Different Core Vulnerabilities in Intimate Partners

Posted on August 4, 2016

Your core vulnerability is the emotional state that is most dreadful to you, in reaction to which you’ve developed the strongest defenses. Other states of vulnerability are more tolerable if they avoid stimulating a core vulnerability and less bearable when they don't. For most people, either fear (of isolation, deprivation, harm) or shame (of failure) constitutes a core vulnerability.

Fear and shame are both pretty dreadful, to be sure. Though no one wants to experience either for very long, one is usually worse than the other for most individuals. If fear is your core vulnerability, failure is likely to trigger a deeper and more dreadful fear of isolation, deprivation, or harm. If shame is your core vulnerability, fear will trigger a deeper and more loathsome sense of failure. For the fear-avoidant, failure sounds like this:

“If I fail, no one will help, love, or comfort me.”

For the shame-avoidant, failure sounds like:

“If I fail, I won’t be able to help, love, or comfort myself, and I won’t feel worthy of anyone else's help, love, or comfort.”

When the fear-driven fail at work, they want more closeness in their relationships. When the shame-avoidant fail at work, they are likely to fight with their partners or withdraw from them, preferring to be left alone.

People whose core vulnerability is fear of isolation will accept shame, even humiliation if they have to, in order to feel safe, secure, or connected or at least to avoid feeling isolated. People whose core vulnerability is shame (failure or loss of status) will risk harm, abandonment, and resources to feel successful or at least to avoid feeling like a failure.

The Fear-Shame Dynamic

You should know at the outset that fear and shame are rarely experienced directly. Most adults have forged entrenched habits of avoiding them. The fear-shame dynamic is really a clash of conflicting habits used to avoid fear and shame. Fear-avoidant behavior in one partner triggers shame-avoidant behavior (expressed as withdrawal or aggression) in the other, and vice versa. One frets or worries; the other shuts down or gets angry. One gets angry, resentful, or quiet; the other worries or feels isolated or threatened. Both blame their feelings on each other.

Misunderstanding is Unavoidable in the Toddler Brain

We're almost certain to misunderstand each other when the fear-shame dynamic locks us in the Toddler brain. Avoiding fear or shame feels very different on the inside from the way it looks on the outside. If you try to avoid feeling anxious, you’ll likely come off as controlling. If you’re avoiding shame, you’ll appear aggressive or rejecting. Partners are not likely to respond to each other’s deeper vulnerabilities; they're more likely to react to what they see: control, aggression, rejection.

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Source material from Psychology Today

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