being vulnerable

My friend Shirley just told me that her 14-year-old daughter has a new thing at school called "covid support.” 

There’s no doubt kids are stressed by COVID, so they’re apparently going to teach her daughter the skill of being vulnerable.

Her daughter, Becca, reported that she and the other kids were told that being vulnerable is share something with the class that you've been afraid to share before.

I told her that was the most feckless and stupid advice for kids I’ve heard in a long time. 

Whatever happened to “don’t talk to strangers?”

Not to mention the obvious question (well, it was obvious to Shirley); is there a creature that walks the earth potentially meaner than a 14-year-old entrusted with a rivals’ secret?

Kids don’t need to learn how to be vulnerable...they already are.

Being vulnerable is fashionable

If you want to tell kids to share their thoughts and feelings at least have the presence of mind to be discriminating as to who they share their feelings with.

Some may wish to display all of their insecurities for the word to behold...Shirley would rather teach her daughter to look both ways when crossing the street, never talk to strangers, and turn to a trusted group of friends/adults when she needs help...thank you very much and bless your heart!

I guess she is a little old school.

Being vulnerable is quite fashionable. We’ve been told that we can all be brave, and in doing so, experience a joyous, profound breakthrough...if we just take the risk and share our shame.

Tell it all brothers and sisters

We’ve been asked to believe that our capacity for being vulnerable is thwarted only by our fear of what others will think. 

We’re also told that if we can just be “true to who we are” we will become safe, love more deeply, and transform the world by our example, by being vulnerable.

I’m justifiably skeptical. 

There are a lot of conflicting opinions about being vulnerable, but here’s my problem with that view of becoming more vulnerable, just like our kids...we already are.

A recent review of psychological sequelae (pathologies) providers may be instructive; it revealed numerous emotional outcomes, including stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion, anger, frustration, boredom, and stigma associated with quarantine, some of which persisted after the quarantine was lifted.” New England Journal of Medicine.

We are already vulnerable...and talking to strangers

A large multinational study looked at nearly 5,000 study subjects.

The researchers followed them through the lockdowns. 

A series of surveys were conducted during the first and second lockdowns in their respective countries.

The first questionnaire asked questions about physical and mental health, stress and career issues. 

The second survey explored their sense of reciprocity, risk-taking, altruism, and the basis for their decision-making during the lockdown.

The researchers concluded that the COVID lockdown has resulted in more selfish reactivity, degraded decision-making skills, and more impulsivity and recklessness.

And frankly, that’s showing up in how many of us are getting our emotional needs met. We call it...being vulnerable.

Depending on the kindness of strangers; the lure of anonymous and cheap vulnerability

He's being vulnerable
  • According to a recent study conducted by OnePoll, on behalf of their client Medifriends, over 60% of Americans reported that they felt as if they had no one to talk to during the lockdown. 
  • The poll surveyed over 2000 Americans and discovered that 55% reported that they have completely lost their abiding sense of community. 
  • 67% reported that they have never felt as alone as they do right now.
  • Over half said that they’ve pulled away from talking about their struggles with intimate others because “they did not want to be a burden.”
  • 46% of survey respondents reported that at some point during the lockdown, they cried for the first time in years.
  • Nearly 60% of respondents said that as far as their relationships and friendships were concerned, they “just can’t keep up with everyone anymore.”
  •  Over 50% of respondents came to believe that online friendships conveyed specific advantages over in-person ones.
  • 52% said they felt more comfortable being vulnerable with friendships that were exclusively online. The reasons given were telling.
  • Many said it was easier to maintain an online friendship because it was anonymous (41%), they felt less criticism and judgment (34%), and less pressure to “be perfect,” (23%).
  • Over 60% of Americans in this survey disclosed that they felt safe being vulnerable and sharing their feelings in an anonymous online community. 
  • A whopping 56% of these study subjects said that their online friends were essential in helping them to get through the COVID lockdowns.

Conventional interpersonal vulnerability has a new competitor; the easy vulnerability/validation transactions on social media

The COVID lockdown was emotionally brutal for many couples.

According to research, an emotional pivot to social media for validation, and the consequential impact on American marriage under lockdown resulting in “peak loneliness” occurred around June 2020.

