Marriage and Vulnerability

Symbol HeartA new friend of mine is struggling in her marriage.  Her husband had an affair and they are both in a lot of pain.  I wanted to sit quietly and be like Buddha with outstretched arms to embrace all that she wanted to share.  That lasted about five minutes before I wanted to lunge at her with advice.  We can’t help ourselves, can we?  Connection with other humans can trigger our own vulnerabilities.

The need to give advice or “fix” something or someone can come from our own vulnerability towards the experience.  My friend was talking about being in “limbo” and waiting for her husband to make a decision, “Are you in or out of the marriage?” I wanted to leap out of my skin and project, “I can’t stand to feel stuck or powerless, how can you?  I wanted to tell her that she too, had to  figure out if she wanted to be in this relationship or not.  That deep decision would then drive her behavior. It was her marriage too and I was quite sure that the affair did not happen in a vacuum.  Why was she leaving all of the decision making power up to her husband?

The answer is simply, vulnerability.  Her husband moved out of the house because he wanted to avoid feeling guilty, inadequate, controlled or punished.  She went to an all too familiar place, “I’m a victim”, so she could avoid decision making, responsibility, guilt, or shame.  They both began doing more of the same, avoiding conflict and denying feelings to protect themselves against being vulnerable.

The problem is that healing in marriage is often where vulnerability and shame intersect.”  Healing requires that we take full inventory of our own faults, fears and failings.  Inevitably, that intimacy with the self, can produce feelings of shame.  Couples in ruptured relationships,  often  bounce shame back and forth as if it was a tennis ball, or a hot potato.  Spouses do not seem to know what to do with it, but kick it down the road, playing “kick the can” or “marital chicken”.

Webster defines vulnerability as “leaving oneself open for attack”.  Couples can feel that their spouse will retaliate using their vulnerabilities as a weapon or an “Achilles heel.”  Vulnerability is a double edged sword that can deepen intimacy or wound it like an arrow to the heart.

Couples who heal their marriage engage in these behaviors:  They risk being vulnerable first with themselves, then with their spouse.  They identify their feelings.  They script their needs.  They take ownership of their behaviors.  They identify the problems within their relationship.  They take responsibility for their role in the downfall of their marriage.  They are willing to change their own behavior.  They are willing to risk being fully known.  It is not easy work, but it is often transformative, like watching a cocoon become a butterfly.  We cannot be intimate with others until we can be intimate and honest with ourselves.  Recognizing our own limitations as an imperfectly, flawed human being opens the door for the possibility of forgiveness.


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