At the heart of our relationships, vulnerability is a fundamental skill that we need to nurture in order to authentically engage with our partner. If we don't lean in to our own vulnerability, it closes us off to ourselves and others.
If you ever played organized sports in your youth, you probably remember your coach emphasizing “the fundamentals” as the most important thing in the game. Dribbling, passing, conditioning, keeping your eye on the ball—all things that must be automatic for an athlete to perform well and most fully enjoy the game.
For many aspiring athletes, it’s easy to dream about the beautiful shots and the cheering fans. But those visions just don’t magically become reality without the fundamentals firmly in place.
It seems that some clear parallels exist for sustaining healthy, long-term relationships. As in sport, unless we develop and practice some core skills of relationship health, meaningful connection will likely remain elusive. We’re not all destined to be star athletes, be we DO all have relationships of some sort, so in this respect, we are ALL meant to engage this work.
John and Julie Gottman provide a very nice template of the fundamentals of healthy relationship by synthesizing their research of 10+ years with over 3000 couples into a cohesive model which they call the “Sound Relationship House”.
Click here to see a quick summary of these relationship fundamentals from the Gottman blog, and read a more detailed description by John Gottman and Nan Silver in, The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work (2003 and updated in 2015).
Gottman’s research has been available now for nearly 20 years, and the truths garnered from this research offer such a rich and deep well. I keep finding new insights and nuance to Gottman’s findings, especially through the journey of my own committed relationships and with the time I spend with couples in counselling.
One such nuance takes me back to the “sport fundamentals” analogy. A good coach may observe that an athlete who possesses excellent fundamental skills does not necessarily make a great player. Unless a player has “heart” for the game, a high level of skill will only take her so far. I think the same is true about the relationship fundamentals.
We have to ask the question of how to have an open heart to nurturing meaningful relationship, or these skills will only offer a wooden, mechanical process. The relationship fundamentals need our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits in order to come alive.
We have to ask the question of how to have an open heart to nurturing meaningful relationship, or these skills will only offer a wooden, mechanical process.
To me, the heart of the matter falls in our own work of willingness to become and remain vulnerable—a willingness to be real, a preparedness to own and confess our shortcomings, an inclination to be open to the fact that we have a lot to learn and are hindered by our limited experiences. This attitude, when shared mutually, offers the richest space to nurture safety and healing in relationship.
Many of us have learned to survive in this unsafe world by protecting ourselves, which is one reason why, perhaps, the two walls of Gottman’s Sound Relationship House are Trust and Commitment. We can’t really open our hearts to vulnerability unless we are offered the needed safety to be able to confess our shortcomings in a way that will land in a space of curiosity, forgiveness, and a mutual desire for understanding.
It can’t be overstated that the characteristics of vulnerability need to be shared by all parties to progress meaningfully and safely. But even so, many of us are still fearful to take the risks to push through the hard work of conflict that gets built up around our stories of one another. It takes practice to lead with vulnerability, and we need enough corrective experiences of moving through tension into healing to build a trust that the hard work pays off.
...the heart of the matter falls in our own work of willingness to become and remain vulnerable...
Our stories of one another often reveal our own fears, and our movement of growth will always point us toward this ownership. As we take risks of vulnerability toward others with an openness to being influenced, often the fog of fear will disperse, and a way forward becomes clearer.
But be alert that our fears can also go undetected and can become cemented into genuine sources of danger. It is disconcerting for any of us to consider that our risk of vulnerableness toward another may also contain expressions that are limited and narrow. We must hold ourselves open to this fact. It is a delicate dance to both honour honest confession of vulnerability while also noting that sometimes honest expression exposes a kind of arrogance or ignorance. For this we need tenderness, patience, and love, both toward ourselves as we express vulnerably, AND toward others – our loved ones, our communities, and, yes, especially our perceived enemies.
For additional reading, Brené Brown (Dare to Lead, The Power of Vulnerability) and Marshall Rosenberg (Non-Violent Communication) offer lots of good insight, research, and tools into vulnerability and ownership as a means for relationship intimacy, healing, and growth.
Joel Durkovic, M.A., RCC, RMFT