Key Ideas

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Here's the conceptual framework I've been building:

Voicing a vulnerable want is when you express a desire to someone close to you and you do not know...

  • how saying it will make you look or feel
  • how the other person is going to respond, (i.e., how they will take it)
  • what impact it might have on your relationship with the other person

These are some significant unknowns for the human psyche to handle.

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This uncertainty can be scary. Hence, we feel vulnerable.

I like the German researchers Bruck, School, and Bless's definition of vulnerability:

"Vulnerability is an authentic and intentional willingness to be open to uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure in social situations in spite of fear."

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Simply knowing inwardly what you want isn't risky, though it's a crucial step. It's sharing outwardly with another person that creates the vulnerability.

Voicing a vulnerable want is a combination of a self-disclosure and a request.

Generally, since it's a vulnerable want, it's probably the first time you've ever shared this with the other person. (If it's a want you've voiced a million times to your partner, it would fall in the category of "yeah-I-already-know" nagging or complaining.) In this way, the communication is a form of self-disclosure. You're revealing something about who you are. You're sharing a previously unknown aspect of yourself by expressing something you want. This is where I get excited and philosophical about how our desires are our life force essence. Without our desires, how bland would life be?! Granted, desires and wants have gotten a bad rap over the years. They've been labeled selfish, shameful, sinful, etc., depending on the culture or religion. But in the end, if you eliminate desire, you eliminate life. So rather than try to suppress, deny, or ignore our desires, a more adaptive way to handle this essential life force is to find tactful ways to express it. In doing so, we deepen our intimacy both with ourselves and with the other person. You're revealing what you want as a way of expressing who you are. That's self-disclosure.

But the communication isn't just a self-disclosure; it's also a request. What's the other person going to do now that they know what you want? At the very least, they have to blink their eyes and respond in some fashion, right? And remember that part of our definition here is that the communication is with someone you're close with, so they can't just easily walk away as if you were a stranger.  You're in a relationship together. So, at ground zero we have a request in the form of an expectation for some type of response or acknowledgment. In my dissertation, I theorize that there are various levels at which the request may occur. Here are some of the levels: 1) requesting that the want simply be heard and tolerated, 2) requesting that the want be accepted, 3) requesting that the want be supported in some way, and 4) requesting that the want be accommodated by the other person's behavior or expectations of you.

See how saying what we want "pushes" on the other person? This is indirect request-making at its finest.

Okay, enough abstract conceptual talk.

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Here are some concrete examples of people voicing vulnerable wants so you can see the kind of communication I'm talking about:

  • A high school senior telling his girlfriend he wants to serve in the military overseas after graduation
  • A gay 20-year-old coming out to his parents by telling them he wants to invite his boyfriend to the family Thanksgiving

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  • An individual telling their romantic partner they want to explore kink
  • A breadwinning marital partner telling her spouse she is burnt out and wants to retire early

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Our desires impact the actions we take in our relationships. So knowing what we truly desire and choosing if/how to express those desires matters. A lot.

I hope you this brief explanation and set of examples conveys why I find the rossroads of human desire and human communication so meaningful.

© 2021 Suzanne Burdick
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