On Vulnerability & Love
Love is something I'm feeling a bit unqualified to write about at the moment, which is why it's the perfect subject to tackle. (That's how it works, right?) I've reached that point that I feel most people reach in their mid (alright... "late...") 20's eventually do: my perceptions on the meaning of love have been challenged and irreparably broken. I've found myself coming back to center a lot and trying to reverse engineer this breakdown. What caused it? Which cautionary facets should I be clinging to? Which old tenets should I be resurrecting? I come back to this quote from C.S. Lewis that you've definitely seen on many occasions if you frequented my old blog:
There is a lot that I could be saying about love and because I am no expert—and neither of us has all the time in the world—I'm going to touch on this one crucial characteristic of love that's often missed: vulnerability.
Talking to my friends who are a little less traditionally-minded than me (read: prone to chronic Tindering and with a general aversion to settling down) has made me realize that vulnerability in love is something that doesn't really exist anymore. It seems like a no-brainer for me because I love to think through topics deeply and critically, and my process of forming a partnership—romantic or not—is heavy on this depth. I personally can't imagine a relationship without deep, meaningful discussion, and I often lost my patience when looking for a mate. If I thought I hit it off with someone, I'd tell him. Right then and there. It was terrifying but at least I'd know early on if we were on the same page and not have to worry about wasting anyone's time. I'm sure you can imagine how this went. (Hint: not good.) I think there's got to be a happy medium between my sudden, overt openness and the fear of "catching feelings" espoused by so many of my peers. I can't speak from the point of view of a commitment-phobe but as a habitual catcher-of-feelings, I can share some convincing arguments on why vulnerability isn't too bad.
The statistics here are at odds. While research shows that fewer twenty-somethings are entering committed relationships, when asked, college students still say they would prefer a relationship over a hookup. Where's the disparity coming from? Some say it's because we (and by "we," I mean that dreaded "millennial" moniker) have a tenuous grasp, at best, with face-to-face communication while others blame the burden of choice that's come along with the advent of online dating. It could be either, neither, or a combination of any hypotheses, but I think the problem lies in the fact that we were just never taught the value of being vulnerable.
"To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides." - David Viscott
I'm always the angel and the devil sitting on my friend's shoulders when they're looking for relationship advice. If they're timid about committing what seems to be a cardinal dating sin and double-texting, my answer is always, "do it." If they enjoyed the first date but for whatever reason are not sure about pursuing a second one, my answer is always, "life is short." When they ask why, I tell that it's as simple as this: loving and being loved feels really, really good. There's no greater feeling than thinking about someone and having the gumption to tell that person that they've been on your mind—and, in turn, having that person telling you that the feeling is mutual. Is the second part guaranteed? Definitely not. But there's another love-themed quote that fits quite nicely here. "It is a risk to love. What if it doesn't work out? Ah, but what if it does.” (Peter McWilliams.) The issue that I've seen time and time again isn't necessarily a fear of openness but a fear of unreciprocated gestures, of unrequited feelings, of unanswered texts while being left on "read." We're so afraid of these things that we self-sabotage our way out of potentially meaningful relationships. That's what it is: we’re more self-sabotagers than mere commitment-phobes. Which do you think is worse?
It's a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. It's difficult to put yourself out there when you don't know what will happen, but you can't know what will happen until you put yourself out there. Love can be an exhausting, messy, confusing, wonderful thing but if you're afraid to get there, you're standing in your own way. I think that for most people, the fear is greater than the curiosity—and I get that. We get jaded, self-preservation becomes our primary function. We've all experienced heartbreak to some degree and it's enough to keep us from coming back for more.
There is absolutely no way that's guaranteed to keep us from getting our hearts broken, and when we open ourselves up to a tragedy like that, it's easy to collapse in on ourselves and assign blame for getting mixed up in the first place. That's no healthy. Aside from abusive partners and the like, some relationships were meant to be for just a time and that's truly alright. Beating yourself up their demise does nothing but assign guilt and blame that has no place being there at all. Rather than bringing negativity on yourself, keep in mind that you're stronger than you think, and that though breakups and vulnerability can be frightening, being open can be incredibly rewarding.
KNOW THINE SELF
One way to mitigate the pain and the process of loss is to know yourself. Some serious soul-searching in the midst of my darkest days is what brought me to where I am now. (A little sadder but wiser but full of love to give and a huge space in my heart willing to be filled.) Self-awareness is a virtue and knowing what you want and need (and don't want and don't need) in a relationship makes it easy to identify bad patterns and recognize the good ones. When you not only know what your preferences are but also your triggers, you can stop yourself from handing over too much of your heart. You need to treasure yourself in the same way you want a partner to treasure you. Knowing your worth can be intimidating to potential suitors but it'll drive the wrong ones away. A little bit of confidence goes a long way.
TRUST THINE SELF
You're more perceptive than you could ever imagine. Through evolution—not just biologically but also your own evolution through different ages and iterations of yourself—you've been prepared you for moments just like these. Not only do you have the discernment to determine who is and isn't worth your time, you have the autonomy to not drag a relationship out when it's simply not going anywhere. The moment you find yourself attempting to force conversation, or falling to feigned romance, cut it out. Buy yourself a dinner and some flowers to ease the pain (if any) and end it right there. If you find that someone can't hold your attention in the beginning stages of a relationship, that certainly doesn't bode well for later times. It doesn't matter how desirable someone's personality is, or how many ideal traits they possess: if the time you spend together or the words you share with each other just isn't compelling even when you're both trying to impress each other, it's never going to happen. You'd do yourself and the other person a favor by keeping it from continuing.
ASK FOR HELP
If you're afraid of slipping up and feel like you just can't or don't trust yourself, it's okay to ask for help. Your friends know you well and have a unique perspective on you have and the person you're seeing. Since you hand-picked them, you already trust them, and should know they don't have any vested interests, and if they do, you should be comfortable enough with them to ask. Listen to your friends when they voice their concerns. I had precious friendships destroyed because of a relationship I was in years ago that my friends warned me about. Rather than hearing them out, I chalked their complaints up to jealousy or a general misunderstanding. Despite what your heart may be telling you in the moment, your friends should have your best interest in mind. They care about you and want to spend time with you. If you're afraid to ask them about a potential partner, there's a red flag. If they seem tentative when it comes to taking about a potential partner, that's a red flag. If you feel like you can't speak to them about a potential partner of if they're uncharacteristically silent in a way you can only surmise as tacit disapproval, those are all red flags. Be aware of how others are treating you and your new boo in the early stages of your relationship so you can consider putting an end to it before you both are in too deep and vulnerability makes a clean break impossible.
Vulnerability should be a goal but it is, by nature, a slow process. I'm not saying that you should practice it in your relationship right now but it's something that you should definitely consider going forward. Though (obviously) not all of my relationships have worked out, I've found them all to be fulfilling, very precious, and, ultimately, something to learn from. It's certainly not the past of least resistance, and there's a pretty decent risk involved, but the ROI is greater than anything you could ever imagine.