Sometimes it’s hard to know how to be yourself in relationships. Somehow, with all your wounds and your parental, societal, religious, and educational conditioning, you’re supposed to magically know how to relate to another person. That person also shows up with their own wounds and conditioning and is supposed to magically know how to relate to you. Like talking on a phone through security glass, your real selves rarely get to touch.
My partner, Patrick, and I got to know one another by researching different aspects of relationship for 7 days at a time. We were a part of a personal growth community and doing relationship research with a partner was a way to get vulnerable and learn more about ourselves in the safety of a container that we created using pre-negotiated conditions and rules.
Because we both tend to be nice and say what we think the other person will be open to hearing, for 7 days Patrick and I decided to research saying the real thing no matter what. Because we weren’t in love, we weren’t invested in controlling the other’s experience of us, which made it easier to be honest.
If you also tend to censor your truth to be nice, think about this: By controlling how you’re perceived by others, nobody really knows you. You start to believe that something’s wrong with you. You have to hide it when you feel stuff that doesn’t jive with your nice persona. You also don’t truly know anyone else because you’re only experiencing their response to your façade. It’s a lonely place to live.
On the TV show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge would wait until her husband fell asleep before jumping up to curl her hair, apply cold cream, and return to bed. Before he woke up, she’d get up, take out the curlers, wash off the cold cream, put on her makeup, and get back in bed, pretending to wake up once he did. It was an elaborate (and exhausting) ruse she’d learned from her mother to maintain the illusion that she always looked perfect.
You do the same thing when you present your best self to another at the expense of your vulnerability. Over time, you drift apart and lose respect for the person you’re with, because you’re secretly mad that they fell for the façade you’re now sick of having to keep up.
When Patrick and I researched saying the real thing, we were both shocked by what we discovered. How much I shook and how easily my tears spilled when I said something like, I want you to stay over tonight, or, I enjoyed hanging out with you today. How embarrassing to feel all this vulnerability under my independent exterior. It went against every conditioned bone in my body to share it with him.
To my surprise, as I showed him my tender side, he didn’t run. He didn’t reject it or shrink back. In fact, he came closer and began to open up more.
Patrick wanted to hide that he still had feelings for his ex-girlfriend, but he shared them because of our research. When he discovered he had room to express his mixed feelings and I didn’t flinch, he felt safe to continue revealing more of himself. He realized that his story of having to control my perception of him wasn’t true.
As we showed each other more of our real selves, we fell in love. To this day, almost three years later, if we catch ourselves trying to hide something, we soon come clean with it. The depth of love, communication, and permission we have is enlivening. We now live in the magic of true vulnerability because we developed our skill through this research.
Heads up: For some of you, sharing your fears and wounds is a well-worn path. You can talk about the worst experiences of your life and never hit real vulnerability. For you, it might be harder to share what you want, or something you like about the other person. Your vulnerability may lie in letting yourself want more and revealing how deeply you feel. Watch for what takes you to the edge of your comfort zone and share that.
You may fear that you’re too much. I had that fear, too. You may be afraid that if you show all of yourself you’ll be rejected. You may even have built up a lifetime of evidence to support this fear. Doing relationship research on vulnerability can help you work through this fear in a conscious way.
When who you really are breaks through your façade into a relationship, as it eventually must, the relationship may go through changes, or even end. Not because you’re too much, or bad, or wrong for revealing more of yourself, but because the relationship was a house of cards built on a façade and shit just got real. If you set up the relationship on a foundation of vulnerability and honesty from the start, you have more chance of it working out because you each know what you’re really getting into.
How to set up a research container to explore vulnerability:
1. Grab a willing friend and agree to do relationship research on speaking your emotional truth. It can be someone you’re lightly dating or just a friend. If you’re dating, watch out for feelings getting in the way of speaking your truth. If you’re just friends, make sure there’s enough at stake to keep you honest.
2. Agree on a length of time that feels good. We picked 7 days but you could choose 15, 21, or 30 days. Pick a small enough window that you’ll both be all in for it, but a long enough window that you build up useful data.
3. Agree that you’ll touch base every day and say what’s on your heart as directly as possible. If the recipient of the communication feels like the giver’s holding back or padding their truth, ask the giver to repeat the communication more clearly and directly after they’ve finished.
4. You could set a timer and have each person speak for a maximum of five minutes.
When the giver is speaking, the receiver listens. At the end, say, Thank you. Switch giver and receiver.
5. At the end of the daily back-and-forth, debrief for a few minutes by each saying how it felt to say the thing and how it felt to receive it. The debrief is an opportunity to continue being transparent and getting even closer to your emotional truth, while also learning how your communication lands with another.
6. At the end, thank one another and move on. Don’t process it. You’re researching how to reveal yourselves more fully and how to receive someone who’s revealing themselves, not getting into the story of the emotions that were revealed.
A version of this post was originally posted on RebelleSociety.com and is republished here with permission from the author.