I hurt people.
It came out as casually and as matter-of-factly as if I’d said “I prefer my coffee black.” And as soon as I said it, I knew two things. The first was that it objectively wasn’t true. I’m a pretty nice guy. The second was the realization that I was living as if it were true—especially when it came to my relationships with women.
It’s not that I was a jerk. I just had some faulty logic. I kept the girls I dated at a distance thinking that this would keep them from getting hurt. Turns out that not being vulnerable in relationships leads to more hurt in the end.
This journey began at a thing called Man Camp. At every camp, there is a group of guys who will pray for you if you want. I believe in God, so I went to get some prayer, but I specifically did not want to talk about relationships. Sure enough—they started asking me questions and before I knew it, I was sharing fears I had around marriage. Still single at 29, I sometimes worry that God is holding out on me. Or I fear I’m just too broken for a healthy relationship. When I blurted out “I hurt people,” tears came to my eyes. I realized how much guilt I felt for the pain I’ve caused in relationships.
I’ve broken up with every girl I’ve dated (except for that one high school girlfriend where it was “mutual”). Some of those breakups were for good reasons that were clearly communicated at the time. Others were for less good reasons that I probably didn’t communicate at all. I’d say, “I just need some time to work on myself” or “I don’t think this is going anywhere.” But really I’d just met someone else already, or I hated her family, or I was worried that my bank account couldn’t handle her shopping habit.
I don’t know if you’ve ever made a girl cry before, but do it enough times and you start to believe some things about yourself.
Things like, “I hurt people.” Believing myself to be emotionally hazardous, I started putting up walls in relationships. It’s like I had a sign posted: For your safety—keep out.
At the beginning of a relationship it’s easy to keep someone at arm’s length emotionally. You can keep things light and casual. But eventually they start opening up. You hear about their family life, their fears and dreams. You start sharing some rehearsed vulnerability. That backstory that glosses over the rough parts. And before you know it you’re meeting their family and wondering what a future together might look like.
This is the point where I begin to panic.
Remember those walls? Yeah, they’re still up. They were supposed to keep things from getting too serious. Now I’m wondering, “how could I have let this happen? I don’t even know if I want this to actually work out. Do I even like her, or is it just better than being alone?” So, we break up. She’s hurt, and my walls didn’t end up protecting her from anything. They just kept the relationship going a lot longer than it should have.
I don’t love big decisions. I’m not an impulse shopper. I do research and read reviews. I only buy something if I have to have it, if I really love it. I’m realizing that’s fine advice if you’re picking out new headphones, but it is terrible advice for dating. I put way too much pressure on myself at the beginning of a relationship to figure out if we’re going to get married. It’s like I’m waiting to really invest until I know for sure it’s going to end well. But it’s impossible to know how it will end. Risk is simply a part of it. No matter how great the reviews are from friends and family, or how much fun you have on dates, there’s no happily-ever-after guarantee. Without that guarantee I’ve never felt “safe” putting down my walls. I’ve never felt like I could be myself, fearing that opening up would lead to rejection.
Ironically keeping the walls up meant that I lacked the one thing that could have actually built intimacy, that feeling of connection in a relationship: Vulnerability.
My friend Bret is really good at relationships. He’s taught me a lot about vulnerability. Early on in our friendship he told me about a difficult time in his past, an area he felt shame around. And him letting his walls down made me feel like I could tell him anything and he wouldn’t judge me. I was sharing some fears recently with Bret. Fears around marriage and commitment. Fears about being alone and miserable. Fears that I’ll hurt whoever I marry. That I’ll marry the “wrong” person.
Bret was able to call out the lies. He pointed out that he and his wife are completely different people now then when they got married. He said there’s no such thing as marrying the “wrong” person because every relationship requires work and commitment. He challenged me to commit first in relationships. To invest in the girl I’m dating now instead of waiting for the assurance that it will end in a walk down the aisle.
This is usually the point in a article where I’m supposed to give you the “three simple steps to being more vulnerable” with a really neat conclusion where I’m married now to the first girl I was vulnerable with. But that’s not where I’m at in the story. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in dating, and I’m still trying to figure this thing out with everyone else.
I just got back together with an ex-girlfriend. I know this is breaking the cardinal rule of dating. An ex is an ex for a reason.
I don’t have the time to tell the whole story. It’s complicated. But I do know that I’m doing things differently this time around. I’m trying to be more honest. I don’t fake a smile anymore just to avoid an argument. If there are things that I’m worried about in our relationship, we talk about them. I’m taking Bret’s advice and investing in the relationship now. I’m sharing more of myself and my past with her. It’s terrifying, but it feels better than running away again.
So I don’t know what you believe about yourself or if you’re good at vulnerability. But I can promise you that whatever walls you have up are hurting more than helping. Every relationship that doesn’t end in marriage is going to end in heartbreak. I’ve allowed the fear of causing that heartbreak to keep me from practicing commitment and vulnerability, the skills necessary for building healthy relationships. So go ahead and let people in. Even if it ends in heartbreak, the world needs more people willing to take their masks off.