Showing Up| April 26, 2022
The route to reconnection isn’t just “go on a date night.” It takes something much gutsier: vulnerability
hen we’re vulnerable, we create connection. When we’re not, there’s disconnection,” says relationship coach and educator Julie Lurie. A tachlis person by nature, she doesn’t trifle with long-winded introductions when teaching couples how to create emotional intimacy in marriage.
“The word ‘vulnerability’ is often misunderstood,” observes Julie, who runs a private coaching practice out of Chicago, Illinois and is the cofounder, along with her husband, Rabbi Yitzchak Lurie, of the Connections Marriage Institute. The Institute, endorsed by Rav Shumel Fuerst shlita and the late Harav Gedlaya Schwartz, offers international teleconference marriage seminars, premarital education, and training programs for coaches and kallah teachers.
When Julie trains relationship coaches, she asks them to define vulnerability. Their responses are often similar to the dictionary’s definition: (noun) putting yourself in the face of danger, exposing yourself to risk both physically and emotionally.
“Yet that’s not accurate,” says Julie. “What I learned from vulnerability researcher and author Brené Brown is that vulnerability isn’t a state of being. It’s a verb — an action. It’s the practice of showing up and allowing yourself to be seen. To expose your heart, to admit and talk about your feelings.”
And that calls for genuine courage. Because to connect emotionally with your husband and be real with him, you must be emotionally honest with yourself and tuned into your emotional needs.
“The process of getting to know ourselves initially feels uncomfortable,” Julie says. “What if we don’t like what we see? What if our husband won’t like what he sees? What if we meet this needy person we don’t want to identify with? I tell my clients to expect a vulnerability hangover when they start working on this.”
Julie had one client who had to dim the living room lights before she could share vulnerable feelings with her husband. Another woman, who didn’t realize how attached she was to her iPhone, described to Julie the painfully vulnerable experience of simply being alone in a room with her husband without the security of her phone.
It doesn’t surprise Julie when she sees this. “Hashem designed us in a way that we’re hardwired for connection, specifically through our soulmate. So when we’re disconnected with our spouse, we feel a painful emptiness at our core, which we desperately try to fill. That’s when we go for the quick fixes, like our phones and social media. I see so much numbing with women who are having a hard time connecting in their marriages.”
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a world-renowned psychiatrist and best-selling author of The Body Keeps the Score, speaks about our deep human need for connection. “In his training course, Dr. van der Kolk opened up his first class by talking about what decades of researching trauma data taught him: The source of all misery and torture is a feeling of disconnection — from ourselves and from other people.
“By the same token,” Julie continues, “Dr. van der Kolk teaches that the source of the purest, most unrefined joy is a feeling of connection with ourselves and others. You’ll notice there’s an order: We can’t taste real connection with others until we first connect with ourselves. This means raising the volume of our inner voice and accepting ourselves and our needs. Once we’ve done that, we’re ready for stage two: sharing what we’re feeling and what we need emotionally from others.”
Outside Reactions, Inside Emotions
Most women are good at emotional unloading, but that’s not the same thing as “showing up with your heart and being vulnerable,” says Julie. When we open up to our husbands, our default is often to complain about whatever is stressing us. And we usually only talk about the “outside”: what occurred, who’s to blame, or how we responded. Emotions, by contrast, are the “inside” of what’s happening — the feeling that triggered or followed the incident.
For example, an “outside” reaction might sound like: “My sister is so obnoxious! You won’t believe what she said today. I was so mad I hung up on her.”
Contrast that with an “inside” emotion: “My sister said something today that triggered me and instead of keeping my cool, I lashed out. I’m so embarrassed by how quickly I reverted back to my old ways of interacting with her. And I know she’ll tell my other siblings about the conversation, which makes me feel like the family pariah. After I hung up, I broke down crying.”
Which do you think will draw your husband close and allow him to give you the empathy you so need right now?
The first thing Julie teaches clients is how to identify their five core emotions: joy, sadness, fear, anger, and shame. “Any other emotion we’re feeling — annoyed, disappointed, worried, confused — is a sub-category of those core emotions.
“For example, women commonly tell me, ‘I’m so overwhelmed.’ Since that’s not a core emotion, let’s figure out what’s underneath. Often, it’s fear of failure and, ultimately, fear of rejection. Disappointment with others might be masking our own shame. Beneath ‘frustration’ might be sadness.
“Whenever a client is feeling something, I ask her to narrow it down to a core emotion because that will help her get the support and empathy she really needs.”
One client, Esty*, told Julie, “Every vacation with my husband ends with a fight or disappointment. What’s wrong with my marriage that we can’t enjoy vacations together?”
