Advice

On the inevitability of vulnerability

My dad sexually abused me when I was a kid. And, maybe even worse, I acted as his wife during adolescence when my mom was away for long periods (his date on business dinners, housework, taking care of my younger sibling, making his drinks).

I’ve done years of therapy (over a decade), confronted him, told my extended family (years ago), and dealt with the fallout. I’ve done a shit ton of work. Now I enjoy my work, my friends, my family that I kept, but long-term romantic relationships have eluded me in the years since I dealt with the abuse.

I can fuck people (and I do enjoy sex and it feels like mine now) and there have been times when this felt fun and free, but I’m starting to really want a relationship and finding just sex to be empty. But, I can’t seem to make it work.

It’s nothing dramatic, just one mundane mismatch after another – I’m not attracted to him, he’s not attracted to me, he just wants something casual (this comes up a lot), etc. But I can’t help returning to the thought that I’m doing it wrong, especially since I’ve been dating for about 3 years now with nothing that lasted longer than 5-6 dates.

I suspect that I might be too protective of myself, that I don’t reveal who I really am, so people can’t really get a sense of me. And that I am looking for what’s wrong with people, instead of thinking the best until proved wrong. I can definitely be hesitant to express my positive feelings to men, especially without knowing they feel the same way.

I don’t have an exact question, but am wondering what you think.

 

You’re not doing it wrong. You’re fine. Normal, actually. You’ve just got one thing left to do, and it may require a little more therapy. (Not the heavy stuff. Don’t worry.)

I’m thinking you know yourself pretty damn well, which means your self-assessment is accurate. You’re too protective of yourself. You’ve got your guard up, and you don’t know when or how to let it down. So, how do you learn? What skills do you need? What’s the solution to your problem? In a word, vulnerability.

You don’t know how to be vulnerable in a romantic relationship. It’s too great a risk for you. You can handle five or six dates worth of emotional investment and intimacy, but you’re not willing to take it any further. You don’t reveal who you really are, because you don’t want people to get a sense of you. It’s all very deliberate.

Why is that, do you think? Could it be because falling in love makes you vulnerable to betrayal? Could it be because you’re simply not willing to put yourself in a position where you could be betrayed by a man that you love? I totally understand why that kind of thing would be too great a risk for you.

Your entire life has been defined by a betrayal of such magnitude that I can barely imagine how you’ve managed to recover. Still, you have, and I’m super impressed with how well you’ve got your shit together. Like I said before, you’ve really only got this one thing left to do, and that’s to embrace some vulnerability.

In order for you to have a long-term relationship, you are going to have to put yourself in a position where you could be betrayed by a man that you love. You are going to have to be vulnerable, and you’re going to have to reveal who you really are. There is no way around it. (The inevitability of it is why I suggest you walk this path with a therapist. You’ll need someone to hold your hand a little. Again, nothing too heavy, but you shouldn’t have to do this kind of thing by yourself.)

Learn how to be vulnerable in a romantic relationship, even though it means risking betrayal. Of course, be picky. Choose your partner wisely, but when you do, put yourself out there. Reveal who your really are. You might get hurt, but it’s the only way a long-term relationship will ever work.

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40 thoughts on “On the inevitability of vulnerability

  1. J says:

    My first reaction is “oh, honey, oh, poor baby” in all sincerity. But then, to find you’ve moved beyond that all I can think is “Fuck yeah, look at you, taking no prisoners” and how inspiring that is. I know you’re impatient to move to the next step in your life but damn girl, you’ve come pretty fucking far. The rest will come in time. Coke’s right in giving you the name of the tools you need to get there, and it won’t be a cakewalk but the little I know shows you’ve sure as shit have got it in you to make it happen.

    And because your life has had some things few people can genuinely relate to it could be due in part to a numbers game of finding the right person you balance with long term.

    • LT says:

      Hey, thanks. You’re right I’m definitely not in the “poor baby” stage, although I had to pass through that and it was totally necessary. And it’s good to remember about it being a numbers game.

  2. Lin says:

    So what if I’m not prepared to be vulnerable and the prospect of having no long-term relationships (romantic or friendship or otherwise) just… doesn’t bother me? Is that a sign that I’m maladaptive somehow? I recognize that forging connections with people necessitates me being vulnerable, but the risk doesn’t outweigh the reward for me. Having people around isn’t enough of a reason to put myself at risk. That may be isolating and alienating but honestly, the idea of ever letting someone know me is far, far more terrifying than being alone.