The study organizers noted that peak expressions of loneliness occurred last June, about three months into the pandemic's outbreak in the United States. The average U.S. adult started three new social media accounts in the last year alone, sparking "deep conversations" with people who they've potentially never met in real life. Newsweek.

Then, most typically, a new lockdown behavior emerged; an average of 2 conversations per week with a new “online friend” someone, for the most part, they’ve actually never met in real life.

And of course, being vulnerable with strangers has rapidly become a business model. 

One of the partners in this research is David Gianascoli of Medifriends (yes, it’s the perfect name isn’t it?):

Having a place to go to for deep conversations is crucial when experiencing feelings of loneliness, isolation, or other medical conditions. Being able to connect with others on a deeper level allows people to feel better about themselves and boost their mood overall.” Medifriends co-founder David Gianascoli.

That simply can not be argued with. 

Millions of authentically solitary people all over the world have no other source of support other than their online community. Social media can be a powerful force for good, providing both reliable information and authentic human connection.

But a connected world is not necessarily a better world. And not all connections are helpful and healing even if they may feel that way at first.

Not only is being vulnerable easier on social media, but it’s also addictive.

Many of us prefer the endless novelty of souls we can connect with on a “deep” level to the difficult people who know us best but nevertheless don’t understand us. 

Stranger-friends helped us to cope with the misfortune of being misunderstood by the people we lived with during the lockdown.

she's being vulnerable

Does social media compete with the souls we live with?

In a previous post, I spoke about the neuroscience around micro-cheating. While researchers quibble about whether or not social media is addictive, we’re missing out on the larger point. It offers an easier alternative to the often difficult work of being vulnerable with real intimate others.

And earlier research about the uptick in online infidelity obviously overlaps with this, but so does the research on online dating

Being vulnerable and receiving validation can be done much more quickly online, literally a 5-minute vulnerability behavioral exchange. Easy. Fast. Targeted. Unchallenged.

There’s a reason being vulnerable with intimate others takes courage

Let’s face it...being vulnerable eyeball to eyeball can be uncomfortable, especially during the lockdown

If you need their validation, you may have to wait for it, until they get some from you.

They might even be married to you, or be your parent, sibling, or child. Perhaps old resentments never healed...real vulnerability is a relational investment. 

Being vulnerable online can be many things, including being emotionally promiscuous.

And you can count on your stranger-friend not balking when you get defensive, or critical

They won’t know when you’re spinning, and they’ll never call BS on you when appropriate because they don’t know you well enough to challenge you-lovingly, or otherwise.

As I mentioned, being vulnerable with intimate others in close proximity is often very difficult.

All this unpleasantness arises because they have something your online stranger-friends do not have with you; an intimate personal history.

Porn-users craft an erotic experience that is perfectly customized to their fantasies and sexual desires. Our new online stranger-friends craft a perfect emotional experience for us (and themselves) when we both feel like being vulnerable and indulging in our emotional desires.

Why has social media become a first responder for feeling vulnerable? 

Social media is like a psychic deodorant. It takes the worry out of being close. And the same research makes this point clearly:

  • I like that I don’t have to give my real name (41%).
  • ...and please don’t judge me or criticize me (34%).
  • ...or have what I feel are unreasonable expectations of me (23%).
  • And I’m willing to freely tell you my side of the street (60%).
  • Because I can’t manage to do that with the real people I know (60%)
  • ...because I don’t want to burden them (52%).
  • Because if you can manage to meet my vulnerability with validation, I know I’ll crave your virtual support, and view it as essential (56%).

What will become of our habit of being vulnerable with our online COVID stranger-friends as we enter the new normal? 

Will there be an abundance of marital debris from trampled emotional boundaries as we emerge from COVID?

Is being vulnerable too precious to share too quickly?

Our vulnerability consists of the most private part of ourselves. We’re vulnerable because it’s the “real us,” a part which is unmistakably and uncompromisingly human.

Being vulnerable is risky because your counterpart is vulnerable too. 

Being vulnerable in your primary relationship requires you to show up and show courage.  

The courage to have a generative conversation, conversations which describe and explore your shared history, navigating the conflicting narratives, contrary understandings, and differentiated hurts. We can help with that.

On the other hand, it is also true that social science has cracked the code of intimacy. It can be accelerated. Unfortunately, we know how to do this.

