Viewing all posts on the topic of relationships: communicating, expressing vulnerability, and building intimacy.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about how ironically lonely it could be to have polyamorous relationships. Or, perhaps more specifically, even to be part of the polyamorous community. Not to mention how hard coping with that loneliness could be.
They agreed, and offered the observation that being on the edge of something can be lonelier than not being involved at all. It strikes me that if those of us who can theoretically have as many relationships as we want struggle with loneliness, it must be a function of something deeper than our connections with others.
I can see echoes of this all over my personal life: how much harder it is when most of my poly friends have relationships and I don’t; how I’d much rather know quite a bit about my lovers’ or partners’ other connections than letting my mind fill in the blanks; how much I struggle with the grey areas of being on the edges of relationship.
The thing is, it’s so easy to not be alone. Or rather, it’s so easy to take small actions that will temporarily quench the loneliness we feel, but that don’t have the depth or the connection or the commitment or presence to really feel satisfying. I am talking, of course, about posting on Instagram, swiping on Tinder, snooping on Fetlife… Whatever our particular preference for non-committal, at-arms-length connection.
I should be clear that it’s not necessarily the medium here that’s the problem. These channels can be extremely useful when used mindfully. But their ubiquitousness, their lack of friction, and the deliberate way they demand our attention create a situation where we can find it incredibly hard to get our needs really met, while believing we have over and over again.
I have one person in my life who is definitely not a texter. At first, I was a little disappointed at how uneasy I felt not to be in as frequent contact with him as I am with other people I’m close to. I could feel stories starting to play out in my mind about how it’s only me that they don’t text, and that there was something wrong with me. Because I didn’t want this to build to resentment, I decided to knock this on the head and bring it up with him.
After much hand-wringing over the best way to word it I blurted out,
“You’re a bad texter!”
Not my most eloquent moment. But it did start a conversation about our different communication styles, and for me it raised an issue that has bubbled away for a little while in my mind, about how I can tend to seek validation through less-committal forms of communication like texting and social media engagement. I’ve had friendships and relationships that have involved texting every day, and I remember noticing how obligatory this communication sometimes felt, how much more we had to actually talk about after giving ourselves, occasionally, some space from one another.
My bad-texting friend, on the other hand, prefers to call. This means that, every so often, we will commit to being present with each other throughout a conversation, the unspoken agreement being that we will say goodbye and end the exchange explicitly when either of us would prefer to be doing something else. I’m down for more of this style of talking.
I can remember when texting and MySpace were novelties. When most of my socialising happened in person or on a landline. I wonder whether I still had the same need for validation and reassurance then; I suspect it’s a need that has grown with these new communication styles, and the unwitting voyeurism that Facebook and Instagram coaxes out of us.
It would be easy for me to talk about turning your phone off more often, or deleting apps, or all the other methods for combatting this that so many people have said better than me before. While useful for interrupting habitual behaviour perhaps, these solutions feel like they are only treating symptoms.
How do we learn to be satisfied with ourselves, confident that we are enough, and able to feel secure without needing to seek validation through constant contact with others?
So How Do We Learn to Cope with Loneliness?
Roan Coughtry recently wrote about how we can find this sense of security in ourselves by being unapologetically ourselves: overcoming a fear of abandonment by never abandoning our own needs and wants. Allowing ourselves to be seen and heard. I certainly know that this is something I would like to be better at, and I wonder whether developing my capacity for being with the discomfort of asking for what I want might help me to feel more secure.
I’m also aware that it’s a fear of abandonment and loneliness that often prevents me from speaking my wants in the first place. It seems to me that the only way to break such a pattern is by changing my behaviour, and the only behaviour in this instance that it would be helpful to change would be to be more honest with others in speaking up.
There’s another piece to this too, though. A deeper questioning of what it is that we are asking others to do for us in our loneliness: to distract us? To reassure us? To hear our insecurities?
