I had an interesting discussion with Girlfriend fairly recently. We were talking about how rare it seems to be for two people to really connect, to get past the superficiality of acquaintanceship and move to the type of bonding that allows for close friendship. Perhaps it isn’t as rare for everybody else as it seems to be for me and her, but we commented that we had a very limited number of people we each would consider to be true friends.
We spent a large part of the conversation trying to identify what quality, attribute, or event enables the transition from acquaintance to friend. In doing so, we talked about why she and I felt that we were friends with each other. The conclusion we came to was that we felt that we could be open with each other. We trusted each other enough to disclose our deeper thoughts and feelings, and instead of judgment or shock from the other person, we received in return understanding and acceptance. She made the observation: “To love is to be vulnerable; and being vulnerable is the start of being loved”
With most acquaintances, we are usually reserved. We self-censor. We voice only those thoughts that we feel will be appropriate and thus accepted by the other person. We limit the topics we are willing to discuss to trivial items rather than risk delving deep into our inner feelings, our fears, and our desires. We shield ourselves from the pain that would come from not being understood. But when we stumble upon that rare individual who we feel would accept us as we are, we open up, perhaps just a little bit at first. Our dearest friends are the ones from whom we feel we have to hide the fewest secrets. We become vulnerable, and then we love. We see the other person’s willingness to be vulnerable, and then we love. To be vulnerable (and then to be accepted and understood) is the seed of love.
Vulnerability begets love. But love also begets vulnerability. For once we love someone, they have the unique power to hurt us as nobody else can. Whether through misunderstanding and thoughtlessness, or carelessness and unconcern, or even abandonment, a person whom we love is in a position to take our feelings of concern for them and shatter them. To love is to open yourself to be hurt. No matter if our love lasts ten days or ten years, at some point it will be over. Even if love lasts until death of one of the partners, the other will be bereft. Vulnerability and love are two sides of the same coin.
A few days after this conversation with Girlfriend, I stopped by my ex-wife’s house to see my children. I had been increasingly frustrated around my ex-wife because our conversations have been feeling so tense and curt and stilted lately. The one ameliorating factor was that we rarely spent any time talking. This time, however, the children were busy and my ex-wife was free, and we had about ten minutes to talk.
After the first few awkward sentences to each other, my mind went to this idea of vulnerability, and I realized that we had both shielded ourselves against being too vulnerable. We were both hurt by the dissolution of our marriage and the accompanying feelings and fears we had about the other person. Neither of us wanted to be open to additional pain, so we each closed down, and love can’t thrive without vulnerability. I have this image of my ex-wife as being a very forgiving, nonjudgmental person, one who is skilled in social situations and who can be friends with just about anybody. Why couldn’t she be friends with me after our divorce? Why did our interactions have to be so frosty?
I decided we needed to reintroduce vulnerability into our relationship.
I knew I couldn’t expect her to be vulnerable if I weren’t willing to show that I was also in a position to not judge her, so I started talking to her about some of the struggles I had been having lately. I had to be vulnerable first. Even though I had already answered her obligatory “how are you?” with a non-committal “fine,” I backtracked a little and restarted the conversation.
“You know,” I told her. “Things have actually been pretty difficult for me lately.”
Her eyes, which had been roaming the front yard as we stood on the steps of the house, suddenly shot up to meet mine in surprise. “In what way?”
“I’ve been feeling really lost,” I admitted. “I used to have so much direction in my life, so much purpose, so much meaning. I knew what life was all about. I knew what I needed to do. I knew what was important. Now, though? I can’t help but feel that nothing really matters any more.”
“You don’t have to feel that way,” she told me. Her lips and eyes tightened and I knew what she was implying. All I had to do was go back to church and believe in God again. But I didn’t want to engage in that discussion; it would engender only contention. I wanted vulnerability.
I pressed forward. “I’ve thought a lot about suicide lately. The richest king, the poorest pauper, the bravest man, and the most depraved: they all end up exactly the same. What does it matter what you do with your life? What does it even matter if you live at all? Sometimes I think it would just save a lot of effort to get it all over with.”
“Don’t talk that way,” she said. “You still have children. You might not care, but they do.” Oops. I hadn’t meant to scare her. I had been over this in my head already and knew I still had reasons for staying alive, but she didn’t know this was just the introduction to the topic. I was relating the process in the order I went through it, but she needed to hear the conclusion I eventually came to.
