Being vulnerable in a relationship means taking a risk. There’s a chance of getting hurt, but there’s also a chance for connection and growth.
Opening up to someone isn’t always an easy thing to do. We may fear that if someone knows our biggest insecurities, fears, and secrets, they may think differently of us or even reject us.
Being vulnerable means risking getting hurt. It can be especially hard to open up to someone new if we’ve been hurt in the past when we handed someone our heart.
But here’s the thing: If we never let ourselves be vulnerable in our relationships, how can someone actually get to know us? How can those relationships get deeper?
The short answer: They can’t. Relationships need vulnerability — from both partners — to thrive.
Vulnerability can take many different forms in a relationship because it means different things to different people.
But in general, “[It] looks like remaining open to sharing all parts of yourself with your partner and not being afraid of being judged and criticized,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Los Angeles, California.
“It means feeling comfortable enough to turn towards your loved ones in your lowest moments rather than trying to isolate yourself and turn away from their support.”
This can involve feeling comfortable enough to share your thoughts, beliefs, and values with a partner. Or it can mean feeling safe enough to tell them about your past and things that have happened to you.
It can also mean being able to share your feelings — even when those feelings are difficult ones, like sadness, anger, or frustration — in a nonconfrontational way.
Sarah Epstein, licensed marriage and family therapist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, provides an example: If you’re hurt by something your partner does, focus on their actions, not them.
“[R]esponding vulnerably means speaking in terms of how their actions impacted you — like saying, ‘When you made that joke, I felt dismissed’ — rather than attacking the other person by saying, ‘You always make the meanest jokes about me,’” she explains.
Being vulnerable means accepting that you can’t control what will happen but that you’ll still act or speak in a way that’s authentic to you.
“When we speak from a place of how we feel, when we share our fears and dreams with another, we give somebody the power to either hear us or to hurt us,” says Epstein.
As scary as being vulnerable may feel, it can also be incredibly beneficial.
“Vulnerability is the glue that bonds individuals together in any sort of relationship,” explains Dr. Anton Shcherbakov, a licensed clinical psychologist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Without this important glue, our relationship risks being superfluous.”
If we only share the comfortable and safe parts of ourselves, our relationships can’t grow.
It deepens your bond
Vulnerability fosters closeness, trust, and intimacy because it tells the person you’re with that you trust them. This allows you to truly get to know each other: how you think, what you value, and what you aspire to.
“Vulnerability allows for people to understand each other on a deeper level, including their insecurities and their deepest feelings, which can lead to greater empathy in both partners,” says Laura Sgro, a licensed psychotherapist from Los Angeles, California.
It encourages self-regulation and belonging
“As we practice getting more comfortable with things that are typically uncomfortable, like asserting our needs or revealing an insecurity,” says Sgro, “we’re actually teaching ourselves how to regulate difficult feelings and cope with them.”
It also reduces feelings of shame.
Lurie explains that being vulnerable can help us no longer feel weighed down by fear and shame, or whatever it is we’re carrying. Our vulnerability is a way to foster connections, even when our shame may be telling us we don’t deserve it.
This means that when we accept someone when they’re vulnerable, we’re telling them that they’re not alone and that they belong, despite their potential fears of not being worthy.
It can help reduce conflict
Because vulnerability encourages open communication, intimacy, closeness, and self-regulation, it can ease tension and conflict between you and your partner.
“In healthy relationships, vulnerability paves the way for partners to take accountability and honest communication,” says Sgro, “rather than destructive behaviors such as deflecting, avoiding, or blaming the other person during a conflict.”
This helps lessen the chances of an argument escalating.
“When we can respond to something hurtful with vulnerability rather than rage, we allow the other person to see their impact without making them defensive,” explains Epstein.
Of course, if being vulnerable were easy, we’d do it all the time. The truth is, it can be scary and difficult — and our past relationships can make it even harder to want to do it again in the future.
Despite it feeling scary, there are small things you can do to encourage vulnerability in your relationship to make it seem a little more manageable. Here are some tips:
“Start small and share something that you don’t tell a lot of people,” recommends Shcherbakov. “Then gauge your partner’s response: Are they supportive? Or do they laugh or dismiss your vulnerability?”
If they respond well, consider sharing again — maybe something a little bigger or scarier.
“Give your actual opinion, without altering it based on how you think your partner might feel about it,” says Dr. Roberta Ballard, an online clinical psychologist from Georgia. “[Or] ask for what you really want, instead of what you think you ‘should’ want.”
Express your needs
“Our partners aren’t mind-readers and it’s OK to ask for what we need from them,” says Sgro. “If your partner doesn’t know what you need from them, it can be easy to feel like your needs aren’t being met, which leads to greater resentment and frustration.”
This can cause you to shut down, harming your relationship.
If your partner hurts you, let them know
When you feel hurt by your partner, try not to react with anger. Instead, recommends Nicole Ohebshalom, a couples therapist from California, “pause and slow down your response when you feel hurt.”
Then, once you can name your feeling and what they did that hurt you, tell them — but try not to accuse. Focus on making “I” statements, such as, “I feel hurt that you said that to me.” Try to be as specific as possible. Language is our best tool for feeling understood and supported.
You can’t force someone to be vulnerable with you, but you can model it to them, which might prompt them to respond in kind.
“The more you create safety and show your vulnerability, the [safer] your partner [may] feel to share their emotional experience,” says Ohebshalom.
You can also reassure your partner that you’re not going to betray their trust.
“Reassure your partner that you won’t run off if they open up to you,” says Sgro. “This is often an underlying fear that folks have, especially if they have had negative past relationship experiences. So, affirming your partner and giving them reassurance will help them learn that you are a safe person for them to open up to.”
Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions can encourage your partner to be vulnerable. These are questions that can help you receive the context you need to better understand your partner. Try not to assume you already know the answer and understand their experience.
For example, you could ask, “Why do you feel like that?” or “What was that like for you?”
If they respond, give them your full attention, and believe their experience. Epstein adds, ”be gentle and thank them for sharing that.“ Acknowledgment goes a long way to building trust.
If you’re struggling, ask yourself why
“If you’re struggling with opening up or being vulnerable with your partner, I encourage you to explore what might be getting in the way,” says Sgro. “Was vulnerability never modeled in your family? Did you have a negative emotional experience after being vulnerable in the past?”
It can be helpful to journal about these topics or even speak to a mental health professional.
“Understanding your own barriers is the first step in overcoming them,” she adds.
Remember: Sometimes it’s not worth it
Not everyone deserves your vulnerability. “Vulnerability is earned as a person shows that they can be trusted with increasingly delicate, meaningful information,” explains Epstein.
So, if someone isn’t showing you they can be trusted with your emotions and feelings, you don’t need to continue letting them in to hurt you.
“If a relationship is abusive or [your] partner has significantly broken your trust in the past, it may not be safe to be vulnerable with them,” says Shcherbakov.
Vulnerability is essential to a relationship. It can help foster closeness, intimacy, and trust. Without it, relationships tend to remain superficial — or partners can begin to feel disconnected and resentful of one another.
But opening up to someone takes time. It can be a really tough thing to do, so don’t be afraid to go slow and let it build over time.