Courage in Relationships: Conquering Vulnerability and Fear
The core of relationship courage? Daring to tackle your communication fears.
Posted Oct 07, 2015
It’s a profound—and paradoxical—truth that courage isn’t really courage at all unless there’s some fear attached to it. Without a moment’s hesitation before taking on something felt to be hazardous, the act would exemplify not so much courage as foolhardiness or mindless impulsivity. As Mark Twain succinctly put it: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”
Still, to be accurately understood, the by now common “yoking” of courage with fear needs to be defined contextually. As one writer observed: “Courage is nine-tenths context. What is courageous in one setting can be foolhardy in another, and even cowardly in a third” (Joseph Epstein). And there are different varieties of courage, such as physical, moral, and relational. In this post the particular kind I’ll be focusing on is courage as it manifests itself in the context of intimate relationships—an area, psychologically, fraught with acutely felt peril.
In situations of frustration, misunderstanding, or conflict between you and your partner, the essential communication challenge facing both of you actually has less to do with fear or courage as it does vulnerability. Specifically, what’s involved here is the willingness to stick your neck out and express a need or desire—when the outcome, because it’s uncertain and might end up making you feel uncared for, dismissed, or even humiliated, might substantially raise your anxiety level . . . or catapult you into a depressive funk.
For what if the other person denies your request? Tells you that your viewpoint is uninformed, stupid, or ridiculous? Refuses to reciprocate your professions of love? Or, rather than respond empathically to your sharing your most personal doubts and worries, reacts to you critically—or condescendingly? Tells you to stop being so childish, to “grow up” already? Or, in confiding your deepest unmet dependency needs, your partner shakes their head and impatiently turns away from you in disgust? Or maybe, when you suggest something sexually exciting you’d like to try out, accuses you of being “perverted”? And so on, and so on. . . .
In such circumstances, where honoring and being true to yourself—and unashamedly stating what your integrity literally demands you share—you’re taking serious emotional risks. For your attachment bond to your partner, so vital to your feeling safe and secure with them, is now being put on the line. And the more you’ve come to depend on their validation, or (however unwittingly) given them the authority to determine the “worthiness” of your wants and needs, the more susceptible you’ll be to their reactions. That’s why in intimate relationships it takes so much courage to be open and honest, rather than simply hold your tongue till, ultimately, your frustration morphs into anger and—self-defeatingly—you lash out at them. Or, over time, sink into a depression filled with feelings of hopelessness and despair because you never felt comfortable enough to voice your concerns to them.
In fact, in such situations it’s your ability to recognize beforehand the risks you’re taking that best measures or defines how much courage you have to make yourself better known to your partner, despite whatever deep-seated fears of rejection may be intimately tied to this desire. For there’s always some sort of war going on inside you between keeping your relationship safe (however superficially) and confronting (regardless of possible costs) what in the relationship doesn’t work for you and needs to change if you’re to feel closer and more securely connected to them.
And addressing your frustrations is almost always a lot harder than simply keeping the peace. But if the relationship is to serve the two of you, its potentially remedial limitations have to be confronted. The truly intimate union that both of you (whether or not you’re consciously aware of it) yearn for won’t somehow materialize on its own. It demands that “touchy” matters be met head-on. Needless to say, approaching these delicate issues must be done with consummate tact, constraint, and skill. And many of my other posts on relationships (see below) attempt to demonstrate the best ways to handle such challenges. But what’s paramount here is your willingness to muster the courage to take them on in the first place. And this necessitates emotionally preparing yourself to be vulnerable and tackle what a sizable part of you—just like about everyone else (!)—would dearly wish to avoid.
As I said at the outset, there isn’t any courage if your behavior doesn’t include confronting something you’re afraid to. For its essence necessarily involves some recognition that the action you’re considering encompasses certain hazards. It is possible—though, if done well, not probable—that asserting yourself could end up making matters worse. It just might eventuate in your feeling greater emotional hurt, partner alienation, or defeat.
