Last night I had a long Skype conversation with one of my best friends. Much of our conversation revolved around vulnerability, specifically emotional vulnerability in personal and romantic relationships. We debated whether or not all romantic relationships were necessarily (to some degree) games or battles of power. Must there always be the roles of lover and beloved? As impossible as it is to quantify affection and love, I think that everyone has felt that uncomfortable, almost shameful fear that their object of affection cannot love or appreciate them in the same way that they give love. And that because of this, they are able to hurt you – to break your heart. It’s a weak, and maybe even malicious thought, yet one that’s easy to understand.
First, our conversation reminded me of a quote I blogged about last year. In case you don’t remember it, I’ve reprinted it here. In her book Love’s Work, the sociologist Gillian Rose describes choosing to love as an act of mercy.
“In personal life, people have absolute power one each other, whereas in professional life, beyond the terms of the contract, people have authority, the power to make one another comply in ways which may be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate. In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a unilateral and fundamental change in the terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change. Imagine how a beloved child or dog would respond, if the Lover turned away. There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself.”
Perhaps it reveals my cynicism in how much this quote resonated with me, but I began to think that it is almost a calculation how much you empower someone by sharing your vulnerability. If you want to feel close to someone, to befriend them, allow yourself to show a small amount of vulnerability, and hope that they do the same. Build up the trust slowly, but surely. But for a casual lover, or a reputed gossip, don’t overshare and don’t become too attached. Letting them get the emotional upper hand is how you get backstabbed, or how you get your heart broken. In these situations, it’s better to arm yourself with indifference, real or pretend.
Vulnerability may be weakness, but it also can also bring strength to relationships. Willingness to be vulnerable, as well as to accept others’ vulnerability, are unarguably essential in building deep and meaningful relationships. It is the difference between superficial acquaintances and true friends. I can remember multiple instances of the first time I bared my soul to someone, sharing my fears and admitting my weaknesses and struggles. It’s a terrifying and intimate moment as you spill your words, waiting and watching for the other person’s reaction. And how they choose to handle your vulnerability – with honest care and understanding, judgement or rejection – determines whether a bond of friendship can form, or you forever regret that moment and avoid that person.
However, I also think that the closer you become with someone, the less you feel vulnerable. Vulnerability is accepting the risk that you may be pushed around, or even knocked down – that you’ve given someone the tools to break you. With my friend, I know that I can tell her anything, and I trust her not to hurt me with whatever I’ve chosen to share. The same is true of family members.
Finally, I think of where my life is now. Many of my closest friends and confidants are thousands of miles and many time zones away. We no longer share classes, or workdays, or various other experiences. Now, I need to build new personal relationships. But at the same time I’m scared that I’ll choose the wrong people or the wrong time to let my guard down and expose my vulnerability. I worry about all the personal baggage I have, and who I will scare away or who will judge me, rather than understand. I know that most people out there aren’t looking to take advantage of me, and that not every failure or emotional disconnect is the end of the world, but when I think of it as a choice between aloneness and vulnerability, I still get a little overwhelmed.