    • Miranda says:

      I suppose that could be considered maladaptive, however, if you are truly content in that, then there is nothing wrong with choosing to be alone.

      I would point out that humans, in general, tend to be a social species, with a base need to have others in our lives, however historically there have always been those who choose, for whatever reason, to live apart. Traditionally they were called hermits, or if they actively disliked other people, misanthropes.

      I will also tell you that I felt this way for most of my life. I had friendships, but they were not deep, or vulnerable. I avoided romantic entanglements like the plague. I found the isolation and alienation was too much for me and wasn’t content; so I learned how to be vulnerable, risk hurt and betrayal and not let that fear define how I choose to be in relationships.

      I have found that more rewarding, and have found that, in fact, the hurt and betrayal I have since experienced at the hands of others taught me that there is strength there. Because I am no longer a powerless child, I am an equal adult and can respond by removing myself from the situation, or confronting the situation and working it out. Which course I choose depends on the level of hurt and betrayal.

    • Anna says:

      No one will ever know you. Imagine your mind as a 4D object that other ppl are trying to see through 3D eyes. They can only see a 3D projection or a shadow, and will never fully grasp your characteristics, your symmetries, your edges and your vertices.
      This is reassuring and terrifying. It is the very reason we feel vulnerability as threatening (you allow other ppl to understand you as an warped projection or a shallow shadow), but you should allow the fact that you are fundamentally alone to bring you a feeling of safety, bc you know that however much you open up, no one will ever fully possess you.

    • The Coquette says:

      The reason it’s maladaptive is that your singlehood doesn’t exist from a place of true contentment. It exists from a place of fear.

    • Damien Otis says:

      I have the same feeling. After so much trauma, at least casual friendship doesn’t seem worth it. Self isolation is just adaptation; no need to place a value judgement on it. Tho if we are, I’d put a positive spin on being alone because it’s taking care of yourself. Just be careful, however; I’ve found that lost of the tile I think it’s “everyone else” it’s actually me. I’m the only constant person in my social interactions.

  3. rollertrain says:

    I’m so sorry that parents do things like this, destroy a child just to get off and feel less alone. Good luck with men.

  4. Alex says:

    I have an immense respect and admiration for the people who manage to pull a normal looking life together when they do it under the weight of trauma like that. And to think so many people you meet every day could be dealing with shit like this under the surface.

    I have the same issue as op, but the betrayal was of a way less intense nature, I just had a lot of deep relationships severed and developed issues from that. I still struggle with being vulnerable and letting people see my true self.
    Rewriting something so deeply programmed feels wrong. It requires such an intense shift in what you perceive to be the expected amount of pain. Then you look back over how it affected your entire life and have to come to terms with that, too.

    Shits intense. I wish this person all the best of luck, and have no doubt that they’ll pull through. They’ve come this far.

  5. Jen says:

    What a resilient person already. That Brene Brown TED talk in the list this week does a nice job framing up this whole concept of why be vulnerable when it seems like there is a lot at stake. It’s unimaginable for many of us to endure something like OP has, but opening up to deep connection is one of the biggest favors she can do herself. It’s a beautiful thing to experience.

    • Plagarism says:

      Accept that inevitability of pain and have inner strength. (Pain being inevitable doesn’t mean you should stay in a shitty relationship or with someone who doesn’t meet your needs.)

    • Plagarism says:

      Accept that inevitability of pain and have inner strength. (Pain being inevitable doesn’t mean you should stay in a shitty relationship or with someone who doesn’t meet your needs.)

    • The Grumps says:

      Accepting that there is not such thing as a ‘real you’ but a multitude of small moments that either engage you or not is a good start 😉

    • Damien Otis says:

      If you want to be loved, you’ll have to accept that some people will hate you. It’s nbd tho haters gonna hate.

  6. the grumps says:

    I was very much like you until I did a weird flipperoo in my head and somehow decided that being ‘vulnerable’ was like wearing a huge shield of wide-open flesh, and the hell with it. The key is: I did not see it as vulnerability at all, but as a form of training – mental kettlebells or something. (And you’ve already won the gold medal for Resilience Superpowers so this really is nothing compared to what you’ve managed so far.)

    If you tell someone you really like them, what you’re really doing is defining yourself through it – defining your identity openly through something positive, affirming. You owe yourself to start doing this, after all the healing and fixing you’ve done. And you can start small, too, and not necessarily in a romantic/date context. Small acknowledgments of gratitude or appreciation to friends, making it clear that you are responding emotionally to something, wearing it on your sleeve: this is how you grow strong, not weak.