So what, under such precarious conditions, enables you to act courageously? As I began to suggest earlier, it’s your determination to, boldly and with fortitude, stand by your convictions and ideals. For—and frankly, regardless of whether these cherished beliefs or values are right or (indeed) completely wrong-headed—they’re what compel you to behave courageously. Even though you’re acutely sensitive to the practical dangers involved, your inner certitude that the “deed must be done,” the risk faced head-on, dominates your mind. After all, what—ideologically—is at stake is precious to you. So the obstacles you face are experienced as constituting a not-to-be-resisted test of your integrity. Consider here this quote by C. S. Lewis: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”
And if the challenge isn’t confronted—as in your resignedly “wimping out”—the inevitable result will be feelings of guilt, shame, or regret: in short, a compromised self-image. You’ll have violated standards you implicitly promised yourself you’d abide by. And that’s why, as a matter of personal dignity and pride, you may frequently feel “required” to heed this internal summons. Ultimately, playing it safe is a coward’s game, though rationalizations for not rising to a challenge abound. Take, for example, Bill Maher’s statement that “to a coward, courage always looks like stupidity” (!). On the contrary, if you’re to come anywhere close to living an existence of satisfaction and joy, you need to play the game of life “full out” and positively respond to this “call to battle” (though in today’s world such “combat” rarely has anything to do with machine guns).
Retracing our steps back to fear, the one thing that prevents you from acting in accordance with your ideals is the anxiety associated with possible failure, loss, or humiliation. And such trepidation, leading to passivity and backing off from what, relationally, you’ve needed to share or ask for, does in the moment “succeed” in averting such negative outcomes. Sadly, however, by not asserting yourself you also lose out on the opportunity to optimize the chances that your frustrations will be addressed—and hopefully resolved.
Still, the fact is that most of us are driven by the felt urgency to forestall, or eliminate, relational disappointments and hurts by keeping inside what, deep down, so much needs to come out. To protect ourselves from experiencing a vulnerability that our most primitive (i.e., driven-by-emotions) brain assumes could threaten our survival, we hold ourselves back. And this inner constraint may well be hard-wired in us. For humankind does require that—to guarantee the continuation of the species—we safeguard whatever bond in our relationship, however fragile, we’ve been able to achieve.
Unfortunately, in many instances we simply can’t feel secure enough with our partner to approach anything we sense could endanger this bond. And so our “security” (such as it is) is really shallow and tenuous; untested. We’re just not willing—courageously—to risk feeling refused or rejected in the effort to move toward a more genuinely secure relationship: A relationship in which, because we’ve learned to trust the other’s responses to us, we’re free to expose and express our true selves. And this despite whatever hard-core differences may continue to exist between us.
Basically, what can hardly be over-emphasized here is that in close relationships your fears almost always center on making yourself too vulnerable to your partner’s criticisms and judgments (reacted to almost as though you’re being physically pummeled). For if you ask for what you want, you run the risk of not getting it and likely concluding that your most significant other doesn’t care as much about you as you do them.
But the alternative, of keeping silent about your needs and desires, is almost always worse. For how can your relationship ever become the “safe haven” you long for if you repeatedly shy away from communicating your deepest thoughts and feelings, your most ached-for wants and needs? Moreover, how can you hold onto your true self when, for safety’s sake, you hide it from your partner? As the great Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard noted: “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.”
Sure, it takes considerable courage to do those things that could move your relationship to the level of trust, safety, and confidence that best embodies your heart’s desire. And doubtless, it may seem like a forbiddingly steep mountain to climb. But there’s really no other way to achieve the wondrous comfort and cheer of true intimacy. So if you scrupulously mull over your fondest relationship ideals, the motivation to develop the courage to achieve them should be well within your grasp.
I’ll close with one last—and I think, fitting—quote:
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than [the] fear” (Ambrose Redmoon).
NOTE 1: Since in this post I’ve focused on the “what” and “why” of intimate relationship needs, here’s a list of my other relationship posts (with links) that typically go much more in the all-important “how” :
NOTE 2: A three-part post of mine closely complementary to this one, which focuses entirely on matters of vulnerability and effectively dealing with them, is "The Power to Be Vulnerable" (Parts 1, 2, and 3).
NOTE 3: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link.
NOTE 4: To check out other articles I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad range of psychological topics—click here.
© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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