Julie responded with a question: “Which of the core emotions did you feel as you said that?” Esty’s answer was a common one: “All of them, except for joy.”
Julie helped her pinpoint which emotion was taking up the most emotional space. “I explained to Esty that connection doesn’t just happen — we must work to create it. Since she was frustrated by the lack of connection on vacation, what was stopping her from putting in the work to create it?
“Esty’s immediate response was to blame her husband, a common victimization strategy I see. Once we got back to her — the only person she could actually control — she discovered that behind the deep resistance to exerting emotional effort was fear. She was actually more afraid of creating a real connection than the absence of it.
‘But how can I possibly be afraid of connection when that’s all I want?’ Esty asked.
“That was her aha moment,” says Julie, “because it led to the discovery of hidden fears: What if she becomes too attached to her husband on the trip and he can’t sustain the connection when they return home? What if he wants a laid-back vacation without getting so ‘heavy’? What if he thinks she’s too emotionally needy?”
These fears never surfaced at home because Esty and her husband were too preoccupied with their myriad responsibilities to delve into the kishkes of their marriage. But on vacation, there were less distractions plus a heightened expectation for connection.
“What are you afraid will happen if you sense that you’re too emotionally needy for your husband?” Julie asked, “or if you grow too attached and he can’t sustain the connection?” These questions led to a new core emotion: sadness. Esty shared several childhood memories, all instances where she felt unimportant or unloved.
“As a kid, Esty often felt she was just too much for other people,” Julie says. “She acknowledged how sensitive she is to being paid attention to and being prioritized. This kind of work requires real bravery. Most people would rather be at the mall or organizing their closets than admit to and sit with these painful emotions.”
By going through this process, Esty came to the startling realization that she was subconsciously sabotaging her vacations to prevent a deep connection from forming. Julie encouraged her to share this discovery with her husband, which created a new level of understanding and closeness in their relationship.
Vulnerability is like muscle building, says Julie. “With practice and exertion, we grow stronger. The more we express vulnerability, the more natural it becomes — but it always requires effort. What motivates us to do the hard work is the deep connection that vulnerability fosters.”
Rachel was another client who struggled with vulnerability. The main breadwinner of the family, she worked in a high-powered job and was naturally guarded. Sharing even surface emotions with her husband was challenging.
Then Rachel’s brother passed away. Her grief was so intense that she couldn’t stop crying. “I’ve seen how loss can strain a relationship, but for Rachel, it saved her marriage,” says Julie. “She was finally able to share her emotions. Her husband was dedicated to being there for her because, for the first time, he felt needed in their marriage.”
What Happens Next
Ideally, after you’ve made yourself vulnerable and showed up with your feelings, it will immediately lead to connection. But what if your husband dismisses your feelings? Or gives advice instead of empathizing? What if he’s overwhelmed by your emotions?
“That’s part of the process,” says Julie. Prepare for it. The feelings that spring up during a “vulnerability hangover” are more fodder for exploration. “Lean into the discomfort,” Julie advises. “What emotions are coming up for you? Which memories are surfacing? See where it leads you.”
It helps to process these feelings with someone you trust and who can help you hold the pain, whether it’s a friend, role model, relative, coach, or therapist. “There is always someone to talk to — you’re never alone. Everyone has Hashem. And you have yourself,” says Julie, who teaches clients to turn to their internal nurturing parent.
“My fear is that someone will decide to give this vulnerability thing a try and share her authentic self with her husband — and then get burned by his dismissive response,” says Julie. “She’ll think to herself, well, I’m certainly never going to try that again.
“It’s important to recognize that any system resists change. Changing your marriage dynamic by being vulnerable will likely and naturally be met with some resistance. This can be a slow and hard journey. But ask anyone who has gone through the process — it’s so worth it.”
While some vulnerable exchanges with our spouse will happen spontaneously, it helps to prioritize regular times to “show up with your heart.” Date nights, says Julie, should be designed around one question: Where do we feel safe being vulnerable with each other? “Is that at home, after the kids are asleep? Is it going to a coffee shop or park? Taking a drive? Think about what will work best for you both.”
In Brené Brown’s best-selling books, she writes that one of the most vulnerable experiences is, surprisingly, expressing gratitude. When Julie shared this insight in a Singles’ vaad, a woman there argued that there was nothing vulnerable about saying “thank you.” She described how she expresses her gratitude sincerely and frequently — all without feeling a hint of vulnerability.
“Yes, it’s easy to say ‘thank you’ to the people who go out of their way to help us, like the neighbor who made us meals post-birth or the friend who ran carpool for us,” says Julie. “But to gauge how grateful we really are, let’s observe how we express gratitude to our husbands or mothers — the people whom we expect things from.”