With this knowledge, technology, capital, and social science will continue to build a myriad of platforms to monetize opportunities for being vulnerable and receiving validation (and titillation) from perfect strangers.

So it’s no surprise that some people have been so profoundly stressed that they prefer to live more controlled and transactional emotional lives online, with people they don’t really know.

Wonderful lives where kindness is there for the asking, where vulnerability meets validation like a silent key turning a compliant lock.

Easy. Fast. Exciting. Targeted. Unchallenged and untethered from your intimate other (perhaps doing the same thing) in another room.

The science of trust

There is a science to trust. We feel lonely with our real-life partner, because of an inability to trust. Gottman warns that the failure to trust is self-perpetuating.

The research also warns us that as we continue to withdraw our trust over time, we will not be able to accurately read our partner, and we will have an abiding lack of empathy for them.

Lonely people are caught in a spiral that keeps them away from others, partly because they withdraw to avoid the potential hurt that could occur from trusting the wrong person. So they trust nobody, even the trustworthy. John Gottman.

Here’s the rub. It’s the seemingly trivial “small interactions” not the grand displays that either build trust or break it. Gottman calls these “sliding door moments.”

And the ultimate sliding door moment is when we are being vulnerable in small ways and in large ways. 

And when we’re not getting along with our spouse, that elusive feeling of intimacy is only a click away.

Ambivalence, ambiguity, and amateur couples therapy

When couples grow apart, it’s often the mathematical result of their individual micro-decisions about where to invest their time,  focus, energy, and vulnerability.

Discernment Counseling during the new normal might help both partners consider where they’ve been sharing their vulnerable feelings, and toward what end? 

I hope as we all emerge from COVID, we can work on being more deliberate and intentional about how and with whom we share our vulnerabilities. Being vulnerable is too important to share with stranger-friends.

But here is the tricky part. Just like it’s way too easy to find solace online, according to couples therapy thought leader Bill Doherty, it’s also way too easy for “general practitioner” couples therapists to give up on you.

Being vulnerable and the untrained therapist

Couples therapy may be the hardest form of therapy and most therapists aren't good at it.  William Doherty in the professional journal Psychotherapy Networker.

80% of American therapists in private practice claim competence in couples therapy. But Bill Doherty reminds us that most therapists in private practice during the new normal never took a single course in couples therapy, and never completed an internship under the supervision of a trained couples therapist.

They won’t know what to do with your misplaced vulnerability.

Let’s look at this another way.

 Doherty quips that “Going in for couples therapy with a general practitioner is like having your broken leg set by a doctor who skipped orthopedics in medical school.”

The only worst thing than being vulnerable with stranger-friends online is being vulnerable with an untrained couples therapist.

Final thoughts about being vulnerable

How bad will the problem of poorly trained couples therapists be in the new normal? 

Consider this. We know from research in labor economics, that it takes an average of 4 years to recover from a serious setback or bad outcome.

I think COVID qualifies as a serious setback for more than a few couples!

Working with a couples therapist is being vulnerable to the extreme

being vulnerable

According to a survey conducted by New York Times, 38% of couples receiving “general-practitioner” couples therapy will divorce within 4 years.

On the other hand, if you are both motivated to stay together and stubbornly outlast your problems, science-based couples therapy is 70-92% effective. 

We can help you start being vulnerable with each other once again.

It’s easy for poorly trained therapists to blame the couple for how they withdrew from one another and sought validation elsewhere. Misplaced or misguided vulnerability?

It’s also commonplace for these couples therapists to feel stymied by ambivalence and ambiguity

 Good couples therapy requires great skill. Choose your couples therapist wisely. 

We can help you with the hard parts of being vulnerable. Experience, scientific training, and specialization matter.

At last! Couples Therapy Inc. is currently making our long-awaited pivot back into conducting in-person couples therapy intensives.

Why wait? to reserve your date.


Ettman CK, Abdalla SM, Cohen GH, Sampson L, Vivier PM, Galea S. Prevalence of Depression Symptoms in US Adults Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Network Open. 2020;3(9):e2019686. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.19686

Meichun Mohler-Kuo et al, Stress and Mental Health among Children/Adolescents, Their Parents, and Young Adults during the First COVID-19 Lockdown in Switzerland, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2021). DOI: 10.3390/ijerph18094668

Journal information: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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