Vulnerability is a big buzzword in the world of mental health and relationship talk. For men specifically, it has become a bit of a hot topic. Many in the “be alpha male no matter what” camp see vulnerability as another name for “weakness”, and in their mind, it must be stamped out like every other form of weakness out there. If you don’t, then there is hell to pay. People will walk all over you, and women won’t even look at you.
It’s true to a degree. The all-too-familiar tone of “men just need to suck it up”, like every other axiom and stereotype, didn’t just come out of nowhere. There’s some truth to it. Unlike what many in the “alpha male no matter what” camp think, it’s a little more nuanced than “never ever show weakness”. Let’s give an example to illustrate:
A man finds out that he’s going to lose his job. His boss called a meeting at work and let everyone know that they will be given two months’ worth of pay but they need to pack up their stuff and go home. The business is closing. The guy comes home to the wife and he’s obviously distraught. The wife can see the stress on his face. She asks what’s wrong. The man can’t hold in the emotion anymore. He starts shaking and tearing up. He lets loose with a tirade of words that can only be described as “emotional vomiting”.
“The boss just told us they are closing the doors for good. They gave us two paychecks. So basically, I’m jobless and in two months we won’t have any money coming in. Fuck. We just took out that home equity line of credit to build the new deck, bought the SUV, and we just enrolled Bobby into private school. Those are all three new payments that we need to make on top of our mortgage, other car payment, food, utilities. Basically, we’re fucked. I was counting on paychecks and that raise come Christmas. There’s no way I’m going to be able to find a job that pays me the same in 60 days. I don’t know what to do. After all, I gave that company, they just tell us to leave and shut the doors. A bunch of us guys are meeting up tonight at the bar. I need a fucking drink. This is bullshit.”
What pisses the man off, even more, is the wife’s reaction to all of this. “Just… don’t talk to me right now. Leave me alone. Fine. Go to the bar with your friends. Whatever you need to do to DEAL with this. Jesus… what are we going to do? How could you let this happen?”
The wife is scared, pissed, and much to the husband’s chagrin, not at all supportive or empathetic to his situation. He just had the rug pulled out from under him. He’s scared, too! He’s the one with all the pressure on him… and all she can do is act pissy and angry, instead of supportive and sweet? It sucks.
Let’s take that same scenario, but move things in a different direction:
Same situation at work. Man walks in the door.
“Hey, sweetie. Well… we need to sit down and talk. Unfortunately, the boss just told us that the business is shutting down. Completely. All of us have been let go. The good news is that they gave us two months of pay to soften the blow a bit. The bad news is that I have basically 60 days to find a job. Things could get a little tight with money, but I have a plan. We haven’t yet started work on the new deck. We just got the funds yesterday. I’ll call the bank and explain the situation and give back every penny of that loan. That way we don’t have that additional monthly payment hanging over us. We can always get the loan again later. I already called Bobby’s school. We can pay them every six months instead of monthly. That gives us some time until we need to make the first payment. I can put away some cash in savings until then. Another option is that we enroll him in public school for this year… or may just half a year until I get another paycheck coming in. I’m also going to sell my truck and get something small and affordable. I should’ve done that before anyway. I can probably get something with no payment with the equity I have in the truck.
“ I’ve already put out feelers for a new job. I made some calls and shot some text messages out. I’m meeting with Dave tonight to talk about a possible opening at his company. It would be a pay cut, but I can always do something on the side to make up the difference. I have a woodshop full of tools. Some of them I haven’t used in years. I can eBay those and make some nice cash.
“I know you’re scared and I am too a little… but at the same time I know we’ll be alright. I got this. I need your support and to stay strong, okay? Bobby needs to see what real parents do when shit hits the fan. This is just a bump in the road. I have a feeling we’ll look back on this but be glad we went through it. So… tell me… what are feeling now? I’m a big boy. Whatever you’re feeling I want to hear it. I love you and your opinion is important to me.”
The same exact situation approached in a different way. Yes, scenario number two is STILL showing vulnerability. Something bad happened… it’s scary… BUT… it’s not insurmountable. This is an obstacle, not the end of the road. Stand back and watch me as I handle this. I’m going to need to you keep your head on straight and be my cheerleader. I’m gonna need all the help I can get.
There is a third and arguably the most harmful option… and it’s one that is relatively common. I’ve seen it played out in TV shows and movies. Man gets fired… man still gets up every morning and “goes to work”… only to go sit in a parking lot or a coffee shop somewhere. Probably crying, drinking, smoking… doing all he can to numb the pain. He’s too afraid to expose his failure to his wife. He’s too scared to face a wife who will look at him with real fear and possible disdain for not being able to play the strong role of the provider. It’s too much. Ironically, his fear of appearing vulnerable puts him in the most vulnerable position of all. Too many of these stories end with the wife finding a dead husband and a suicide note. “Why didn’t he just tell me?!” the wife says. “We could’ve worked through this!”
Relationships, by their nature, are a laboratory testing ground for vulnerability. Both of you HAVE to let your guard down at some point, or else toxicity and resentment brew. There HAS to be a sense of trust. You have to know that you can let go, to some degree, and your partner won’t resent you for it. BUT… like every other thing in life, there are limits. For women, they have to be sweet, kind, loyal, and vulnerable… but when their emotions get to be too much too often, the men get turned off. It doesn’t take long for terms like “crazy” and “bitch” to come out when describing your wife’s behavior. For men, you have to be stoic and strong in the face of danger… but show that you’re a human and that you trust your wife with your vulnerability… but not TOO much. In no time flat you go from normal human with human weakness… to a weak little boy.
It takes a lot of time to feel each other out. A lot of give and take. You may show too much weakness and emotion to your wife at some point…. But her loyalty and maturity supersede your acute emotional moment, and she says to herself, “Alright… that was sad and kinda scary to watch. But, he’s human. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and see how he handles life from here on out.” Ironically, this is where we see the concept of “tests” from your wife ramp up exponentially. She saw some weakness… she wants to see if that was a fluke or not.