In her teleconference shalom bayis courses, Julie devotes an entire class to gratitude. “In Alei Shur, Rav Shlomo Wolbe talks about how if a couple doesn’t actively work on recognizing the good that their spouse is giving to them, their love will end up deteriorating and turn into hatred. There’s no in-between. When you feel you’re giving and it’s not acknowledged by your spouse, you end up despising them.
“You’ll notice,” adds Julie, “that the more vulnerable you feel about something, the harder it is to express gratitude for.” For example, take a stay-at-home mom who’s dependent on her husband financially. She might acknowledge her gratitude every so often. But to say it every day? As in, “Thank you for working so hard so we can afford cleaning help. Thanks for the sweater I bought myself today with the money you worked to earn. Thanks for taking on the burden of parnassah so I can be home with the kids.” It can feel painful to openly admit how much we rely on our husbands.
“Because expressing gratitude is so vulnerable, I often see women jump to an apology instead,” says Julie. A wife will say, “I’m sorry for talking so much” when what she really wants to express is, “Thanks for making time for me to sort out my thoughts.” Or, “I’m sorry I’m crying” instead of “Thanks for listening and creating a safe space for me.”
Real gratitude forces us to own that we need others. “But we don’t want to feel indebted; we’re scared to be dependent. We’ll do anything to avoid the vulnerable feeling of neediness,” says Julie.
She once worked with a couple who acted more like business partners than spouses. They were public figures in their community and the only reason they were committed to staying together was for their children and their community. “When I spoke privately with the wife, Aviva*, I asked her what else was keeping them together. ‘Nothing,’ was her reply.
“That’s when it hit me: Aviva wasn’t allowing herself to see how much her husband was giving to her,” says Julie. “As a means of protecting herself, she’d convinced herself that she didn’t need him at all.”
Julie challenged Aviva to identify one specific thing each day she was grateful to her husband for. This way, she could internalize how much she needed him and how much he complemented her. “At first, I didn’t ask her to share her ‘gratitude’ with her husband, since that was beyond her vulnerability threshold,” says Julie.
It took a few sessions for Aviva to muster up heartfelt gratitude: “Aviva emphasized that she’s the responsible type who takes care of everything for the kids and the home,” says Julie. “One Friday night after lighting, she was so worn out that she didn’t have patience for her children.
When her husband came home from shul, he walked in with a beaming smile that lifted the entire mood. Watching him sing and dance with the kids, Aviva felt an intense swell of gratitude. ‘I’m so lucky he’s leibedig,’ Aviva told me. ‘I’m an organized mother who can power through tasks, but I don’t give my kids that fun, happy energy.’ As soon as Aviva admitted this to me, she naturally felt a vulnerability hangover. Like, wait, does this mean I really do need him?”
Eventually, Aviva worked up to expressing three “gratitudes” directly to her husband. They were specific and meaningful, such as: “Thanks for reminding me the plumber was coming. I appreciate that you take care of these things.” Or: “I had a hard day with the kids — I’m so grateful you prioritize helping me in the evenings.”
Their marriage transformed. With every expression of gratitude, she was affirming how much she needed him. He, in turn, naturally reciprocated by showing his appreciation for the important role she played in their relationship.
Warning: your husband might initially respond to your newfound gratitude with, “Uh, okay, thanks.” You might sit in the silence that follows thinking to yourself, I just spent time and energy thinking up three things and your only response is thanks?! How about “Wow, thank you for being so appreciative of me lately.” Or “I really appreciate everything you do. You’re so attentive to the kids and I love how you’re always working on yourself.”
“But here’s the thing,” says Julie. “As much as we want to receive compliments in return, we’re really doing this because it creates more connection — and it will.”
Your Desire Is His Happiness
Another level of vulnerability is asking for what you want. Learning to express your desires is one of the most important and underemphasized relationship skills.
World-renowned relationship expert John Gray, PhD, writes that a husband feels responsible for his wife’s happiness. “In fact, he asserts that a man will only be attracted to a woman who he thinks he can make happy,” says Julie.
In her shalom bayis classes, Julie shares Torah sources that delve into this concept. “In parshas Ki Seitzei, it says that a man is obligated to make his wife happy. It seems like a straightforward pasuk, but there’s something much deeper going on. From a Torah perspective, a man is the mashpia — the influencer, the giver. The woman is the mikabeles — the receiver.
“If you want a visual, the husband is like flowing water and the wife is the cup that holds the water. The Torah is teaching us that, by design, there’s nothing that makes a husband happier than ‘filling his wife’s cup.’ Giving to his wife gives him purpose.”