I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with requesting these things, as long as we understand what we’re doing and speak about them honestly. A process of noticing what it is we want to be distracted from, what we need reassuring about, which insecurities we need to speak. Otherwise, our loneliness can overwhelm us and leave us chasing after something that never quite helps – such as more frequent and superficial contact with someone – because we’re unwilling to look at the real fears underneath it.
There are two things I’ve discovered while learning how to be vulnerable recently: it’s really fucking hard, and really fucking worth it.
I could never have known how to be vulnerable through most of my twenties; I’m not sure I really knew what vulnerability was. Or perhaps I did, I just didn’t realise that sharing my softest parts could lead to more depth in my relationships.
The thing with allowing yourself to be vulnerable is that it allows the most scared, fragile, and young parts of you to be seen, and this process of showing all of ourselves to those we love is what creates the most real intimacy.
With hindsight, I can see now that resisting allowing my vulnerability to be seen only lead to more anxiety: not talking about what I need in a relationship in order to feel safe meant that my needs were not met out of fear of losing the other person. Failing to honour those needs resulted in relationships where I could never grow, ultimately ending in a feeling of stagnation and resentment.
Here are some of the ways I am learning to become friends with showing my vulnerabilities (it’s a work in progress).
How To Be Vulnerable… Slowly & Gently
You can start small. Perhaps a new romantic relationship isn’t the best playground to start exploring your vulnerability right away if it’s not something you’re used to doing; start with friendships that feel secure, and topics that feel only a little edgy.
What things would you not want your friend to know about you? Is there anything you’re ashamed of, scared of, or anxious about that you could consider talking with your friend about, as an exercise in sharing something vulnerable with them?
It can be interesting to notice how you feel in the friendship after trying this. In my experience, sharing something difficult and being seen and heard in that way brings me closer to that person, and leaves me with gratitude for our connection. Usually for me, fear of speaking my vulnerability comes from a fear that the person will disappear if I do. Practicing doing this with someone trusted, and with topics that are unlikely to compromise the friendship, allows me to start understanding that vulnerability doesn’t have to lead to abandonment or rejection.
Speak Your Vulnerability
Once you’re feeling a a little more comfortable with consciously sharing vulnerabilities with people you already feel secure with, you can bring those practices a little more ‘into the wild’. Stumbling into a feeling of vulnerability with someone who matters to us, unintentionally, can be scary and triggering. There are tools we can use to use these situations to create deeper intimacy, instead of feeling that we need to run away, freeze up, or fight.
This can be as simple as saying, “I feel really vulnerable right now.” Sometimes this is all that is needed to begin to pull us out of an unhelpful place and into somewhere where we have more opportunity to vocalise what’s going on for us. Being able to voice the impact of the situation – that we’re feeling scared, or anxious – can give us a little space to decide whether we want to explore this further, or whether we need to take care of ourselves by moving away, if possible.
In my experience, telling someone close to us that we’re feeling vulnerable engenders more trust and honesty from their side, and a desire to understand and help if possible. Ultimately, if we want it to, this can lead to more productive and intimate conversations.
Use a Reality Check
It’s always possible to ask yourself, no matter how anxious or scared you’re feeling, “am I safe right now?”
Noticing that the answer is “yes” can be a necessarily calming thing when feeling particularly vulnerable, especially when practicing sharing things that we feel anxious about.
Often the things I’m feeling most scared over are fairly irrational, if not almost inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and so reminding myself that I am ultimately safe is a helpful reminder of perspective.
Develop a Support Network
It’s much easier to be vulnerable if we know that we have supportive folks around us. The (often irrational) feeling that we’re risking one relationship by showing our darkest sides can seem less scary if we know we have others with whom we can be fully ourselves.
This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. But beginning to foster friendships built on allowing vulnerability, and a community where the tough stuff is just as welcome as the joy, is a really valuable thing. For me it means that there are always people – whether I’ve known them for years or only a couple of months – who welcome my vulnerability, anger, fear, or grief, and with whom I can practice speaking it, sharing it, and processing it if I need to.
