Written by: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT
I use the term "vulnerability" often with my clients, and many of them sigh at the use of such a therapeutic word. It is therapeutic in the sense that it is a term I learned in my training to become a therapist to describe certain sensitivities inherent to all people, but it is also the most accurate word I can use for what I am talking about.
We all have vulnerabilities. We all have parts of ourselves that are more easily threatened and that we are primed to protect. Much like an animal will try to protect its neck or stomach from being exposed in a fight because they are the most vulnerable parts of the body, humans are conditioned to protect their emotional vulnerabilities from being directly exposed during conflict.
The therapeutic term for how we protect our vulnerabilities is "survival strategies." Essentially, we learn through observation and experience how to protect ourselves when our vulnerabilities feel threatened (Note: the strategy is initiated when a threat is simply felt, not only when a threat intentionally exists). Common strategies include defensiveness, blaming, or withdrawing.
While survival strategies can help us feel less vulnerable, they inhibit empathy and effective communication. They do not exist to promote healthy conflict. They exist only to protect us, and sometimes they cause more damage to the relationship than if we communicate from a place that honors our vulnerabilities.
When a vulnerability is “triggered” in conflict, it initiates a cycle. That vulnerability triggers a call to arms for that person’s survival strategy, then that survival strategy will often trigger the other partner’s vulnerability, which triggers his or her survival strategy, and so on. It is circular, meaning it does not matter who initiates the sequence. Both partners are responsible at one point or another, and trying to find blame for who is most responsible is a waste of time and at odds with the point of this article.
Try the following exercise that I often use with the highly conflictual couples I see in therapy to better understand recurring problematic interactions.
Draw the following diagram:
Picture adapted from The Vulnerability Cycle: Working with Impasses in Couple Therapy - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/8327965_fig1_Figure-2 [accessed 3 Mar, 2016]
Write your names in place of “Partner 1” and Partner 2”. “V” stands for Vulnerability and “SS” represents Survival Strategy.
Think to a recent argument you had, preferably one that is now resolved and where there is less residual tension. Try to remember the beginning of the conflict and think of your emotional response.
When you are ready, begin to list the vulnerabilities that you felt being triggered in YOU. Focus on your vulnerabilities and let your partner focus on his or hers. Often, you will only need to think of two or three vulnerabilities to capture your experience.
Common vulnerabilities include:
- Feeling like you are not good enough
- Feeling abandoned or unwanted
- Feeling taken advantage of
- Feeling unworthy
- Feeling like you do not matter
Next, list what survival strategy you initiate when a vulnerability is threatened. Describe your behavior and communication style.
Common survival strategies include:
Share your insight with your partner. Can you see how your survival strategy triggered a vulnerability in your partner and vice versa?
Because this is using only one example, there might be one partner who “started” the conflict or one who you can see felt “triggered” first. However, it is important to remember that this is only one example and that either partner can initiate this cycle. Who initiates the cycle is less important than how you can work together to become more aware of it and begin to find new solutions.
Mapping your vulnerability cycle is simply the first step on the path to change. The next step is to brainstorm new ways you can respond when your vulnerability is triggered (again, remember to focus primarily on yourself and not what your partner can do differently).
Succeeding over vulnerabilities is not getting rid of them. We cannot eradicate deeply embedded parts of ourselves, nor would it be healthy to do so. There is a valid reason our vulnerabilities developed -- whether from a message received repeatedly in childhood or a traumatic event that left a scar on one's self-esteem.
Our vulnerabilities are part of who we are. We cannot destroy them, but we can manage them. We can nurture our vulnerabilities and better understand them so that our survival strategies are more constructive to a healthy relationship.