Vulnerability And Intimate Relationships

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Vulnerability And Intimate Relationships

Author: Julia Abakumova-Kočiūnienė


The author reflects on the modern tendency to avoid unpleasant experiences and pain and its influence on relations between people. Separateness and deep alienation that rather often plague personal relationships seem to result from the refusal to take risk of being wholly open and of accepting others in their wholeness, which comes as a consequence of striving to eliminate unattractive, painful or possibly traumatizing experiences from intimate relations.

Key words

Intimate relationship, openness, vulnerability, avoidance of pain, modern tendencies.

 Openness, vulnerability and intimacy-related expectations

Staying in intimate relations requires mutual openness, which inevitably causes experience of vulnerability. It is not rare that openness is experienced as painful and hurting, and a person may face a question „How to be in intimate relationship and endure resulting painfulness?“ And often the choice of a modern Western person turns around the idea of life as a consumer market, relations being just another part of it. Thus relations turn into some special kind of product that has to possess certain qualities. If these qualities are absent, a person attempts to reconstruct such relationship or simply rejects it. Says Polina Aronson (2016): „For a Western man, love equals consumption: we choose a partner who is to give us what we need“. Relationships become one of many consumer goods that aim at creating comfort and giving pleasure to the person consuming them.

Such expectations are often based on the conception of relationship as something necessarily comfortable and bringing satisfaction or – even better – pleasure. Intimacy may get stuck against a myth that intimacy means a permanent and definitely pleasant condition, some kind of a blissful state similar to intrauterine existence, where intimacy is something undoubtedly positive and safe, providing warmth and guarding from dangerous outer world, allowing to feel confident and peaceful. It happens that, searching for satisfactory relationship, people look for such intimacy, which, however, is not possible in reality. In this search, a person sometimes forgets that intimacy in itself might be a risky experience. In life, unconditional comfort and safety or an array of exclusively pleasant emotions are simply non-existent. (One can remember that an experience of bodily closeness to one‘s most beloved person on a hot summer day may involve not so pleasant sensations.)

Why does it occasionally happen that people consider each other close, but are not aware about each other‘s real concerns, they no longer can talk and discuss things, getting completely estranged? While striving to bring as much peace, comfort and pleasure as possible to our relations, we drive away everything that might be an obstacle to this. A possibility of openness to oneself and to another person in any respect means a menace to get in touch with negative, conflict-laden, unresolved or even forbidden or repressed spheres of life. Such dangerous contacts threaten to bring unpleasant, painful experiences. So, in willing to put our idea about intimate relationship to life, we attempt to build barriers against unpleasant experiences. As any barriers, these inevitably block much more than we intend to buffer off. We are afraid of discomfort and pain, but out of this fear to get in touch with own feelings or feelings of another person we bar ways to openness.

Escape from pain

The modern Western person lives mostly in great fear of all sorts of unpleasant experiences, discomfort and, of course, pain. Civilization moves towards annihilating any pain, and psychotherapy is perceived by many as one of the ways to remove pain, i.e. mental suffering and traumatic experiences. Here are some telling facts as an evidence of the wish of people to get away, to hide from physical pain.

In 2012, the United States had 284 million packages of opiates prescribed, which means approximately one package to each adult. At present consumption of opiates in theUSA is 6 times greater than 20 years ago; in 2015, 19 000 people died in America due to overdosing of pain-killers (IQ, 2016).

The modern man tries to escape from pain, to defend, to close against it, to push vulnerability out of his lifeworld. Along with this a person refuses many chances to express his/her need of intimate relationship, such as a need to get help or to be dependent on or related to somebody, since all these needs mean a chance to be hurt, to suffer pain. Therefore such attributes of intimate relationships as dedication, self-sacrifice, heroic deeds for the sake of another person become, in the best case, old-fashioned, but more often simply impossible, unacceptable and forgotten. The image of a modern person commonly includes seeking only pleasant experiences in relationships and thus choosing separateness and aloofness from another person.

Gulnara Haydarova (2013), a philosopher from Saint Petersburg, Russia, speaks about „advent of the era of increased sensibilization“ and maintains that we become extremely sensitive to even tiniest superficial changes in our life or superficial intrusions in our private space, meanwhile such essential elements like intimacy and openness to other person vanish from our attention.

The modern man lives within the culture of anaesthetization, which also includes removal of pain possibly caused by relations. Suppression of all awkward (often meaning importan, arguable, subjective, existentially significant) themes eliminates from a relationship any risk to feel painfully vulnerable, and along with it a feeling of real life. Relations between people still offer a limited space for openness, almost devoid of risk, but, unfortunately, with very little of life in it.

