If you think you need to confess every one of your secrets to your spouse, think again. In a good marriage, we can be ourselves more with our partner than with anyone else in the world. We can be vulnerable, share our true selves instead of saying what we think our partner wants to hear. Sharing thoughts and feelings fosters trust and intimacy.
Yet some secrets and thoughts are best left unshared. Even if your spouse is curious, nothing is likely to be gained by telling him or her about past sexual experiences you may have had. Another example of when to hold back: Do not tell your spouse every little thing you find annoying about him or her. No healthy person wants to be on the receiving end of excessive criticism; giving it is likely to drive your partner away. So, yes, there are some secrets to keep from a spouse.
However, a bigger challenge for many people is to share what is truly important for our partner to know. You may have heard of an ex-spouse never complained about what their partner did that was making them miserable for years, then suddenly initiated a divorce – or simply left with no explanation.
According to meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzburg, “Embracing our inherent vulnerability” is one of the best ways to break the cycle of fear and self-preoccupation. This can be as simple as accepting help from others when we need it…We think we should be in charge all the time, that we should always be in control…it’s just not true.”
Why Many Are Afraid
Many men also find it difficult to express vulnerability. It’s not unusual for a man who’s been fired from a job to delay telling his wife for several days, or even for a couple of weeks. The John Wayne image of an invincible “man’s man” who always comes out on top and doesn’t express tender feelings persists, as does the male ego. Both men and women may fear that if they say what they really feel, think, or want, or acknowledge a failure, they’ll be judged negatively.
How can you encourage your partner to open up to you? When he (or she) does share something sensitive or discloses a perceived weakness, listen attentively. Be supportive. If he sounds angry, even if at you, say gently, “I hear you’re angry (or upset, hurt, or disappointed).”
Being Vulnerable Can Be Risky
Some people have difficulty accepting someone who expresses vulnerability. Most likely these folks have difficulty accepting aspects of themselves that they judge as unacceptable and project their poor self-image on an available target. Such a person might react to our honest self-expression by trying to put us down or make us “wrong.”
For example, Gina’s self-esteem had taken a nosedive after she was fired from her job as a personnel director. When she told Phil, an acquaintance, that she was unemployed, he said, “Too bad you don’t have any skills.”
Someone who responds to another’s vulnerability so insensitively or hostilely is a poor candidate for a healthy relationship. A good potential or actual partner will listen and respond respectfully when you reveal your true self and situation, not judge you negatively.
Gaining the Courage to Be Vulnerable
People I see in my psychotherapy practice typically have relationship difficulties because they find it difficult to relate authentically. They learned while growing up that it wasn’t safe to express themselves honestly because they were criticized when they did. As children they picked up the message that they should hold back on authentic self-expression and carried the pattern into adulthood. They become “people-pleasers” who are afraid to expose their true selves. Instead, they share only feelings, thoughts, and desires they think the other person will feel comfortable hearing.
If you and a potential or actual marriage partner don’t have a calm enough relationship to allow you to express yourself vulnerably, consider seeking counseling with that goal in mind. Your investment is likely to yield a huge improvement in your relationship.
Sharing Feeling Helps You Connect
One cautionary note: You don’t need to share everything with your partner, especially about past relationships, which are irrelevant to your current one. No confessions, please. You want to share what’s important to you now, and to your current, special relationship.
By relating vulnerably, you and your loved one get to know and understand each other more completely. This is why allowing your partner to see your vulnerability is a gift. Doing so permits the other to empathize with you and help you out—which is how a great spouse will respond to your openness.
* Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014) features step by step instructions for holding an open, gentle conversation that fosters intimacy romance, teamwork, and smoother resolution of issues.
**Names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014), is a licensed clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice in San Rafael, California.
She says, “My special area of interest as a therapist is to help people create relationships that are emotionally and spiritually fulfilling, as well as satisfying physically and materially. I believe in marriage and recognize how societal changes have resulted in new relationship challenges for many people.” She sees individuals, couples, groups, and families in her private practice in San Rafael, CA.
Marcia Naomi Berger is a popular keynote speaker and workshop leader. She offers simple, practical tips for enriching marriage and other relationships by using positive communication skills and helps people reversing unconstructive habits many people learned as children. She offers executive coaching services and corporate trainings including topics such as “How to Deal with a Difficult Person,” “Mindfulness Training,” and “How to Say No.”
Her online class, “The Marriage Meeting Program: a Strength-Based Approach for Successful Relationships,” appears on the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) site. She has taught continuing education programs at UC Berkeley Extension, and Alliant International University.
A former executive director of Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay and clinical faculty member at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, she has held senior level positions in child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry. Marcia Naomi Berger lives in San Rafael, California with her husband of 27 years.
You can subscribe to her free monthly newsletter featuring articles about marriage, relationships, and communication at www.marriagemeetings.com