This foundational concept remained in the intellectual realm for one of Julie’s clients until she and her husband visited Rav Chaim Kanievsky ztz”l. They each wrote down what brachah they wanted, and hers was: “I want a brachah to have more simchah.” When her husband read it, he looked a little stung. Later, he asked, “Don’t I make you happy?”
“This is why husbands can’t stand complaining,” Julie says. “We women see it as venting, but it makes men feel like a failure on some level.”
When Julie taught this idea in a Marriage Vaad, a woman there shared a personal story. “My sister was struggling financially and had several simchahs coming up,” Meira said. “She desperately needed new outfits so I spent hours shopping with her and footed the bill. She thanked me profusely at the time, but a few months later, she complained, ‘Ugh, I have nothing in my closet.’ My heart dropped. All I could think was, What?! I just spent a ton of time and money trying to help you!
“Later, as I was processing the hurt, I realized that I’ve done the same thing to my husband,” Meira admitted. “He bought me an expensive sheitel recently. I loved it, but a few months in, the hairline started bothering me, so I spent a lot of time complaining. That’s when I realized, wait, my husband is probably thinking the same thing about me: I spent money on something you really wanted, but instead of being happy, all I hear is complaining.”
Julie encouraged Meira to share this epiphany with her husband. “When she did, her husband grew quiet — it was exactly what he’d felt,” says Julie. “But there was also a feeling of deep connection because his wife made him feel validated and understood.”
Once we understand how vested our husbands are in our happiness, we can appreciate why it’s critical for us to express our desires correctly. When a husband knows what his wife wants, it empowers him. It gives him a chance to fill her cup with his water.
“Whenever I teach this concept, I add a caveat because some women run with the idea and blame their husbands for their lack of happiness,” says Julie. “Your husband wants to make you happy, and he chose you as his wife because he believes he can make you happy. That said, you are responsible for your own happiness.”
Ask for What You Want
If we’re doing ourselves and our husband a favor by expressing our desires, what’s so vulnerable about it?
“Our desires are an expression of who we are,” Julie begins. “What if we ‘show up’ with a desire and our husbands think it’s insignificant, inappropriate, or over the top? The risk of being rejected is what makes it so vulnerable. We can’t risk feeling unlovable or unwanted. Beneath the feeling of rejection is the core emotion of shame, which may be the most unbearable emotion to experience.”
Asking for what we want also forces us to break an old habit. “At some point, we were taught not to say, ‘I want,’” Julie explains. “We were taught to think about others, to be considerate and less self-centered — and we wrongly jumped to the conclusion that this meant negating our own needs. So we try to shut down our desires. But this just leads to resentment, which eventually bubbles up in the form of a complaint.
“Without exception, every complaint is masking an unexpressed desire,” says Julie. “When clients complain about their marriage, what I’m listening for is the unexpressed desire: What does she want that she’s too afraid to ask for or admit to?
“If a client says, ‘My husband is never home on time,’ I hear, ‘I’d love more help with the kids at night’ or ‘I’d love more time for self-care after you get home.” Our fear of rejection holds us back from sharing our desires: If we admit what we want, will we be seen as petty, materialistic, selfish, or inconsiderate? It feels unsafe and scary to expose ourselves that way.”
Even when we ask for something trivial, we can have trouble expressing it directly. “We like making cases for ourselves,” says Julie. “Instead of, ‘I’d love if you could load the dishwasher,’ we say, ‘I think the best role modeling for our kids is for them to see their father load the dishwasher after the mother cooks the entire dinner.’ Your husband will sense the manipulation in these cloaked expressions of desire.”
What’s the right way to express a desire? First, make sure it’s all about you. “A desire is exclusively about what you would like. It’s not about what you’d like someone else to do or not do,” says Julie.
Next, keep your requests short and positive. For example:
“I’d love to visit my mother for two days by myself.”
“I’d love to go out Motzaei Shabbos as a family.”
“I’d love three more hours of cleaning help.”
Julie trained under relationship expert Laura Doyle, who speaks about the common mistakes women make when trying to express desires.
The first is micromanaging your desire. For instance, you ask for a flower arrangement for Shavuos and then give your husband step-by-step directions. “Aside from being disrespectful, micromanaging takes away all the enthusiasm he feels about fulfilling your desire,” says Julie. “It’s like the first time your mom lets you bake — if she holds your hand the whole time, it’s suffocating.”
The second is making a sales pitch about why your desire is justified. “I want a new sheitel because my old one is thinning and David’s bar-mitzvah is approaching and styles are different now.” These justifications are how we attempt to lessen the vulnerability of openly expressing our desire.
