Maintaining a relationship is hard. When we choose a partner, we invest ourselves completely into the relationship, hoping that we have found a support system and stability in doing so. However, a lot of couples end up being disappointed with the way things work out, and eventually end the relationship rather than continuing to work on it. One of the most cited reasons for a divorce, for example, is irreconcilable differences. This reason is extremely open-ended though, and can mean so many different problems. Most problems seem really minute at first, but tend to grow in size and structure when the root causes aren’t addressed. Quite often, once the root issue is taken care of, it becomes easier to deal with the related problems. One such underlying cause can be a difference in core vulnerabilities between partners.
The Illusion Of Sameness
Before we understand core vulnerabilities, we need to understand the “illusion of sameness”. This concept is quite important, and can cause a lot of disagreements between a strong couple. In this “illusion”, partners assume that events and behaviors have the same emotional meaning for both of them. Initially, this can hurt or bewilder a partner, but as time goes on, it becomes a malicious cycle where partners start blaming these differences for their unhappiness and relationship failures. However, it is interesting to realize that people choose partners that are usually different from them, and this would include a different experience to the same event. Not only do partners have different parents, they also have different hormonal levels, different core vulnerabilities, different gender socializations, different temperaments, and different support networks. These differences are bound to shape a person’s world view. Most partners are happy with the same differences they later start to resent.
One of the main differences in partners is their core vulnerability. According to Dr. Stosny, a core vulnerability is the emotional state that is most dreadful to you, in which you’ve developed the strongest defenses. Essentially, this main vulnerability becomes the root of how you make decisions and react emotionally to the stimuli presented to you. Other states of vulnerability are more tolerable if they avoid stimulating a core vulnerability, and less bearable if they don’t. Dr. Stosny believes that for most people, either fear (of isolation, depravation or harm) or shame (of failure) constitutes as a core vulnerability.
Both of these feelings are extremely uncomfortable, and even though both are dreaded by people, one is more powerful than the other. When it comes to a failure in a relationship, fear can trigger a deeper sense of isolation depravation, or harm. For those whose vulnerability is shame, a relationship failure can bring a deeper and more loathsome sense of failure. When it comes to failure in the workspace, people with fear vulnerability want more closeness in their relationship, while people with shame vulnerabilities will withdraw from their partners and want to be left alone. When it comes to relationship dynamics, a person whose core vulnerability is fear will accept shame and even humiliation to avoid feelings of isolation and harm. On the other hand, a person with the same core vulnerability will go ahead and risk harm, abandonment and resources to feel successful, or to at least avoid failure.
Here is one example of the fear-shame dynamic working in the real world: When a higher-estrogen partner (estrogen enhances fear) is startled when the car swerves on a highway, and high-testosterone (testosterone blunts fear) partner will get angry. The angry partner perceives the startled reaction as a doubt on their driving skills, and on a deeper level, wonder about their failure in driving. They will sulk, or say something sarcastic, which makes the other partner more anxious and scared about their reaction, as they wonder if their partner will leave them. However, there is also anger and underlying resentment because their normal reaction is perceived as an assault. This build up of anger and resentment on both sides leads to cracks in the relationship that will eventually take a toll and destroy it completely.
Working through these core vulnerabilities can be one way to sort out and bring a relationship back to its equilibrium. A licensed counselor or therapist can help you figure out these problems and dynamics, as there could be other unresolved issues contributing to the strain in a relationship.