You already know that a strong marriage can be an important boost to your career. But are you wondering if your own union is as solid as it could be. Is there something you can do to make a new marriage last or an already-pretty-good marriage even stronger?
It turns out the answer is yes, according to clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. It all comes down to one thing: vulnerability. If you can approach your spouse with vulnerability, you can make any relationship stronger, as she explains in a post on the Psychology Today website.
While most of us think we want close connections, we resist vulnerability, the very trait that makes that connection possible. In a culture that often praises having a thick skin and staying strong and self-contained, we mistakenly brush off being vulnerable as weak. We believe it will unnecessarily expose us to hurts and humiliations we could otherwise avoid.
The problem, of course, is that while trying to remain invulnerable, we wind up hiding who we really are and especially what we really feel from the people in our lives. We may want to feel closer to our spouse or partner, but trying to be strong and invulnerable pushes us in the opposite direction. Vulnerability is the willingness to be seen, known, and understood with all of our flaws and embarrassing habits and flab. And trusting that our partners will love us anyway.
If they do–and they usually will–then exposing those vulnerabilities and seeing that we are still loved makes us trust and appreciate our partner all the more. It can deepen our love for our partner. At the same time, vulnerability is often reciprocated–the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be with your partner, the more comfortable he or she will feel being vulnerable with you. If you show your partner the same true love in the face of big failings that he or she showed you, that will strengthen the trust and the bond between you for you both.
None of this good stuff can happen if you remain guarded and invulnerable, and if you don’t expose your inner thoughts and feelings–your true self–to the person you’re sharing your life with. Yet for most of us, vulnerability is a stretch. It takes real effort to express the feelings we’re not proud of, or the ones we fear leave us open to harm. Often, we’re hiding these feelings even from ourselves.
Firestone offers several useful tips to help you let down your guard, let your partner in, and wind up with a stronger bond as a result. Here are what I think are the top three:
1. Ask for what you need.
It sounds simple doesn’t it? Most of us spend our childhood years asking for what we need constantly, sometimes with tantrums or tears. But as we grow up, we learn to stop being so demanding. What happens if we need something–really need it–but when we ask for it, we don’t get it? I don’t know about you, but this worry stops me cold most times that I think about asking for something, because being denied something I need feels like it would be an unbearable rejection. Much simpler and safer never to need anything at all.
But if you don’t ask for what you need, you deny your partner the opportunity to give it to you unless he or she can read your mind. So figure out what you need and then ask for it, plain and simple. Most likely your partner will be happy meet your need. And if your partner can’t or won’t, you won’t curl up and die, I promise.
2. Tell your partner what you want (not what you don’t).
Telling each other what you want is a challenge for most couples, Firestone writes. “I’ve sat with so many couples that are very good at stating exactly what they don’t like and don’t want from their partner. This leads to a lot of tit for tat and back and forth that gets them nowhere.”
I don’t know about you, but for me figuring out what I don’t want from my husband is a whole lot easier than figuring out what I do want. It often takes soul-searching and visualizing to determine what he could do that would make me happy. But it’s well worth the effort. As Firestone writes, when couples open up and tell each other what they want, good things happen. “Their voices and expressions soften. Much of the time, their partner no longer feels on the defensive, and their body language changes,” she writes. Telling your partner what you want is a step toward greater vulnerability, and a stronger partnership.
3. Be in the moment with your partner.
For busy professionals who are constantly wondering if we should be checking our email, thinking about our next presentation or pitch, and making mental plans for the coming day or week, being in the moment can be a real challenge. (I once heard myself say these words, with no intended irony: “Someday I’ll learn to be in the moment, but I don’t know when.” Ouch.)
You need to be in the moment with your partner if you want a strong relationship. Being physically present but mentally absent will make it difficult for you to tune in to what your partner may be telling you about what he or she needs and wants. That’s also true if your mind is consumed with worry about whether to be vulnerable with your partner and how you will deal with the risks involved.
So, set aside your smartphone, look your partner in the eyes, and focus your complete attention, both on telling your partner what you truly feel and need, and on listening to what your partner is telling you.
Do that, and you’ll have taken a big step toward creating the strong partnership you need. It can help carry you through the tough times and give you the confidence to reach for your dreams.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.