By Adam J. Pearson
Relationships take a wide variety of forms. Some relationships seem so fragile that the slightest fight, disagreement, or mistake could crush them into oblivion. Others seem so resilient that they can weather the most ferocious storm and emerge scarred, but empowered. What distinguishes these fragile relationships from the more powerful ones that inspire and nurture us?
Fragile relationships tend to be tentative. We don’t go into them fully. We don’t commit to them. We approach them cautiously, like a hungry squirrel cautiously approaching an offering of food in the outstretched palm of a human. The squirrel doesn’t know if the same hand that now feeds him might also go on to hurt him. He doesn’t know if he can trust the person before him. So he is tentative, careful, ready to run at any time. We are the same way in fragile relationships. We’re afraid to get hurt, so we don’t fully invest ourselves. We don’t fully trust in order to protect ourselves. We don’t let ourselves care all that much in an attempt to protect ourselves from disappointment. And we often see the relationship in a totally conditional way: if it ceases to satisfy my wants or starts to hit rough terrain, we are ready to leave in a heartbeat. Fragile relationships cannot handle adversity; as soon as it hits, they crumble, like a ship shattering against dark rocks its captain did not spot in time.
In my experience, powerful relationships are completely different from their more delicate counterparts. Powerful relationships–whether romantic, friendship, or family relationships–are resilient. They’re elastic. They don’t crumble under the weight of being rocked, or of people messing up, making mistakes, and getting hurt. They bounce back. That’s why we feel we can be vulnerable in these relationships without letting fear or shame numb us into silence. Because we know that we’re safe. We know that even if feelings get stirred up, the relationship is strong enough to handle them without breaking. This elasticity comes from trust, comfort, caring, respect, and connection. When these things are in place, the elasticity is in place. The resilience is in place. And the relationship handles hurt and bounces back.
This ability to bounce back, to adapt to adversity and accommodate challenge, is the source of the power of powerful relationships. They are richly infused with the trust and security that fragile relationships so desperately lack. And one of the most paradoxical features of powerful relationships is that they are born out of vulnerability. To trust is to be vulnerable. To care is to be vulnerable. To seek comfort in another person is to be vulnerable. To reach out in connection is a vulnerable act. Therefore, in order to create a relationship in which we feel like it is safe to be ourselves, a relationship that can handle the truth of our shame, fear, anxiety, along with all of our joy, strength, and creativity, we have to take a leap of faith into vulnerability. We have to dare to care, dare to trust, dare to connect. And when we do, we find, much to our surprise, that this unsafe act can unlock the keys to our safety. Perhaps ironically, it is only by taking this vulnerable leap with someone who deserves our trust that we find the strength and the relationship resilience for which we have always yearned.
This article is part of a series on shame, vulnerability, and resilience.
For a discussion of why seeking approval fails to silence the voice of shame, see “Silencing the Praise: Why Seeking Approval Fails to Fill Our Inner Void.”
For a detailed and practical explanation of shame-resilience, see “Finding the Calm Within the Storm: Shame Resilience in Practice.”
For tips for discovering and questioning the assumptions that lie at the heart of shame, see “The Heart of the Void: Finding the Assumptions at the Core of Shame.”
For reflections on the power and vitality of vulnerability, see “When We Feel Vulnerable, We Feel Alive: Reflections on the Power and Vitality of Vulnerability.”
For another author’s take on extreme people-pleasing and its effects, see “From Parent-Pleasing to People Pleasing.”