Don’t put down what you currently have, either. “We need a new dining room table because ours is scratched, it feels unstable, and I hate the color.”
“When we bash what we already have — which is something our husband likely gave us— it sounds ungrateful and negative,” says Julie.
Women sometimes slip into this negative habit even when they’re in the midst of receiving something good. “A couple is eating an intimate meal at a restaurant and the wife says, ‘Ugh, why does it take forever for us to go out like this?’ It’s much better to express the desire in an inviting, attractive way: ‘This is so much fun — I’d love if we could do this more often,’” Julie says.
Another pitfall is projecting our desires. A wife will say, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to take a family trip to Israel?” Or, “Don’t you wish we had a working fireplace?” The husband’s response is usually, “No, not really.” And then she finds herself trying to convince him why her idea was good — all to avoid feeling vulnerable.
The last trap is a big one: We need to make sure our desires don’t turn into expectations. Julie clarifies that a desire is a hope, something we want in our heart. Whether it’s fulfilled or not is less important than whether we let ourselves be seen and acknowledged. Expressing our desire is just a way to expose another side of who we are.
An expectation, by contrast, is something we want him to do and, if it’s not fulfilled, we’ll feel hurt or angry. Do I not matter to him? Does he care what I think? “Men are very good at sifting out when our desires turn into expectations,” Julie says.
Now, admittedly, even when your desire is sincere, you might still feel disappointment if it’s not fulfilled. That’s natural — it’s hard when we set our heart on something and don’t get it.
“A client, Gabrielle, expressed a desire to her husband: She wanted a wrapped gift, something that he chose himself, as a way of recognizing her hard work before Pesach. But her husband was so overwhelmed with work that he didn’t get around to it. A few days before Pesach, he says to Gabrielle: ‘Please pick out something nice for yourself from me.’
“Gabrielle was crushed. ‘Why did I bother saying anything to him?’ she asked me. After we spoke about it, she realized that mustering up the courage to express her desire was half the battle. And even though she didn’t get exactly what she wanted, her husband didn’t shut her down. He sincerely wanted to honor her desire even though he wasn’t able to do it fully.”
One of Julie’s favorite stories is about Lila, a client who downplayed her desires from the start of her marriage. It was always: “I don’t need fresh flowers for Shabbos — they’ll just die anyway.” Or: “I don’t need expensive jewelry. The real stuff can get stolen, and I’m happy with costume jewelry.”
Behind Lila’s laid-back façade of “I’m happy with anything” was a lot of sadness. Her parents divorced when she was young, and from an early age, she felt like she had to prove to the world she wasn’t broken, even if her parent’s marriage was. She got straight As, she was head of production, she was popular and friendly.
On the outside, everything appeared easy and effortless. She was so focused on pleasing others that she couldn’t even admit she had real desires. She wanted her husband to think, “I’m so lucky — my wife isn’t materialistic, she’s not demanding.”
“We’re so afraid that if we’re perceived as broken or flawed, we won’t be respected and loved,” says Julie. “It took serious inner work before Lila could accept that she was lovable even with her flaws. That she could have petty moments or be overly sensitive or have real desires, even materialistic ones, and still be accepted and loved for who she was.”
Lila started with a legitimate but vulnerable desire — asking her busy husband for more help with the kids in the evening. The following night, he was there at her side: “I know you said Wednesdays are especially hard so I’m home early,” her husband told her. Lila felt such a rush of joy: She was acknowledged and loved.
One year, before Lila’s 35th birthday, she admitted to her husband that, gulp, she wanted a real diamond. That birthday came and went without any diamonds, but she was surprisingly okay because it felt good enough for her to express the desire.
“The following year,” Lila told Julie, “my husband took me out for a birthday drive and mentioned that he had something for me in the glove department. I was expecting some sort of gift, but what I found there left me shaking: It was a box containing a stunning diamond bracelet. I welled up with tears. I couldn’t believe the deep joy I felt — and, even more so, how much joy I would have prevented myself from feeling had I not expressed my desire.
“My husband was bubbling over with excitement as he told me the behind-the-scenes: how he had shopped around to find a jeweler and called my best friend to figure out what styles I might like. It reminded him of the day he proposed,” Lila said. “He told me he had butterflies giving the gift to me — that’s how good it felt for him to make me happy.”
When Lila showed Julie the bracelet, she mentioned that every time she sees it on her wrist, it reminds her of all the hard work it took to get to this level of connection in her marriage. “My eyes teared up when I heard her story,” Julie remembers. “Because Lila’s story is also my story, and I believe it’s every woman’s story.”
*All client names have been changed.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 790)
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