Know Why You Want to be Vulnerable
The reason I put so much energy into identifying my vulnerabilities and sharing them with those I love is that it allows for deeper connection. It’s a sign of trust, of self-knowledge, and of how much I value the relationship: so highly, that I want this person to see every part of me.
This isn’t only relevant for people you’re already close to, though. Meeting strangers with the vulnerability of admitting, “I’m new and I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing” or, “I’m lost, can you help?” or, “I’m feeling really nervous right now” can instantly create a much more honest connection, and invite the other person to share deeper parts of themselves, too.
Be Clear On Your Boundaries
This is perhaps the most important thing of all. Being able to identify and communicate boundaries allows us to open up with others, because we can feel safe in knowing where our limits are.
For me, one of my most vulnerable places is in anger. Sharing anger with those I care about, when that anger is directed at them, feels particularly edgy because this is where I am most fearful they would walk away from our relationship. And yet anger is such an important feeling, often necessary for setting and upholding boundaries. One of my biggest challenges recently has involved learning to allow this anger, and the vulnerability I feel in expressing the boundaries it signifies for me, trusting that those I love won’t disappear as a result (so far, so good).
Being over-vigilant with boundaries keeps people out; we never allow ourselves to be vulnerable out of fear or shame. Conversely, if we don’t hold our boundaries at all then we put ourselves at risk of being compromised. The balance is in knowing our needs – how much of ourselves we can give, how much capacity we have, how we need others to treat us – and feeling confident in communicating this to others.
The confidence in knowing that we can look after ourselves, without relying on others to care for us, frees us up to share our vulnerable, fearful sides. This is because we’re doing so from a baseline of self-responsibility. We can seek deeper intimacy through sharing our challenges, knowing that we are already enough.
I read a quote recently which really stuck with me:
“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’ – that’s intimacy.”Taylor Jenkins Reid
Before I’d really given it much further thought, I suppose I would have said that ‘intimacy’ between two people meant a kind of sexual closeness; intimate massage, intimate relationship, intimate touch. ‘Intimacy’ becomes one of many euphemisms for sexuality without us having to think twice about whether it’s actually separate, and whether we can seek out one without the other in our relationships.
I’m certain I’m not alone in having proven many times how easy it is to engage in sex without intimacy. Which makes it all the more curious to me that it’s one of the words so often used to refer to types of bodywork that involve genital touch, or relationships that include sexual contact, regardless of any of the other dynamics between those involved.
What Is Intimacy, If It’s Not Sex?
Modern usage of the words intimate and intimacy date back to the late 19th Century, when newspapers used the word euphemistically to refer to sex (and women’s underwear). But it comes originally from Latin intimare meaning, “to make known, announce, impress,” which in turn came from intimus meaning “inmost, deepest.” Its roots are much more closely aligned with Taylor Jenkins Reid’s sense than today’s conflation with genitalia and sex.
Or are these two things – allowing ourselves to be known, and speaking about sexuality – really so separate after all? Our sexuality is so often the place where we hold the most shame, fear, and vulnerability. Wounds run deep here, and take time to heal, if we are able to even become conscious of them in the first place. Allowing ourselves to engage sexually with another, even to be naked in front of them, can require a huge amount of trust that we will be seen, along with all our anxieties, and feel safe.
There is an alternative to this of course, which is to never show all of ourselves to avoid the risk of rejection or abandonment, but sacrificing any chance of intimacy along the way. The conflation of sex with intimacy can lead to lots of very unfulfilling encounters, desperately wanting to be seen but being held back by fear, all the while substituting physical closeness for something that feels deeper.
Just as shame over sex caused newspapers 100 years ago to use ‘intimacy’ as a euphemism, our shame today causes us to confuse the two, seeking out sex when what we’re really craving is the intimacy of being seen.
Could we explore decoupling intimacy from sex, and learn how to feel safe while allowing ourselves to be seen first, before we engage sexually? Practice speaking our vulnerabilities before we introduce tangling limbs and sweaty requests for water?
Could we practice more intimacy in our non-sexual relationships, and notice what happens if we speak our immediate truth, with all the awkwardness and vulnerability of admitting that we’re frightened, or hurt, or excited?
