Brad and Jen are married. For most of their marriage, Brad has not been able to hold down a steady job.
Brad’s volatile career, coupled with his poor financial decisions cause anxiety and frustration in the marriage. He grows tired of what he perceives to be Jen’s lack of support for his aspirations. He becomes verbally abusive and takes out his anger and frustration on Jen and their kids. Brad withdraws emotionally from Jen and becomes a serial philanderer.
Jen is weary and impatient of Brad’s promises to be gainfully employed. She grows tired of his frequent outbursts and abuse. She finds refuge at her job and befriends and confides in anyone who is emotionally available. Jen becomes a serial infatuator, jumping from relationship to relationship, giving her suitors unrestricted access to her body, heart and soul.
Let’s pause and examine a couple factors. First, what is the primal source of dysfunction in Brad and Jen’s relationship? Second, what are Brad and Jen’s secret fears?
On the one hand, Brad might have been wondering whether Jen was more concerned with his accomplishments than with him as a person. Perhaps Brad equated his career struggles with being an inadequate husband and father, which led to him becoming emotionally detached.
On the other hand, Jen was probably asking “Does Brad understand how I really feel? And if he does, why isn’t he working harder to rectify the problem? How can he not see that I am unhappy and hurting?”
Although Brad and Jen had spent most of their lives together physically, they were strangers emotionally.
A closer look at this picture tells us that neither Brad nor Jen had confidence in the other. It could be that their past experiences prior to meeting each other did not teach them how to forge intimacy through embracing their similarities and differences and their strengths and weaknesses. They never received the memo that said intimacy is a winding and unpredictable adventure through the lifespan.
It is no mystery that Brad and Jen are broken individuals. One might also conclude that both of them suffered silently, hoping the other would attend to the pain and mend the wounds of the relationship. Although they both felt that way, they believed it was much more important to guard their hearts.
They both protected their hearts by directing blame and judgment on each other. They were neither willing to share their stories nor practice compassion. Although Brad and Jen had spent most of their lives together physically, they were strangers emotionally.
Brad was not willing to risk that his wife had accepted him for who he was. He lacked faith in her ability to accept him as is, and he grew to distrust her. Jen’s emotional response to her husband’s unpredictable career path was based on needs that all human beings have, which are access, comfort, and security. She wanted affirmation that those needs would be met.
Let’s pause to answer the original question. What is the source of this couple’s lack of intimacy toward each other? At the heart of Jen and Brad’s relational struggle is the fact that they denied vulnerability to each other. They chose not to share themselves in a way that exposed their deepest fears and insecurities.
Both of them played it safe by not fully committing the entirety of their beings, including their concerns, limitations and struggles to each other for fear of experiencing rejection and abandonment.
What is Brad’s secret fear? The fear of being neglected and abandoned. He was all too familiar with abandonment. Brad’s mother had abandoned him when he was quite young, and he never healed from that experience. Consequently, Brad did not give Jen his heart for fear that Jen might one day abandon him. When Brad’s mother abandoned him, Brad felt powerless, unappreciated, unloved and devalued. Brad carried his leftover baggage from childhood into his marriage relationship with Jen, and rather than being open and vulnerable, he placed his heart in a lockbox.
There is a perpetuated myth that says a real man does not show his emotions. Many males are taught from early childhood that the strength of masculinity lies in the physical aspect of development. I would argue that the true strength of a man lies in his ability to feel and admit when he is hurting.
Denying one’s emotions makes one susceptible to indifference. This suggests that the greater the distance between a person and his pain, the more apt he is to become an instrument of pain. When an individual becomes numb to her pain, she no longer realizes when she is hurting others. This is a primary characteristic of abusive relationships. The abuser, (in this case, Brad) who was a victim of his inability to feel, held his wife and children captive by denying them permission to express their authentic selves.
Let’s take a look at Jen’s story. Jen grew up in an environment saturated with unconditional love and affection. Jen’s parents encouraged her to express herself openly, without fear of shame or reproach. Jen’s father affirmed her daily and showed her genuine love.
What is Jen’s secret fear? The fear of being rejected. Jen did not know what it was like to be rejected. That was until she met Brad.
It could be that when Jen met Brad, she expected that he would treat her as her father did. When it became clear that Brad would not, or could not reciprocate compassion, kindness and love, Jen placed her heart in a safe box.
At the heart of dysfunctional relationships is a detachment from personal emotional involvement, objectivity and open-mindedness. Both individuals are prone to making judgments without comprehending the consequences of their actions, even when it is evident their actions are causing emotional distress and irreparable damage.
Unresolved issues tied to one’s past often lead to insecure, unhappy and unfulfilled relationships. Yes, there are risks associated with transparency and giving someone your heart. It is true that when we are vulnerable, we open ourselves up to disappointment and satisfaction, loss and gain, sorrow and joy. But there is also learning, growing and intimacy in the risking.
The power to be vulnerable comes from choosing to live an authentic life. Vulnerability involves embracing one’s struggles and victories. Being vulnerable is agreeing to allow the self to experience life in times of scarcity and abundance. Being vulnerable entails holding ourselves accountable for becoming better persons each day.
Vulnerability is the most beautiful portrait of intimacy. It is the permission we give self to be human.