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Couples in Recovery: Vulnerability

Issue 23

It’s the ultimate superpower

When we ask couples in recovery what their biggest goal is for the relationship, the answer usually describes some form of emotional intimacy.

When we explore further, couples say: “The freedom to tell my partner how I think and feel without being criticized; To be seen for who I am; To have someone I can feel safe with.”

So, what are couples in recovery longing for?

The ability to be truly vulnerable.

That is the power to share one’s deepest needs, desires, fears, anxieties, flaws, and dreams while trusting they will be received without judgment.

Couples in recovery are both uniquely qualified to embrace vulnerability, as well as challenged at practicing vulnerability in their partnerships. In recovery, we see and practice vulnerability at 12- step programs when the newcomer raises their hand and talks about their disease for the first time; or another person tearfully talks about their partner’s addiction and their struggle about how not to enable them.

But why is it so difficult to practice that vulnerability as individuals with our partners? Anxiety, fear, denial, trauma may all come up when we risk sharing our heart outside of the protective walls of our respective addictions. However, if we are putting our faith in a partnership that will thrive, both partners must be willing to express those tough, gritty, anxiety-inducing emotions, and trust that the person receiving them will respond in a loving way.

While vulnerability takes conscious practice, it also requires a sturdy foundation.

The building blocks of vulnerability are:

Desire: We must start with a passion for a deeper relationship. We must be open to letting go of the past, changing our way of communicating, listening, asking questions, and learning about ourselves.

Transparency: Truthfulness and integrity in the relationship are prerequisites to feeling safe enough to be vulnerable. The foundation of trust is complete honesty, no errors of omission, especially if there has been betrayal in the past.

Self-knowledge: We need to know ourselves, our patterns of behavior, our own judgmental beliefs, and our fears and anxieties if we want to share with our partner. What we share will evolve as we are always changing and discovering who we are.

Author and social worker Brene Brown speaks of vulnerability as a superpower. The superpower of being vulnerable does not require a cape, a costume, or a cloak of comfort. It requires courage.

Choose courage – the results are worth it!

8 things you can do to practice vulnerability

1. Try something with your partner you have been afraid to do.

2. Buy the most ridiculous t-shirt for each other and wear it out together.

3. Ask your partner for help with something you usually struggle with alone.

4. Play hooky and go to a matinee together.

5. Keep a couples’ gratitude list.

6. Create a collage together of what your relationship means to one another.

7. Share a fear you have.

8. Apologize first.

Elaine Shamos
Elaine Shamos
Elaine Shamos, MPH, has 30 years experience as a public health professional and is the former director of Dartmouth’s Women’s Health Resource Center. Glenn Simpson, LCSW, CADC, has a private practice specializing in substance use disorder, and couples therapy. They are working together on a book for couples in recovery.

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