    This is not going to solve the ‘he just wants something casual’ cases, but when you meet someone you find genuinely awesome, putting yourself out there to at least try and grow that connectedness is more rewarding than holding off. Even if nothing comes out of it, you held the door open to someone because it was something you _wanted to_. That’s that good shit.

    • LT says:

      My long-time past therapist was always telling me vulnerability is strength, not weakness, but back then my armor was thick and heavy and I couldn’t put it down. I do know it’s true now, but don’t have much practice doing it in romantic situations.

      I like your suggestion of practicing more with friends. I’m pretty good at opening up in friendships already, but it’s good to keep practicing there.

      In dating there are a lot of things that can make me skittish and shy away emotionally. I hide who I am by just clamming up about a lot of things, shifting the conversation to them, or diverting in some other way, without acting odd on the surface (inside I’m terrified). The result winds up being that I’m not a real person, just some flicker of reactions and surface. And, yeah, I’m bad at letting people know I like them, too.

      Thanks for your suggestions and kind words.

      • bees! says:

        My experiences were different than yours but the outcome was very similar, and something I’ve been doing lately is kind of sitting with the skittishness and trying to assess whether or not it’s a reasonable response. Because sometimes it is! People have ways of telling us that they’re fundamentally not very nice, or likely to attach to us in an unhealthy way, or incapable of giving us what we need emotionally, or any number of different not-great things. Just sometimes we have to step back and think for a second about whether we’re responding to intuition or fear.

      • The Grumps says:

        Aw dude(tte), yeah: ‘What, so I built me this badass shiny chain-mail armor to go about not feeling like everything is about to pierce right through me and now you tell me I gotta dump it all and go about naked? Fuckssake…’
        It sounds pithy but you will get there. The friends vs. dates is not even a real dichotomy: ideally the perfect date is also someone you feel confident with as a friend. Those people will be easier to open up with than Mr Squeeze of the Month.

        One thing I try and do is to mostly talk about ‘things I love’ with dates, to avoid getting all upset-intense-angry (and then inevitably regretting it). This leaves a nice safe space for being ‘real’ in a good way and can enable great bonding (grinning at each other like idiots over bad jokes! underrated).
        Good luck! Keep being awesome.

  7. A says:

    Dunno, I have no serious trauma and no problem with trust and sharing (maybe I do it too much?) and I still have the exact same relationship issues. Sometimes you’re just not lucky to find the right person.

  8. rainey says:

    Just wanted to thank Coquette for answering this question. I sent in a similar one just a few days ago and feel like the response here applied.

    To the OP: Keep on a’keepin on. My childhood wasn’t quite the same, but it’s left me with obstacles of my own. I can’t fix it, but I know I can carry it. Sounds like you can too. Best wishes to you.

  9. Elli says:

    I have been there and still am. Recently I changed my pattern of what I am looking for in a relationhsip, towards more emotional people, who show me their affection. Before I had a hard time respecting that kind of persons, because I was so closed up and whatevs.

    Now there is this guy and the way he just touches me and my body .. is touching me so much that I can hardly bear. He is so fucking gentle. While it is beautiful I am scared like no shit before. It is nothing in particular in what he does, it is only the way he is to me. We just met, I dont know if it will lead to more and stuff, too fresh and too early to say ..

    .. and that does not matter, because right now I am laying on my bathroom carpet crying, having an anxiety attack, which I will not tell him yet about, maybe later.. but I am right now also in a place where I always wanted myself to be in, which may sound weird, because the fear blows the shit out of me here and I wish I could just dissapear forever. But what I always wanted is to go this far and when I am here and think that I can’t go further – I still know – this is the best place to start.

    To me. For me.

    (and I always tried to think of that last scene in Kill Bill ^^ when she is so happy to have her daughter back
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdZzlV9rnzE
    )

    Please don’t stop going. You are not alone at that point of unimaginably desastrous fear. You are not alone. And I am not, too.

  10. The Derpy Bear says:

    This post gives me hope for my future. I was also sexually abused by my father.. I have never had an actual romantic relationship and the idea of sex in general still scares me. I have only had sex with one person and that was later than most people do. It ended up being too much for me to handle at the time.

