Why Being Vulnerable is the Key to Intimacy

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: We want relationships, but we are so afraid of opening up and being hurt.
The Science: Research shows that vulnerability – the ability to be open – is the secret to connection.
The Solution: Here’s how you can take the first steps towards vulnerability and successful relationships.

Why do many people find falling in love so scary? Why do people often end up shutting down in the face of intimacy? Because of an intense fear of vulnerability. Dr. Brene Brown, Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, explains this phenomenon: “Vacillating between I am here and I love you…and I’m going to reveal my innermost to you…and I am scared to death that you’ll reject me.” Ironically, the vulnerability we try to desperately avoid may actually end up being the key to a successful relationship. Research shows that the quality that makes a relationship last is its degree of affection and true affection implies vulnerability.

Brown conducted thousands of interviews to understand what lies at the the root of deep social connection. A thorough analysis of the data revealed the key: vulnerability. Vulnerability here does not mean the act of being weak or submissive. To the contrary, it implies the courage to be yourself. It involves uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. And that is why it might seem scary.

Although we may try to run from vulnerability, it is an inevitable part of social relationships. Even outside of romance, vulnerability is something we encounter frequently: calling someone who has just lost a child, asking a friend for help, taking responsibility for something that went wrong at work, confronting a family member about their behavior, or sitting by the bedside of a friend with a terminal illness. Opportunities for vulnerability present themselves to us every day, the question is whether we will take them.

Why do we fear vulnerability? We are afraid that if someone finds out who we really are, they will reject us. While we may try to appear perfect, strong or intelligent in order to connect with others in actual fact pretense often has the opposite effect intended. Research by Paula Niedenthal shows that we resonate too deeply with one another not to perceive inauthenticity. We even register inauthenticity in our bodies. A study by James Gross shows that when we are inauthentic and try to hide our feelings, others respond physiologically (a rise in blood pressure). This physiological response may explain our discomfort around inauthentic or “fake” people.

On the other hand, when people stick to the truth (including avoiding saying little white lies), not only does their well-being increase but their relationships actually improve, recent research suggests. Another recent study indicates that verbally expressing our feelings exactly as they are without beating around the bush may help us overcome emotions faster. The truth is that when we allow ourselves to be completely open and vulnerable, we benefit, our relationships improve, and we may even become more attractive. “We are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth,” says Brown. “We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.” Why do we love children so much? Why are we drawn to people who act themselves? Because we feel an intrinsic comfort in the presence of authenticity. Moreover, someone who is real and and vulnerable gives us the space and permission to be the same.

Sure, vulnerability can lead to hurt. Brown explains that women often tell men that they want their partner to be vulnerable and to share their feelings but then recoil in disgust when men do. When women share their feelings, men often feel frustrated or powerless and want to find a fixed and pragmatic solution. Yet is it worth walking through fear and vulnerability to experience social connection? Absolutely. “Show me a man who can listen to a woman and not try to fix her problem but rather just listen to her and be there for her, show me a woman who can sit with a man who shares this vulnerability and still love him the way he is, and I’ll show you a man and woman who are courageous and have done their work,” says Brown. “It’s about intention – ‘Can this be the safest place that we have: with each other, you can be afraid with me and I can be afraid with you.’”

To know that you are seen and loved for who you are and to perceive someone else in all of their vulnerability and love them as they are may just be one of life’s most fulfilling experiences. Next time you feel yourself close up in fear in a romantic relationship or otherwise, notice if you can make the choice to be courageous and embrace vulnerability. To quote the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson: ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ (In Memoriam:27, 1850)

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Emma Seppälä

Emma Seppälä

EMMA SEPPÄLÄ, Ph.D. is the author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success and Science Director of Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She also teaches at Yale University and consults with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. She founded Fulfillment Daily and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today.
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