As a generation, we live in a really strange and confusing time when it comes to relationships. So much of what we see seems to contradict itself. On the one hand we see people oversharing every day on social media, laying out details of their life and sharing photos of parts of their body that we just don’t need to see. On the other hand we are still battling issues like domestic violence, bullying, depression and suicide that thrive on secrecy. Popular culture leads us to believe that maintaining a positive image on social media so that we can keep up with everyone else is more important that being honest or real. Add to that the complication that it seems to be ok to make negative comments about people without needing to accept responsibility for them, and that there seems to be an increasing tendency to blame others for what happens to us rather than looking at our own input into situations, and it’s no wonder none of us want to be thought of as vulnerable or accountable. Both concepts seem to have more negative implications that positive ones in today’s society, and yet without them it is impossible to have healthy relationships. Without vulnerability with cannot connect with others, and without accountability we cannot learn and grow. Let’s take a quick look at each concept and why it is important.
Vulnerability is often seen as weakness, and that if we choose to make ourselves vulnerable then we are making a big mistake. But the truth is that vulnerability is simply the strength to let someone see who we really are. We cannot have relationships with other people without some level of vulnerability, and it is the depth of the vulnerability we allow which determines the depth of the relationship we have. We do not need to make ourselves completely vulnerable to everybody, nor should we just open the floodgates as soon as we meet someone. Vulnerability should be a process, but it is an essential element of any healthy relationship. Think of an old walled city, in order to survive it needs to have a relationship with the other cities nearby. If it just keeps its gates up and never lets anyone in, eventually it will die, but it needs to be careful who it lets in so they don’t take advantage. When another city first comes to trade with them they may do so just at the outer gate as they are not known so they need to demonstrate whether they are safe to interact with or not, and the same for cities who have proven to be unreliable or untrustworthy. Other cities who they have traded with for longer may have freer access to the outer and central parts of the city, enough to have a solid relationship but not all the way in to the inner workings of the city. Finally there may be one or two other cities who have full and complete access, relationships that have built up trust over time and who have proven themselves to be faithful and worthy of being allowed such access. Our relationships will be the same, there are some who will just be surface relationships, either because they are new or because they have caused hurt in the past. There will be some, our friends and some family, who we share life with and who know a lot of what happens in our lives but not our deeper moments. Then there will be one or two, for example a partner, best friend, or close family member, who have complete access to our lives and are there for us through everything. Without vulnerability we will never enjoy relationships to this depth, which means that without real vulnerability we can never experience true intimacy in our relationships.
Accountability is another of those words we never want to hear. So often it is used in a negative context, in the sense of someone being held accountable for something bad they have done. And yet accountability is essential in a relationship. Accountability is the ability to accept responsibility for your actions, both good and bad, and learn and grow from them. Accountability gives us the opportunity to resolve issues, to work through things together and to find a way forward. In our relationships we are accountable to the other person to treat them with love and respect, to put the effort in to make things work. At the same time the other person is accountable to us for the same things. If we don’t have this level of accountability there can be no trust in the relationship, and no way of growing it to a deeper level. In our intimate relationships there is also a value to having external accountability such as an older couple who can mentor you. They can help with decision making along the way, with overcoming difficulties, with knowing when to push through and when to take a step back. These people need to be chosen wisely, but when you pick the right ones they can be invaluable.
Whilst vulnerability and accountability are challenging concepts, they are both essential elements of healthy relationships. Both need to be applied with wisdom, but neither can be neglected. Unfortunately past hurts can lead us to holding back in making ourselves either vulnerable or accountable to someone else, especially to a meaningful level, as we can fear that we will be hurt again. But instead of allowing these experiences to rob us of the joy that can come from the depth of relationship we can experience through being vulnerable and accountable, we need to use these experiences to grow and do things differently next time. Whether that’s asking a trusted friend or mentor to guide you in your relationship, choosing to take it slow the next time around, some combination of the two, or something different entirely, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and accountable in a safe and healthy relationship is one of the most reassuring and rewarding things we can do.