Fear of being vulnerable, of getting hurt or feeling pain in a relationship creates more and more ‘spots’ that are protected from intrusion and cannot be addressed. Dissociation from pain causes even greater restrictions in a person’s openness to oneself and to others. We defend ourselves from uncomfortable ideas that others may have about us and suppress our own embarrassing images of ourselves. We are afraid of real ourselves and thus cannot maintain real relations with others. Parallel to the fear of being hurt, there is a fear to hurt a partner, as getting in touch with somebody’s vulnerability means risking awareness of vulnerability of one’s own.

Risk to be hurt and to hurt others

To be really present in intimate relationship, one has to be ready to hurt another and to be hurt oneself. Attempts to defend oneself from pain in intimate relationship are somewhat similar to the struggle against physical pain. Anaesthetizing skin nerve endings we block not only sensations of pain, but all others as well. A numbed patch of skin allows to be protected from pain there, but we are also deprived of tactile or temperature sensations, so get no feelings of cold or warmth of a human touch. Avoiding vulnerability in relationships requires lot of energy. We want to control them and be able to predict how they develop, keep asking ourselves if there are any guarantees and how to achieve undoubtedly good relations. All this masks great fear to be hurt (which is essentially the same as to hurt somebody yourself). However, suppressing fear of pain and vulnerability, we raise insurmountable obstacles to what may hurt us and build barriers instead of building relationships, thus losing the ability to experience really intimate closeness to another person. Along with vulnerability, we discard the ability to feel joy in creative relationship with somebody, to accept and to love, because it is impossible to preserve sensitivity selectively. We lose the ability to experience own vulnerability and to accept vulnerability of others. A person strives to become invulnerable in his relationships, but, in the process, becomes self-contained, increasingly less alive and able to maintain intimacy. Vulnerability, sensitivity, exposure, weakness – all these are inherent qualities or conditions of being human, and all are based on the ability to feel pain. For Arne Vetlesen, a Norwegian philosopher, this ability represents a certain charge or potential of a relationship which may give basis for real intimacy that we are capable of as adult and individual beings. “[Our pain]… grows… out of inevitable vulnerability that has always been part of human nature, but which we no longer know how to tolerate, both in ourselves and in those around us”, writes Vetlesen (2009). Fear of vulnerability and illusion-based ideas about intimacy as an unconditionally pleasant experience(warm and full of light) prove to be obstacles to real intimacy.

Thus, therapy has a task to help a person to be ready for intimate relationships and vulnerability inherent to them, to stimulate subjectivity, openness and readiness to change, which in turn means courage to be alive and able to experience pain. Therapy must bring more reality to a person’s ideas about intimacy, help to transform mythical assumptions about maximum comfort mandatory for a relationship into a more mature concept inescapably involving some painful experiences.

To be able to move in this direction, a person has to be ready to get hurt in intimate relations, in other words, to accept another person‘s right to be different, to have different views and ideas, to disagree and reject. Possibilities for real and not illusory intimacy are greater, if partners may allow themselves to express their individuality instead of building an artificial façade of full concord.

A person must be able to hurt, to confront, to contradict, to express various unpleasant feelings and in this way to stay in real dialogue with another person. Such open dialogue allows to face one’s real self and avoid situations when one suddenly realizes that a person next to him/her is a stranger with whom there is nothing to talk about inspite of many years spent together.

“We open up to pain when we have hope and know that disappointment is possible, when we dare to love and know that this love could be rejected, when we feel and know that we might be hurt”, presumes Arne Vetlesen. In his opinion, life without pain is not life (this refers also to relationships). However, life in pain is practically unbearable. What is the way to find a condition encompassing both poles? It seems that any person continuously seeks answers to the question – how to get rid of unbearable pain in a relationship and still be ready to possible painful moments just because another person is different?

Aronson (2016) gives her own life-affirming answer: “So we need to confess love loudly. To start living together still not being absolutely sure that both are ready. To grumble at one‘s partner without any serious reason and to show no resentment if he/she does the same – just because we all are human beings. To bear children at worst possible moments. And, finally, to recover one‘s right to suffer from love. Let us not fear torments of love.“

 Julia Abakumova-Kočiūnienė is existential therapist and teacher at the Institute of Humanistic and Existential Psychology in Birštonas, Lithuania.


Aronson P. Regimes of Romance [Аронсон П. Режимы романтического]. Rigas Laiks, 2016, Spring, p. 106-109.

Haydarova G. Phenomenon of Pain in Culture [Хайдарова Г. Феномен боли в культуре]. S.-Petersburg, 2013.

Traps of Pain [Skausmo spąstai].  IQ, 2016, July, p. 84-88 (

Vetlesen А. J. A Philosophy of Pain. London: Reaktion Books, 2009.

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