A few months ago, I had a conversation with my new special man friend. It was around 8:30pm on a Wednesday and he had just arrived at my place. In a past life, it might be normal for me to have a date over on a school night. I’d be two glasses into a decent bottle of Willamette pinot noir, feeling a nice buzz, watching Schitts Creek or Patriot Act. But this was 10 months into my year of sobriety and I’d made a pretty convincing habit of going to bed around 9:30, leaving not-much-time for a weeknight rendezvous.
However, I am looking for a partner and enjoy his company, so I made an exception and welcomed him into my apartment. We cozied up on the sofa and he was teasing me lightly, “You love me sooo much!”
In the past, this would have put me in a tailspin. Setting aside for a moment that this was much too early in our relationship for anyone to love anyone (there’s a lot to pull apart right there if you wanted to), it was an exchange that revealed to me how I’ve grown up.
“I do.” I responded frankly, surprising myself a bit. This is not something a previous version of Jemma would do. Admitting that yes, I did like him sooo much would have given him a substantial (and wholly unacceptable) advantage in our power dynamic.
But now it was different. Of course I liked him. I wouldn’t alter my health-affirming weeknight routine for someone I didn’t like. I wouldn’t waste my time (or theirs) with someone I didn’t like. It would be fucking weird if I used my time and energy on someone I didn’t care a good deal for.
That this struck me as unfamiliar is telling.
I’ve had a lot of these experiences since then and it has re-framed vulnerability to me as capital-P Powerful.
This type of vulnerability shows you a person knows them self, no small feat in our world of constant distraction from this task.
This type of vulnerability shows you a person is willing to risk rejection, they’re willing to disclose desire that could be unrequited.
This type of vulnerability shows you you can possibly be safe with this person, you can reveal your own desires and dreams.
That they share theirs paves the way for you.
It took me nearly two years to build the strength and self-confidence to be vulnerable in this moment. To realize that I had agency in how I spend my time, my money, my energy. To realize that any of the obligations I thought were running my life were actually choices I was making. Twenty months ago I threw a saddle on my Aries-ascendant and galloped into the messy task of aligning my life with my core truths and desires. It was a fucking battle. I didn’t know if the result would be better than the life I was currently living. I was totally uncertain of what laid at the other side but I knew I’d forever regret not trying.
I had to have painfully difficult conversations with fiancés and friends and family. I had to break some really bad habits. I had to face my own failures and flaws. I had to take on a beginner’s mind, start some things from scratch that a 33 year old woman should have a handle on by now.
There is an impact to shifting the tenets we operate our lives from — blood, sweat, tears, rage, abject loneliness — and it is so worth it.
I’ve never started a relationship with such genuine honesty. It resolves so many issues I used to deal with — unmet needs, painful misunderstandings, misaligned expectations, self-sacrifice, mind games, unfair projections. I now understand that communicating my needs, thoughts, and feelings kindly and clearly is the only way to truly know if he understands them and is willing to try to make it work. If I lay it out there and he rejects it, I know where we stand. If I lay it out there and he can’t deal with it, I know where we stand. If I lay it out there and he wants something else, I know where we stand. I no longer have ambiguities to analyze ad nauseam or hide behind. His response gives me plenty of concrete information to work with.
I’m still seeing this man. It’s been dreamy and exciting and sooo imperfect. But embodying this vulnerability has helped me practice truly advocating for myself in a relationship. After the time we have already spent together, I trust him enough to know he wants what is best for me, even if we can’t get there together. And I trust myself to continue showing up in service of my dreams and desires, and to know if it’s time to call it quits. I have agency here. I am calling the shots. I wouldn’t have such calm assurance without vulnerability.
Relationships are one of life’s biggest challenges. And it sometimes feel we need to go into them in full armor, with weapons and tactics, bombs and battalions. But we cannot be truly happy by hiding our most intimate desires. If we want to win this one, we need what Brené Brown (patron saint of vulnerability) says: strong back, soft front, wild heart.
Communicating vulnerably is the only way to know that others see us. Our cultivated sense of self-worth helps us take care of ourselves in the face of an uncertain response. But just know — everybody has a heart. Everybody seeks love and connection. We are often so battered, exhausted and riddled with bad habits that we don’t respond well, but everyone can get better at it with some practice. Vulnerability is a skill. It is contagious.
And it is the ultimate act of courage.