, to just strip ourselves bare of our emotional armor and show everything all at once, especially when we’ve never shown vulnerable parts before, is not advisable. This is because it could overwhelm your nervous system, and that will just reinforce the idea that sharing these parts of yourself with another person, even with your partner, is not safe. Baby steps are really your best bet here, especially if you aren’t being guided by mental health professionals or therapy.

So, in navigating the delicate balance between vulnerability and boundaries, we discover the key to profound intimacy in our relationships. Childhood experiences shape our perceptions of what parts of ourselves are and are not loveable, creating internal conflicts that persist into adulthood. Despite societal conditioning, true intimacy requires the gradual unraveling of emotional armor, with measured steps toward revealing our authentic selves. It’s essential to recognize that vulnerability isn’t about exposing oneself emotionally to everyone but choosing where vulnerability can flourish. 

By challenging ingrained lessons and embracing vulnerability within the safe confines of respectful relationships, we open the door to deeper connections. The path to true intimacy involves self-compassion, patience, and an awareness of the interplay between vulnerability and boundaries—a journey where respect for boundaries and the sharing of vulnerabilities deepen connections over time.

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