In every conflict there is an opportunity for deeper connection.
Have you ever experienced your heart softening towards someone who moments earlier was frustrating you to your core? This has happened to me in most of my close relationships. It’s that moment where light pierces through in conflict and you began to reach an understanding. We are faced with this opportunity any time we are in conflict. Without a doubt, most of those opportunities present themselves in marriage. You can’t experience true intimacy if you’re not willing to engage in conflict. It’s not a matter of if conflict will take place in marriage, but of how you will engage it when it does. In every conflict there is an opportunity for deeper connection.
For those more avoidant types, that might make you squirm. For those who are more prone to pursuing conflict (like me), it might make you want to head off to the battlefield right now and pick another fight. But for both the pursuer and the avoider of conflict, there are natural tendencies which miss out on the opportunities for deepening connection in marriage. The kind of conflict that leads to connection doesn’t depend on your comfortability with arguing, but your willingness to embrace vulnerability.
vulnerability requires laying down our defenses and letting ourselves be seen and known.
For any kind of personality type, vulnerability requires laying down our defenses and letting ourselves be seen and known. Avoiders tend to miss out on this for fear of conflict, and the pursuers tend to miss out on it by letting their anger take the reins in conflict. The reason fear and anger are the first emotions to rear their ugly heads during conflict is because they are our protective emotions. In their own ways, they are defense mechanisms that give us a false sense of safety. Fear drives us to hide ourselves, while anger feels strong, powerful, and makes our hearts feel impenetrable. Hiddenness, feigning strength, and blocking our hearts off from each other- the literal opposites of vulnerability.
But what are our protective emotions protecting us from? Like any other protective mechanisms, they are ultimately trying to protect us from pain. Though it is unpleasant to experience fear or anger, it feels much more painful to get in touch with the deeper feelings of rejection, insecurity, and shame that we want to mask. It feels even more dangerous to open ourselves up to the possibility of being rejected by our spouse when we finally allow those places in our hearts to be seen.
Vulnerability does not self-protect. By definition, vulnerability exposes itself to the possibility of being hurt. No matter who you are, this is going to feel terrifying and be a great risk. Vulnerability, while making rejection possible, is also the only thing that makes true intimacy and connection possible in any marriage. It is the only way to engage conflict in a way that can lead to understanding and connection. Without it, it is impossible to really know each other.
Vulnerability is different from transparency. We sometimes have the tendency to think that just because we are sharing personal information it makes us vulnerable. However, sharing information does not necessarily mean we are being vulnerable, just that we are being transparent. It can sound similar to vulnerability, but there is a stark difference.
Transparency says: I’m upset because it really bothers me when you’re scrolling on your phone during our time together. But whatever, it’s not a big deal.
Vulnerability says: When you were on your phone during our date, it brought up my fear of rejection for me. I felt like I’m not interesting enough to keep your attention and that what I have to say isn’t valuable enough. I’m feeling a little rejected and sad.
Transparency shares information in a way that doesn’t allow access for anyone to speak into our hearts. It expresses the behavior you would like modified without much room for rejection, but it also blocks itself off from the ability to be seen, comforted, and connected to. Conflicts that are transparent without vulnerability are more likely to be filled with defensiveness, blame, and reactiveness. Conflicts that embrace vulnerability are more likely to lead to mutual understanding, taking personal ownership, and a deepening connection.
Vulnerability helps us engage love instead of selfishness.
Why is this the case? Because there’s something in you and I that can immediately connect to true vulnerability. Our defenses come down, and our inner world feels understood and can empathize with the inner world of another. Vulnerability helps us engage love instead of selfishness. Whoever initiates vulnerability is likely to instigate vulnerability in the other person. Our instincts to become defensive and blame each other are replaced with a desire to understand and gently tend to each other’s hearts. Once we are both engaging in vulnerability, our attention shifts from defending ourselves to understanding each other’s hearts. Our walls come down and we can see ourselves and each other with greater clarity. It creates an environment where validation can occur, and we begin to fight for each other rather than against each other.
We are only responsible for how we choose to show up in conflict, and we can’t manipulate or control whether or not our spouse chooses to do the same. However, we can each choose to be leaders in vulnerability regardless. Leading in vulnerability is one of the best ways to steer your marriage conflicts in the right direction. When your marriage faces conflict, it’s time to PRAY- both literally, and by using this acronym for engaging in vulnerability:
–PAUSE: When a conflict begins to present itself is usually when we are most prone to being led by our protective emotions of anger or fear of confrontation. It’s going to take some self-control to pause before you engage in your typical self-protective behavior. This first step can completely alter the trajectory of your conflict.
–REFLECT: After you’ve paused, take some time to reflect on what is really going on inside of you. If you need to let your spouse know you need a minute to figure this out, that’s okay. Psychologists even suggest that placing your hand on your heart can help you understand what you are feeling more quickly. Some might find it helpful to journal their thoughts. The goal is to tune into the emotions and narratives that are coming up in your heart regarding the conflict you are having with your spouse.
–ACKNOWLEDGE: Now it’s time to acknowledge those difficult feelings and messages that are showing up in your heart. While at the beginning of your conflict your anger might have blamed the entirety of your emotions on the subject of your conflict, this is when you should begin to understand that there are some deeper beliefs beneath the surface of those emotions that go beyond what you and your spouse are fighting about.
–YIELD: If you’ve made it this far, you’re doing great! Now that you’ve paused before reacting, reflected on what you were feeling, and acknowledged what is going on inside of you, it is time for the best part. It’s time to yield to vulnerability. It isn’t comfortable, and you might even still feel some anger or fear of confrontation at this point. That is okay, and it’s why you must make the decision to yield to vulnerability. Communicate your heart with your spouse. Make sure to steer clear of blaming and accusations. Simply share your heart through vulnerability.
Vulnerability doesn’t promise a desired outcome. That’s what makes it vulnerable. However, it does promise opportunities to know each other more. It makes way for powerful times of prayer where together we can invite the Holy Spirit to bring healing and transformation into our hearts. It gives us the ability to fight for each other and to be a strength to one another. It makes our hearts invested in the growth of each other. It makes us personally motivated to make sacrifices to love our spouse well, rather than simply being pressured into modifying our behavior. It transforms us more and more into Christ’s image every time we allow the humility and accountability that comes with vulnerability to push us closer to Jesus first, and then to each other. Vulnerability has the power to unify us in our marriage in a way that makes the gates of hell tremble everywhere we go.
Practicing vulnerability is not only important for the health of your marriage, but it is crucial for your relationship with God.
To be vulnerable with each other, we must first learn to be vulnerable with ourselves. Practicing vulnerability is not only important for the health of your marriage, but it is crucial for your relationship with God. I would encourage you to open your heart to your heavenly Father as you pray through Psalm 139: 23-24:
God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart.Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares.
See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on, and lead me back to your glorious, everlasting way—the path that brings me back to you.