“No, that’s just it,” I replied. “I don’t want to die. Even though I have this intellectual conviction that in 1000 years it won’t matter if today I live or die, somehow I have this inexplicable emotional attachment to life. Although I can appreciate the arguments in favor of suicide, I realized that I don’t want to die. Even if it’s pointless. I’m not done living. I can’t reconcile my desire for life with any sort of intellectually valid reason for it beyond the mere selfishness of desiring life. And at the same time, I recognize that the very desire itself is nothing more than an evolutionary adaptation to increase my odds of surviving long enough to reproduce. And that mechanism is still functioning even though I’ve already fulfilled my evolutionary imperative.”
“But it’s even more selfish to kill yourself,” she told me. She was still stuck on the idea of me committing suicide. She wasn’t really realizing that I was only trying to bring her into my thought process.
I decided to move on. “Yeah. I’m not really interested in killing myself. I’ve just been trying to find some reason to live. What do I do with my life now? What interests do I pursue? In some ways I feel like I have to go through the angst of being a teenager again. I have to try to figure out what life is about. I have to determine what gives me motivation, drive, purpose. And I don’t know.”
“God knows your purpose. You could ask him.”
I ignored the bait once again. “I still find myself drawn to the kinds of values I had as a Mormon. I still think families are important. Relationships. I’m having a hard time finding activities that really drive me. My career doesn’t intrigue me in itself. Only as far as it allows me to make ends meet. And if I find something that I’m drawn to, I just have to keep wondering: is it really me that wants those things? Or is it the image of myself that I have built up in my head during years of being religious? I’m not sure I know who I am. What I really want.”
“You can reject it if you want, but your soul still wants what God offers.”
I tried to deflect again, but was drawn into the argument a little bit. “The thing is, when I want something that differs from what the Church teaches, then I can latch onto that and know for sure that’s really me, that I want it. But when it coincides with the Church’s teachings, then I’m not sure. And I think I’m a really good guy. So why shouldn’t I want things that are good? But when I notice the confluence of my interests with the Church’s teachings, I have to doubt myself. Is it me? Or is it my training kicking in? I don’t like that. How do I know?”
“That’s why I could never travel the path you’re on,” she said. “I know. I know what I want. I know where I’m going. And I know what God is going to give me. Your uncertainty is telling, don’t you think?”
She had roped me in, and I couldn’t let it pass unanswered. “A comforting lie is still a lie.”
She countered: “If you deny the truth, it doesn’t make it any less true.”
And from there it got ugly. We argued back and forth a little bit about God’s existence and power in our lives. And then somehow–I wish I could recall exactly how–we were suddenly talking about our marriage again. She was asking me how I could possibly think it was okay to abandon her and the children. I reminded her that I had left only because she told me she couldn’t live with my choices. She informed me that I had my priorities mixed up. I countered that this was the first time in my life when my priorities could truly be mine instead of someone else’s.
We were hurting each other again. And I was too stupid to see it at the moment. But that’s exactly why we had erected these barriers. That’s exactly why we had stopped being vulnerable with each other. It was too painful.
Instead of using my vulnerability to draw closer to me, she was using it to judge and condemn me. And I suppose from her perspective there’s a corollary as well. Instead of being humble and open to her ideas, she probably thought I was only drawing her in and then cruelly reminding her the exact reasons I could no longer live with her.
It was only after it was all over and I was driving way-too-fast back to my apartment–cursing the sky and wondering aloud why we couldn’t move more quickly from madly-in-love-and-married to divorced-but-still-great-friends–that I realized that vulnerability was the problem, not the solution.
Being vulnerable with someone armed with an emotional broadsword just isn’t a good idea. We both needed to protect ourselves. I couldn’t let her continue to barb me with accusations about my choices, and she couldn’t allow me to continue to remind her of all she had lost when our marriage dissolved. It was too painful.
If love requires vulnerability, and vulnerability is impossible, then love is also impossible.
I guess we need a little space. A little time. A little distance.
I don’t know how long it will take. I’d like to be friends with my ex-wife. But it looks like it’s going to take a while yet. To love is to be vulnerable. Neither of us can afford that right now.