Men, Intimacy, and Emotional Vulnerability in Relationships
Intimacy and emotional vulnerability are two aspects of long term committed relationships that go hand in hand and often provide sticking points between partners. Especially for men, these two aspects of relationship can range from the mysterious and confusing to the frightening and avoiding-at-all costs. It can be helpful to understand the dynamic between intimacy, emotional vulnerability, and how men are raised in their family and socialized in their culture.
For many men, the word ‘intimacy’ is usually synonymous with ‘sex’. And sex is one of the few places where men will allow themselves to become emotionally vulnerable. But intimacy is far more than just sex (and sex can be devoid of intimacy). Intimacy encompasses the intellect, the emotions, non-sexual physical touch, and spirituality. Furthermore, not all intimacy feels good. Sometimes intimacy feels exceedingly bad, like when a loved one dies. Intimacy that feels good, like being in love also places us in a vulnerable position, like when we decide to say ‘I love you’ for the very first time to some one. Both positive and difficult intimacy carries with it feelings of vulnerability. So the first task is for men to expand their concept of what intimacy is, as well as the different types of intimacy. Secondly, it is important for men to understand emotional vulnerability and learn to tolerate and use it in relationship.
Intimacy might be described as the ability to share one’s deepest thoughts and emotions with another person in freedom and confidence, regardless of how the other person receives that sharing. We most often believe that intimacy is something that must be reciprocal, but is indeed unilateral (Schnarch). Men, especially, are used to relating inside the context of power, and often interpret the giving of intimacy as being vulnerable, and expect a return of intimacy in kind to balance out the perceived power in the relationship. This understanding of ‘vulnerable’ is not the same when the word is attached to ‘emotional’ (emotional vulnerability). Most often, men perceive the word ‘vulnerable’ as synonymous with ‘weak’.
Power issues aside, any time a man is intimate, he may feel quite vulnerable in the process. The equating of intimacy and vulnerability, though, is a fundamental error. In fact, it takes a great deal of courage and strength to be intimate, and intimacy itself has the power to strengthen the man. The effect of feeling vulnerable when we are intimate comes from the world we live in and not the intimacy itself: any emotion that is considered tender, gentle, kind, or open is interpreted as weakness in our culture. While these characteristics may indeed not be appropriate for the business world, or on the gridiron, there is a place in life to allow ourselves to be emotionally vulnerable: in our intimate relationship with our partners.
Indeed, it is the man who pushes away intimacy that becomes truly vulnerable in the negative sense. Intimacy provides a tremendous amount of information about situations through the interpretation of emotions. Our emotions have important information for us. For example, anger (an emotion that most guys can readily identify and relate to) is an important emotion that tells us that something is wrong in a situation. Much like physical pain tells us that there is something wrong in our body, anger tells us that something is unfair or out of line. If we recognize and use our anger in response rather than in reaction, it can be a powerful ally in getting things done and setting things straight.
Far more intimidating for men than anger, the emotions surrounding deep love and longing for our partners often makes us feel vulnerable. We may interpret this vulnerability as something weak and something we should not feel, and we may push it away. But that is a big mistake in love relationships. We must truly become vulnerable in order to enter spaces of intimacy with our lovers. And it in attending to intimacy and growing in intimacy that we keep our love relationships fresh, vibrant, and resilient. People who are not experiencing enough intimacy with their partners often complaint ‘the relationship’ is dry, lacking passion and interest, and both people feel more like roommates than lovers.
Yet another problem surrounding intimacy and emotional vulnerability is that most men are not given the ‘emotional knowledge’ and ‘emotional vocabulary’ to identify and express their emotions effectively. Without these, we men are like commanders of an army who’s communications systems have been knocked out by the enemy. We may stumble and grasp for the words to express what we are feeling, and when we finally do say something intimate, we once a again feel vulnerable, maybe even silly in expressing ‘all that mushy stuff’.
Countless men in counseling have told me that they so wish that their partners would change, do something interesting, become more passionate, become playful, or that things go back to the way they used to be at the beginning of their relationship…and their partners say the very same thing about them. One thing is for sure: if you want things to change or improve, you have to do something about it. Don’t expect your partner to change. One of the best places that you can begin to grow is in your understanding and use of intimacy and emotional vulnerability in your love relationship.