I was reading my shero Brené Brown’s new book Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead when I reached page 51 and my heart stopped in an “OMG, how did she read my mind, and how did she know exactly how to give language to something that’s been hurting for years?” sorta way.
In this chapter, Brené is talking about trust in relationships, and how we build and lose trust. She compares it to a jar of marbles. Over time, when someone demonstrates trustworthiness, we add marbles to the jar. If they betray our trust, we pull marbles out. The safety of the relationship depends on how many marbles are in the jar over time.
When we think about betrayal in terms of the marble jar metaphor, most of us think of someone we trust doing something so terrible that it forces us to grab the jar and dump out every single marble. What’s the worst betrayal of trust? He sleeps with my best friends. She lies about where the money went. He/she chooses someone over me. Someone uses my vulnerability against me (an act of emotional treason that causes most of us to slam the entire jar to the ground rather than just dumping out the marbles.) All terrible betrayals, definitely, but there is a particular sort of betrayal that is more insidious and equally corrosive to trust.
In fact, this betrayal usually happens long before the other ones. I’m talking about the betrayal of disengagement. Of not caring. Of letting the connection go. Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship. The word betrayal evokes experiences of cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, failing to defend us to someone else who’s gossiping about us, and not choosing us over other people. These behaviors are certainly betrayals, but they’re not the only form of betrayal. If I had to choose the form of betrayal that emerged most frequently from my research and that was the most dangerous in terms of corroding the trust connection, I would would say disengagement.
When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing and fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears - the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain - there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.
After reading this, I had to give myself a hug (and reach out to my BFF so she could hug me too.) Trying not to venture into self-pity land, I realized that almost every single ex-relationship in my life ended with just this sort of betrayal. When my marriage to my first husband was falling apart, I begged him to go to marriage counseling with me, and he refused, claiming that it would just cost money and steal precious time (we were both medical residents) to confirm what we already knew - that we weren’t compatible and that we needed to get divorced.
When my second marriage was falling apart, my husband did agree to go to marriage counseling with me. Then one day, I was in the therapist’s office, looking at the clock. He was ten minutes late, and then twenty. I called his cell and the call went straight to voicemail. I called his work and they said he had left hours earlier. I called home, but there was no answer. That night, he didn’t come home and didn’t tell me where he had gone.
When I saw him the next day and asked where he’d been and why he hadn’t come to therapy, he just shrugged his shoulders. When I pushed him to communicate, he just shut down.
I kept going to therapy without him, and he grew increasingly distant. I wrote him letters. I left him rambling messages on his phone, trying to share my feelings. I tried talking to him. But most days I barely saw him, and when I did, I no longer felt safe saying what I really wanted to say, which was that I felt desperately hurt that he didn’t seem to care enough about our relationship to fight for it.
Then the day came when we were scheduled to go on a two week vacation to Big Sur, a vacation we had planned six months in advance, intended to celebrate our anniversary. Taking two weeks off as a full time doctor was a big deal, and I had been very excited about the trip, especially in light of how bad things had gotten in our marriage. In my fantasies, Big Sur would heal us, the time together would knit us back together, we’d have great sex, and we’d live happily ever after.
But the week before our trip, he announced that he was going to climb Mount Whitney instead of coming to Big Sur with me. When I started crying, he told me to “stop being so manipulative,” which only left me crying more.
My therapist finally told me that my marriage was over, even if we were still living together, that it takes two people fighting for a marriage in order to save it, and that clearly, my husband had disengaged, even though he hadn’t asked for divorce.
It was painfully true. I went to Big Sur by myself, and the week after returning home, I filed for divorce.
I’m now happily married to husband #3, who I’ve been with for ten years and who is one of the kindest, gentlest, most emotionally available men I’ve ever met. There are so many marbles in the jar in my relationship with Matt that we find ourselves becoming increasingly brave in how vulnerable we’re willing to be. It’s been profoundly healing on many levels. What I appreciate most about him is that, if we disagree (which we do), he’s willing to go there, to communicate, to get pissed, to speak his truth, to open his heart, to express hurt - whatever. Never once, in ten years, has he shut down on me. (If anything, I’ve been the one more inclined to do so from time to time.)
With a jar overflowing with marbles, I feel safe to share anything with Matt, and that safety has allowed me to take huge risks, both personally and professionally, knowing that his love for me is not conditional.
I suspect I’m not alone in feeling betrayed in this slow, insidious way. Have you lost a relationship because someone just quit fighting for the relationship? Are you still in a relationship with someone who seems like they’ve stopped caring, stopped investing, stopped paying attention? Do you feel hurt because you still love someone and you’re no longer getting evidence that they love you back? Is your jar of marbles running on empty?
Then I strongly encourage you to go out and buy three copies (one for you and one for your two best friends) of Brené Brown’s startlingly insightful new book Daring Greatly, which launches today. As someone on a quest to push the envelope of vulnerability, not just in my personal relationships, but publicly, here on the internet, I keep finding myself nodding as I read this book.
It’s chock full of nuggets like these:
Shame resilience is the ability to say “This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.”
Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them… We don’t just lead with “Hi, my name is Brené, and here’s my darkest struggle.” That’s not vulnerability. That may be desperation or woundedness or even attention-seeking, but it’s not vulnerability. Why? Because sharing appropriately, with boundaries, means sharing with people with whom we’ve developed relationships that can bear the weight of our story. The result of this mutually respectful vulnerability is increased connection, trust, and engagement.
I’ve been noodling these very issues for years now, but especially since reading Brené’s latest book. I keep asking myself why I am as vulnerable as I am. And why I withhold what I do. What motivates me to share or withhold?
Last week, I revealed something super vulnerable to a dear friend during a long talk into the early hours of the morning. The next day, I woke up with what Brené calls a “vulnerability hangover.” I kicked myself for over-sharing, doubted myself for having gone too far, worried that my friend would judge me or reject me.
But that friendship has an overflowing marble jar and, of course, that didn’t happen. My friend was incredibly supportive and sent me love texts all day, knowing how vulnerable I felt after what I had shared. Not only did I not get rejected; if anything, it drew us closer.
Every single one of us is hardwired to connect, and vulnerability is the gateway to the intimacy we crave. But it takes serious guts to push the limits of your vulnerability, to dig deeper and deeper into the core of who you are and not only love and accept those imperfect parts of yourself, but to expose them to someone else, hoping, trusting, praying that they will be held sacred.
Are you brave enough to be vulnerable?
Lissa Rankin, MD: Creator of the health and wellness communities LissaRankin.com and OwningPink.com,author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary.
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