This question arose recently when I was working with a client. The man I was working with is very healthy, extremely bright, and very committed to his own personal development. But the more we talked the more I realized his ideas about the need to be vulnerable were getting in his way. After I pointed this out to him, he asked, “Well then, what does a healthy romantic partnership look like?”
To answer this question I’ll share with you my own ideas that are based on my 23-year marriage to my wife, Hannah, as well as counseling hundreds of couples over the past two decades. Many of them didn’t have a healthy romantic connection and they didn’t know what such a connection looked like. Often they had ideas that were taking them in the wrong direction.
Two ways to love and be loved
I believe there are two fundamentally different ways to love and be loved in romantic relationships. One is based on connecting around our wounds. The other is based on connecting around our health.
When we connect around our wounds we view our partnership as a means for us to heal our wounds. We expect to push one another’s buttons, stimulate reactions, and then we will use our reactions as a means for us to grow. We will extensively share our feelings, repeatedly process ourselves, and continue to interpret our current behaviors in relationship to historical events—our upbringing, traumas, past relationships.
In essence, we view ourselves and our partner as people with wounds and we think the purpose of our relating is to help heal our wounds.
This way of relating is based, in part, on certain ideas about what it means to be vulnerable. The original meaning of which comes from Latin—”to wound.” In the thesaurus, under vulnerable, we find: helpless, defenseless, powerless, impotent, weak, susceptible. If I have this idea in my mind—even unconsciously—I may think that having a romantic relationship requires me to interact with my partner in such a way that I reveal my wounds and weaknesses.
But when I do this, what have I accomplished? I may reinforce the ideas I have about myself as being flawed or inadequate in some way. That’s my old narrative. Am I helping myself by revisiting it, or am I using it to justify my present day fears and insecurities?
When I share myself in this way I put my nervous system in the hands of my partner. How he or she responds becomes crucially important to me. If she accepts me with my flaws and inadequacies, I feel accepted and loved. If she rejects me I feel . . . hurt, angry, frustrated, and like I have to work harder to be okay.
In my opinion, focusing on my woundedness creates wounded relationships. It does not result in a healthy heart connection.
But it has a certain allure for some people. And there are times when it may be healing. My client recently described his experience of being vulnerable with his partner, he said, “We had a beautiful sharing.” When I asked what that meant he went on to explain that in this relatively new relationship, “we shared our pasts and our wounds and the ways we triggered ourselves with our previous partners.”
Is this constructive? Does this create a healthy heart connection? Or, is this self-indulgent? We must each answer this question for ourselves.
Here is my caution—to indulge means to lose oneself, to give way, to yield, to abandon oneself. What is it that I am losing or abandoning when I focus on my past wounds? It is my health and sense of who I am today. If I engage in conversations in which I lose sight of who I am today, because I am so caught up in sharing who I used to be, I consider that unproductive and self-indulgent. If I need to do that, I think I should do it with my therapist, not my lover. And if my therapist allows me to do a whole lot of that then maybe I need a new therapist.
I am not advocating denial of my past. I am not advocating hiding my past from my partner. I am advocating that I stop recreating my past patterns by continuing to give them so much attention. I am advocating that I stop putting my nervous system in my partner’s hands. It is for me to learn to accept myself, to soothe myself, to create a new narrative that allows me to be comfortable and appreciative of my story (which, by the way, is made up).
When I present myself as wounded, I attract people who are interested in wounded people, either so they can heal me or commiserate with me.
To learn an alternative approach to creating healthy romantic partnerships, look for our next article, Healthy Romantic Love. And for a fuller explanation of this topic look at our Dating Relating Mating Course which is now on sale at Amazon.