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Should You Connect or Disconnect in Your Relationship?

Updated: Jan 28

two hands supporting each other
We all need connection to grow, thrive and survive

I consider it courageous to show others our vulnerable, less polished and impervious sides, in situations where it is most tempting and easy to be jaded, phony or manipulative. In my practice, this question often arises of whether to connect in relationships. The context can vary; people in couples, families, friendships, and even strangers struggle with how to connect in relationships. This is especially true for trauma survivors and people going through loss, depression or anxiety. While you have to exercise caution and care with your heart and guard against being exploited, you might also act more fearfully than you have to. How do you decide where there is a real threat of being hurt, physically or emotionally, and where we can let down our guards? What allows you to connect safely in a relationship?

How Can You Connect in Relationships if You're Afraid?

I have met people who were extremely guarded and afraid of being hurt, although they would never admit to this. They hold up their shield of not-caring, of cynicism or even aggression to keep themselves from being hurt themselves. The world can indeed be very frightening and dangerous. I recognize you have a duty and responsibility to accurately assess when to defend yourself from others.

But if you can’t shift from that state of protectiveness once the threat is over, you block yourself off from the potential of positive connection. If can’t tell a truly dangerous situation from one that merely seems threatening, or one that is neutral but reminds you of past hurts, you become rigid and incapable of opening up when you really want to connect in relationships. That is a sad and lonely state of existence.

Even when you do connect, you might do so from a superficial, win-lose stance. By this I mean that you believe that you must win and someone else must lose to be safe. You might be so frightened of being vulnerable that you lose sight of the wellbeing of the other person. At this point, it’s every man or woman for themselves. You might only care about not being the loser, or the one who risks more than the other person. Empathy is lost at this point; and when empathy lost, your actions may be unkind and thoughtless towards others.

Hearts-Wide-Open Connections in Relationships

At the other end of the spectrum are those who fling their arms open indiscriminately and accept any kind of behavior or person who comes their way, as long as the person says "I love you." The other person's actions may be completely unloving, but better some connection than none, right?

Are you so open and willing to experience anything and everything that you often get hurt in relationships? Do you attract people who seem nice at first but later become cold, distant, exploitive or mean? If you had an anxious attachment to your caregivers or earlier love relationships, you might be easy prey for cynical, selfish people. You might be so eager to be loved that you make yourself vulnerable before you know the person well enough to see if they're safe. When you expose your soft, vulnerable sides in hopes that people will take care of you, not everyone will do so kindly or considerately.

caucasian woman with long brown hair, plaid shirt, jeans and boots looking down and sitting on street corner
Becoming too vulnerable too quickly in relationships can lead to heartbreak and pain.

Unfortunately, the world is made up of people who exploit and even abuse people who make themselves too vulnerable too quickly. At age 18, our society assumes that you're adult, capable of taking care of your own emotional and physical needs. If you depend on others to look after you and protect you like a good parent would, you're bound to learn some painful lessons. The good news is you can learn to recognize these tendencies and exercise good common sense. The goal is interdependence, where you balance looking after your own needs while considering others' needs and wants.

A Balance of Connection and Distance in Relationships

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, you can find more satisfying and secure connection in relationships. Cultural background can influence your expectations of others as well as your family of origin and how your caregivers related to you. In some cultures, to leave yourself open for possible exploitation is a foolish act that leads to automatic exploitation. For other cultures, there is greater trust that favors the tender-hearted and assumes the best in people. I think the United States is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but is edging towards the cynicism and exploitation as time goes on.

You have to make choices about how to protect and expose your sensitive, tender parts of yourself with others, and how much to give of yourself in relationships. There are good people with whom you can connect safely in relationships, but there are also people who are damaged in ways that make them unsafe. I can help you learn to distinguish them and trust wisely, so you can have better connection in relationships.

How do you carve out a space to meet soul-to-soul with others' vulnerabilities and hold each other in tenderly and carefully? How can you show love, appreciation and kindness to each other even when you’ve been hurt in the past and have doubts about humanity’s worth? These are some of the issues that are especially salient to people who have been in traumatic situations, and can be explored in trauma therapy and grief therapy.

If you're unsure about how to connect in your relationships, call me at 661-233-6771.



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