Exploring the Benefits of Vulnerability

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Reader’s Question

I need help deciphering my feelings. I have been dating a guy for three months. It is the first time I have had a man in my life who will not run away from problems. We have increasingly been getting closer, and I think we were both opening up to each other.

He is kind, smart, funny, patient and loving, and he accepts me for who I am. We have a similar sense of humor, which is pretty important to me, we have connected emotionally several times, we have great sexual chemistry, and overall I adore him. We see each other about three times a week and I miss him when I don’t see him. I told myself I love him, although I didn’t want to admit it because I didn’t want to be vulnerable or sappy.

There are a few issues I have with him, like him looking at other girls when he’s in front of me, which we talked about and he said he would be more respectful about that. I love that he cares enough to do that. I feel like it brought us closer together. Also, he can be kind of persistent at times, especially in the sexual arena, and sometimes I just wish he would take no for an answer. I’m not super-sexual, so sometimes this can be annoying. Another thing I notice is that when I want to be sexual he will hold back; he sometimes has a knack for dramatics. Sometimes this can be annoying, sometimes it can be cute and fun.

We had sex for the first time this morning, after three months of dating. While it was enjoyable during, I felt awful afterwards. I almost cried. I enjoyed doing missionary with him, but doggy style, I felt very used and not in control of myself. I felt like I gave him a part of myself that maybe I wasn’t ready to give, and now I feel smothered. When he dropped me off at my car afterwards, I felt like our relationship was creeping into ‘friend’ zone, and that maybe the relationship is ending.

I’m really confused as to how I can feel on top of the world one day with this man, and the next day feel like I need space and that maybe we’d be better off as friends. I don’t want to give up on our relationship because of my doubts, because I’m sure we would make a great couple. I feel like I want closeness, but I don’t know what to do with it when it is there. I feel scared that I’m going to miss out on something good because of it.

Psychologist’s Reply

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One of the reasons that sex is such a big deal for so many people is that, done properly, it combines both physical and emotional intimacy. For many people, emotional intimacy is difficult, because it leaves them feeling vulnerable and they don’t know how to handle that. It sounds like this may be the case for you.

Although it can be a bit scary at times, there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable. While it does bring the possibility of getting hurt, it also affords us the opportunity to get closer to someone else and experience the joy of real connection. People generally respond well to the authentic thoughts and genuine emotions that vulnerability offers. Since you mentioned getting closer to your partner several times (after talking to him about how you felt), it sounds like that’s where you were starting to go with him. So you were enjoying the slide down the cliff of emotional intimacy (towards the level ground of true intimacy), but were not ready for the avalanche. That’s okay, because you can slow the momentum with assertiveness and boundaries.

You mentioned that he is persistent about sex and that this makes you uncomfortable. This is not an uncommon problem for many couples. It’s important to remember that good sex is all about respect and consent. Both partners should be comfortable with what is happening, so communication is key. If you are clear about what makes you uncomfortable or irritated, then he should stop what he is doing. If he does not, then that goes back to respect. Any partner who is not willing to consider your wishes is not one worth keeping. However, it is imperative that you are assertive about how you feel.

Women frequently are taught to be polite — to keep quiet about our feelings, so we can keep the peace. While there are several problems with this dictum, the main one here is that men sometimes get mixed messages about what we want and therefore do not understand what’s really going on, especially with regard to sex. Consequently, it is up to us to talk openly about how we feel, and to set boundaries around what we want. For example, it sounds like, as you get to know your partner sexually, you prefer to take it slow. That is perfectly acceptable, but you need to let him know that you enjoy doing this but will not be doing that. If he graciously respects your wishes, then this probably will result in the two of you getting closer. If he does not, then you know that he is not the right one.

If your relationship with him is as good as it sounds, it would be a shame to end it prematurely. I always think that clear and open communication should be tried before giving up. If it works, then the relationship is strengthened but if it doesn’t, then nothing is truly lost.

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