“What happens when people open their hearts?…They get better.” – Haruki Murakami
Sam, like many men we’ve worked with, wouldn’t open up. Expressing feelings or being vulnerable was not in his repertoire, so he thought. He reluctantly came to see us.
Ellen, his partner, was feeling unloved; she talked about separating. He knew he had to do something. He didn’t want his marriage to end. In couples counseling we talked about what would make Ellen feel loved.
The following week he planned a romantic dinner; got her a card “just because” and cleaned up the dishes while Ellen relaxed. These small acts of love made a big difference. He found himself feeling closer and more connected to her.
Ellen’s heart opened and for the first time she felt hope. When she effusively expressed her gratitude, Sam felt uncomfortable; it wasn’t natural to feel so close. His response: “I didn’t really do anything special,” downplaying his efforts. Ellen felt hurt; it was all very special to her.
Several days passed. Ellen felt Sam withdrawing even more; he was less present, less talkative, disengaged – again. Ellen wondered if she could trust him; he was “there” like never before and then he was gone in a flash.
Ellen began questioning her own feelings for Sam. Did she really love him? Was she setting herself up for another disappointment?
Sam bemoaned opening up in the first place. What was he thinking? What will she expect from me from now on? I will never be able to keep this up. After all, this is really not me, never was, never will be.
In our next session, we explored just who Sam really was. After all, his desire to connect up in a way that was very different for him came from somewhere. Maybe Sam was a compilation of many different feelings, each competing for expression, some being acted upon, and some more repressed. However, all of them made up the man that we knew as Sam.
We dug deeper into Sam’s family history and found a scruffy little kid who was not allowed to express his feelings. His father was an angry alcoholic who beat him. His mother was passive and not very affectionate. Sam wasn’t born unemotional; it is who he became.
In service of surviving his childhood he repressed his vulnerable feelings.
Underneath was this little kid who really wanted to get closer. The more Sam shared about his childhood, the more his vulnerability showed. It was the first time Ellen saw him cry. This was the part of Sam that could connect.
Ellen understood more about Sam and focused on her empathy instead of her feelings of disconnection. Her ability to empathize allowed her to persevere while Sam worked this through. Sam’s expression of vulnerability uncovered his reservoir of feelings; Ellen’s empathy was the bridge to connection.
What we witnessed was the breakthrough formula for a couple’s deepest bond:
Vulnerability + Empathy = Connection.
Sharing your deepest feelings with your partner is the path to an intimate love.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown