Vulnerable Disclosure: Improving Men’s Lives & Relationships

Vulnerable Disclosure: Improving Men’s Lives & Relationships

Relationship Counseling Wheaton MD

Before I became a therapist, I was acutely aware of—and eager to learn more about—the systemic challenges women deal with in their families, communities, and in society.  Some of these challenges were already a part of my lived experience, some I predicted might come up later in life, some I would most likely never encounter due to my demographic and geographic privilege. But no matter the actual proximity to me, the challenges that face women everywhere, of all ages and eras, seemed intimately and viscerally relevant to me.  I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the immense strengths, learned and inherited, of moving through the world as a woman—as well as the notable and significant vulnerabilities.

However, after I began practicing therapy, I had a dramatic realization: if women endure burdens that I was at least somewhat educated to recognize and empathize with, men endure burdens that I had no idea were even there, and are often so successfully concealed that they thwart most attempts at recognition or empathy.

Indeed, I learned slowly that part of the burden men carry comes from self-limiting and self-replicating core beliefs characteristic of conventional masculinity: specifically, that Pain Is Weakness and that Exposing Vulnerable Thoughts/Emotions Is Admitting Failure.  Men experience painful, vulnerable emotions as often as women do: they feel afraid, they feel sad, they feel inadequate, they feel ashamed.  Unfortunately, they often lack the emotional literacy to recognize them, as well as the external outlets to express them constructively.

It seems important now to distinguish between recognizing the pain men experience and excusing problematic behavior they may exhibit as a result.  I am not here to do the latter; conversely, I find that the way masculinity is taught and performed often limits men from forging and/or maintaining satisfying relationships—which hurts them, and their intimate partners, and probably everyone else whom they encounter, to various degrees.

Men who struggle to accept or recognize their own painful, vulnerable emotions often use familiar, destructive behaviors to fortify themselves against them: behaviors like verbally shutting down, avoiding emotionally sensitive issues, eschewing empathy to hyper-focus on problem-solving, aggressive posturing, and violence.  That is why helping men to identify and embrace their vulnerability, teaching them to express it authentically, and reinforcing their authentic expression with acceptance and affirmation, is a win for everyone.

And a particularly big win for men in intimate relationships. Popular culture frequently lauds the idea of loving someone unconditionally or accepting someone for all their qualities as well as their flaws.  What we frequently overlook, to our great detriment, is an incredible courage and hope someone must have to feel broken and flawed and unlovable, and then to reveal those gloriously imperiling feelings to another person—and of all people, to their intimate partner, for whom they would like to appear perfect.

In my clinical as well as my personal experience, acceptance of vulnerability in a partner is far easier than is authentically vulnerable disclosure, which is often difficult for women and nearly incomprehensible for men.  But the rewards are great indeed: the partner who does the disclosing may feel seen, and therefore loved, more truly than ever before—maybe more than they ever thought possible; at the same time, the partner who does the listening and accepting is permitted a privileged glance at a side of their love that is often hidden, and enjoys the glorious empowerment that comes from saying “you don’t have to hide your pain, you’re safe with me.”

Recently, my husband suggested that I write a Men’s Health-style list of Tips to Drive Her Wild, but instead of sexy tricks, list prompts for vulnerable disclosure.  I would like to share a few, because I think it is a fun concept, but like any such list it should come with a few disclaimers: first, just as experimental sex is most prudently attempted when both partners are in good physical health, it is a good idea to try to start increasing vulnerable disclosure when a relationship is generally healthy and not too strained by conflict or other stressors—you don’t have to wait for problems to share your pain with one another!  Ideally, mastering these skills during calm times will help alleviate some of the hostility during future conflicts.

Second, have a general idea about how you would like your partner to react, and communicate before and throughout, as necessary—i.e. “this is hard for me to talk about so please let me get all the way through it before you respond,” or “I could really use a hug right now.”  Finally, remember that vulnerable disclosure is a risky move, and there is always the chance that your partner will not react the way you want them to: if that happens, try to let them know in calm way, and give them a chance to change their behavior—it may even lead to an interesting conversation about why listening to your vulnerable disclosure is hard for them.

Now without further ado, grab a comfy blanket and some tissues, because here are Six Steamy Prompts to Heat Up Your Vulnerable Disclosure:

  1. What role did shame have in your family/household growing up? Identify and share a moment when you felt ashamed as a child.
  2. Name a recent circumstance in which you felt inadequate. Whom did you compare yourself to? In what ways did you feel you were lacking by comparison?
  3. Identify a situation in which you needed affection or affirmation, but were unwilling or did not know how to ask for it.
  4. When was the last time you cried in public? How old were you and what were the circumstances?  What did someone say, or what did you wish someone had said, to help?
  5. At night when you cannot fall asleep, what are the thoughts that go through your head?
  6. Identify someone in your life who has helped you feel safe—what qualities or behaviors made them a safe person?

Happy vulnerable disclosing!

Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LGMFT provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda office. Call 240-752-7650 or email [email protected] to schedule your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Janine today!