Perhaps. But how do we go about this? How do we begin to understand what intimacy really is, and create more of it?
The first thing to know is that it starts with ourselves. We can’t just ask for more honesty and truth from another; we have to open ourselves up first. And before we can do that, we need to know ourselves. We have to practice intimacy with ourselves before we can ever hope to create something with someone else. What are you most scared of? What are you avoiding, and how? What are your most unhelpful patterns and habits?
Becoming better acquainted with all the gnarly, difficult stuff – and meeting it with compassion – means that we are able to bring all of this to our relationships in a conscious way. Instead of reacting out of fear without understanding why, we can speak about our vulnerabilities with those we feel closest to. In allowing these darker parts of ourselves to be seen, we can experience the kind of intimacy that comes from allowing another to see all of us while knowing we are still safe.
Last Valentine’s Day I sent messages to everyone in my life who I loved, who I wasn’t already in the habit of telling regularly, and told them so. This included family, housemates, close friends old and new. This is not a common thing for me to do. Sending those messages made me feel nervous; a fluttery kind of embarrassment around the vulnerability of being seen. And, of course, the fear of being laughed at, rejected, or ignored.
But those were platonic relationships. Easy! (Relatively.) What about lovers? What about those with whom we have no intention of jumping on a relationship ladder with? Or even those we do? How and when do we express love for those we’re sexually or romantically involved with, without giving anyone the wrong idea? How do we show our love when it’s so easy to have different definitions of love outside of conventional relationship structures?
Much of my personal journey recently has been involved with decoupling feelings from stories. The classic story heard when a partner or lover reveals their love is that of commitment, of escalation: I love you, I want to be with you forever, I want you to love me back. Perhaps it also involves expectations such as living together, getting married, or having children. But none of those things are actually love; they are stories that we tell ourselves when we hear “I love you.” Just as we might get caught up in stories of never being good enough if we feel frustrated over failing a small task, we can allow ourselves to conflate a spontaneous feeling with something much bigger, unintended, and unhelpful.
If we can learn to separate the stories from the feeling, then suddenly we are much freer to express love, as we feel it, with no expectations. As Carsie Blanton says, we can “allow it to be what it is: a sweet, ephemeral, exciting feeling to experience and share.”
We can tell those we love that we love them, knowing that we don’t need anything in return from them. It doesn’t mean anything other than what it is. In my experience, instead of cheapening the love I have for others, I notice that focusing more of my attention on it allows it to grow and expand.
This can get us into trouble, though. Unless our beloved is similarly adept at letting go of stories as we are, we have potential heartbreak on our hands. We must take responsibility for our actions as much as our reactions, meaning here that we must consider how these words will be received. There are some people to whom “I love you” will always be seen as an escalation, or inextricably tied up with other expectations or consequences. Perhaps these are people we shouldn’t be dating. Or perhaps we can be more careful with our words. Can we express something else authentically that would feel less loaded to our loved one? Gratitude? Care? Feelings of safety, closeness, connectedness?
Perhaps, as well as being more free to express our love for those closest to us, we can expand our vocabulary too to include all of these things.
Another way to expand our vocabulary could be to clarify what our love does mean. For me, love happens in the present. I love this person for all they are, right here and right now, and I want to share this with them. I can explain that I don’t need them to reciprocate or do anything about it, that it doesn’t mean that I’ll be doing anything else about it either. That I just want them to know that they are loved.
A little clumsy, perhaps, to those of us who have grown up with rom-coms and over-simplified expressions of what love is and is not, and no role models to demonstrate expressing romantic love without the stories attached. To me, this feels like a new skill to learn: using more words, and becoming more comfortable with finding clearer ways of expressing what I feel. But it seems a very necessary skill, while we collectively navigate alternative ways of exploring relationships.
And as for my Valentine’s Day messages, I was not laughed at, rejected, or ignored. I received heartfelt responses of gratitude and love, and really felt for the first time how important a thing this is to do, with our lovers as well as our friends.