The power of vulnerability: Fostering emotional connection in marriage

5 min
Nicky and Sila Lee
Authors of The Marriage Book

Many years ago, we received a sad letter from a woman who had been married less than a year. She wrote, “To all the world we look like a happy newly married couple. He puts on a veneer when we are with others. But a few weeks after we were married, I felt so disappointed. I thought we would be able to talk about everything, but he never tells me about his feelings.”

Men in cultures like our own typically have a harder time than women when it comes to showing emotion. Certainly in the past, and to some extent today, men have been expected to keep their feelings to themselves while women are encouraged to talk about theirs with friends and family. A friend of ours said about the breakdown of her marriage, “Our marriage collapsed because we failed to share our real feelings with one another. I began to confide in my sisters and close friends rather than in my husband. This began – subtly at first – to drive a wedge between us.”

Some people think of themselves as “not the emotional type”. But emotions are a fundamental part of being human and we must learn to talk about our feelings if we are to communicate effectively in our marriage and stay connected. A woman who did The Marriage Course, when asked what she had most enjoyed about the course, wrote, “My husband had to communicate with me his thoughts and feelings. There are many lovely things he thinks but never puts into words.” To ask our husband or wife at appropriate moments, “What are you feeling?” can help them to talk more freely. If we learn to express our feelings when we are feeling fine, then there is a much greater chance we will be able to do the same when we are under pressure.

In the course of any marriage, we are all likely to go through difficult times: may be financial hardship, serious sickness, a road accident, problems with a teenage child, a miscarriage or a bereavement. The handling of a crisis can make or break a marriage. The death of a child in particular puts an enormous strain on a relationship, and the divorce rate among such couples is significantly higher than average. In times of bereavement or sadness we easily slip into denying our feelings, withdrawing from each other or disappearing into our work. But an essential part of coping with these experiences as a couple is to voice our feelings, however painful that might be, to allow each other to respond differently and to work through the grief together.

In a magazine article entitled “Do Men Understand Intimacy?” a wife called Alison is quoted as saying, “James relies on me to do all the feeling in our relationship. . . He is English and very remote – he was sent away to boarding school when he was eight years old. When that happens to a little boy, he soon learns that having emotions will just make life a lot harder.”

After Alison suffered a miscarriage, the couple began to grow apart. Alison continued, “I found it helpful to talk about the tragedy; but James suppressed his feelings. He dealt with it by becoming highly critical of me and angry over the smallest things. Then one night in bed, I realised that he had been feeling depressed for weeks too. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were feeling this way?’ I asked him."

Deep communication requires us to be open about our inner selves and to make ourselves vulnerable to each other. If we fail to communicate painful and complex emotions and try to cope on our own, we drift apart.

One husband, who had spent some time separated from his wife, wrote to us: “If I had to identify one reason for our separation it would be in effective communication. I remember so well the ease with which it is possible to settle downwards into a norm in which the air is filled with words but nothing is really said. All current wisdom on this subject stresses the importance of quality time being carved out of hectic schedules. But this, in my experience, only marks out the space. Effective communication must mean revealing all parts of our lives, in my case the parts that I am well practised at keeping hidden. For me, at least, it requires more than time; it requires courage.”

For those of us who feel unable to recognise, let alone talk about, our feelings, change is possible. A good way to start is to write down three or four things (of minor or major significance) that have happened to us over the course of a normal day. Against each of these events we should record what we felt about them. For example: Caught the train – felt bored/alert/tired; made a telephone call – felt angry/hopeful/anxious; went to the bank – felt ashamed/calm/annoyed; met my husband or wife – felt happy/tense/ excited.

It will require courage to begin to articulate these emotions if we are not used to doing so. We are likely to feel exposed and vulnerable, so we will need to know that our husband or wife is not going to reject us, get angry or blame us for what we reveal.

Choosing the right moment

While it is important not to keep secrets from each other and to be able to express our feelings, it is not always right to say immediately what we think. We need to consider carefully the effect of our words. The book of Proverbs in the Bible asserts: “The right word at the right time is like a custom-made piece of jewellery” (Proverbs 25:11, MSG) [2]. Restraining ourselves until a more suitable moment is part of the costliness of love. This may require waiting until neither of us is over-tired or preoccupied and we have time to talk the matter through). Restraining ourselves until a more suitable moment is part of the costliness of love. This may require waiting until neither of us is over-tired or preoccupied and we have time to talk the matter through.

Expressing affection

While we are wise to delay raising sensitive issues, there are no right or wrong moments to talk about our positive feelings towards each other. And to do so frequently has a powerful effect upon a marriage, as Frank Muir relates:

As far as Pol and I are concerned, being in love certainly developed into something more lasting – love. And love is altogether a much deeper, give-and-take, affectionate relationship than being “in love”. Polly and I confirm our feelings towards each other every night along with prayers for the rest of the family and Sal’s Dalmatian Dotty, and our cat Cinto (named after the tallest mountain in Corsica, such a sensible name for an Abyssinian cat), so should a journalist from a women’s page telephone me today and ask me how often I have told my wife that I love her, I will reply (after a quick arpeggio on the calculator to check) roughly 16,822 times. And I spoke the truth every time.[3]

[1]Sonia Leach, ‘Do Men Understand Intimacy?’, Good Housekeeping, August1994.

[2] The Message, a translation of the Bible in contemporary idiom by Eugene H.Peterson (Navpress, 1993)

[3] Frank Muir, A Kentish Lad, pp. 404–5.