    • LT says:

      Hey, don’t do anything sexual that scares you – pay attention to that signal. Don’t worry about how long it takes you to do anything. After living through what we have, we put systems in place to protect ourselves. You’ll know when it’s time to dismantle them because you’ll be more uncomfortable with what you’re missing than you are afraid of the emotional dangers. Until then, it’s fine to hide out and heal. I hope you are working with a therapist and have some people close to you for support.

      • Moonmouth says:

        @LT – this is really good advice and I needed to hear it today. I almost never read the comments on these things, but I’m so glad I did in this case. Your openness and compassion are giving me hope for my own recovery. Thank you.

      • The Derpy Bear says:

        Thank you for your words. I am seeing a therapist at school sometimes but I have not been able to say what happened to me yet. The one I was seeing ended up leaving and I have a new one now so it makes it harder. I think I have the ability to get there though!

        • LT says:

          It sounds like you’re doing a great job of taking care of yourself. And good for you for sticking with the therapy. That can be rough when someone you attached to goes away. And taking some time to build trust with a new person makes sense. You’ll tell him/her when you’re ready and in the meantime it’s great to have that support.

          From my abuse I felt unworthy and unlovable for for many years. Please be exceedingly kind to yourself and try to surround yourself with people who are kind. It’s totally possible to work through this.

          • The Derpy Bear says:

            I feel unloved and unworthy too but sometimes not as much as I used to. It sounds like you are doing a great job too 🙂

  11. Olive says:

    Man, this is heartbreaking and this girl is strong. I wish I couldn’t relate to this, but I was also unlucky in childhood. I think that wanting a relationship, even though it can feel sad to feel like you’re still deep in the numbers game, is the first most important step or basic feeling you need to at least have get what you want and need. Especially if you’re extremely cautious, and you want to feel like in any relationship that you’re in step with what’s happening, and therefore don’t feel like you’re getting swept away, and therefore feel like you need to slam on the brakes. Discontent is generative, and not negative in this context I think, though the emotions that come in moments of loneliness and desire can feel negative. I’ve found it helpful to privately remember that owning yourself is not the same as thinking you need to have absolute constant vigilance in protecting yourself.

  12. Rainbowpony says:

    What if your afraid of being vulnerable, not in an emotional sense, but in a …. not sure …. financial, responsibility, adult-stuff way. I’ve been fucked over by flaky irresponsible people, and now I have a hard time trusting people to do that kind of stuff.

    • The Coquette says:

      We’re only talking about emotional vulnerability as it pertains to romantic relationships. It’s fine to be wary of unreliable people, especially with regard to time, money, and responsibility.

      • Rainbowpony says:

        I know that’s right, but I do think it’s made me too much of a control freak. I don’t know where the balance is anymore.

        Thanks tho.

  13. unicornsrpeople2 says:

    I’m lucky enough not to have suffered trauma like OP but, like many of us, I still picked up plenty of baggage and trust issues through home life and my first serious relationship. I was also lucky enough to meet my wonderful husband almost six years ago. The only reason we were able to fall in love in the first place is that we had both stopped giving a shit about other people’s expectations when we met. We started the relationship being honest and emotionally vulnerable and were able to form a strong bond based on trust.

    This was really scary at first! I caught myself sabotaging a fair amount in the beginning and almost broke up with him because things got too serious. I am so very happy I forced myself to stick it out. I found a life partner who I feel I know as well as one person can know another, and with whom I can be completely vulnerable. It’s still scary sometimes, but the rewards so far outweigh the risks. But definitely be selective and be careful. Many people will not be worthy of your vulnerability. But when you find those people who are it will definitely be worth it.

    You are a strong, badass woman to have come so far in your life. You can kick vulnerabilities ass like nobodies business! xo

  14. VeryOff says:

    When I was six my parents hired the girl down the street to baby sit for me. I couldn’t think of anything fun to do so I would crawl around on the floor and she would throw a blanket over me. I would roar and we would repeat that. At some point she started tickling me whenever she would catch me. And then she wouldn’t stop. I was crying and screaming. I nearly passed out and puked a little before she finally stopped. There was just this really weird moment when it turned dark. I didn’t know what to think when I looked into her eyes. I had never encountered that strange maliciousness and hollow apology.
    A few years later another girl down the block was talking with me about her and she said, “I don’t think her dad is nice to her.”
    I remember a distinct bone chilling moment when I thought but didn’t say, “I bet it’s worse than tickling.”
    I hope you find someone who can tickle you without hurting.

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