by Dr. Elliott Kronenfeld

It is a natural human reaction to do anything to avoid pain. Whether it is emotional or physical pain, we are wired to ensure we are driven for pain avoidance. This drive far outweighs our drive for pleasure and satisfaction so much so that we can’t enjoy pleasure until we have reduced pain to acceptable levels. It is this avoidance of pain that makes our perception of vulnerability a trigger for how we engage the world.

What most people do not realize is that there are two very different types of vulnerability. The first type of vulnerability is often commonly understood. It is the vulnerability that is rooted in danger, fear, power dynamics, and the need for survival. When we perceive that someone or something may overtake us, hurt us, or put us in a disadvantageous position, we immediately start a process of risk assessment and risk management. What do we need to do so that we can mitigate this perceived risk and maintain a level of safety and self-agency? Often, these risk management approaches leave us creating greater distance from others, reducing opportunities, and ensuring that we have greater isolation. These reactions are often triggered before we are conscious that we are doing it.

The second type of vulnerability is altogether different. It is not rooted in danger, power dynamics, nor fear. Rather, it is grounded in courage, desire, and connection. It is the vulnerability that brings others and new opportunities closer. It is the moment that we look at someone we value and let them know that we value them and that is the reason we need to have a difficult conversation. We want to have the scary conversation because we want to be closer and have a healthier relationship. Relationships should be seen as work – and it is the work that makes them valuable. It is also the work that makes us feel vulnerable.

It is the time when we lean into a scary situation and believe that value of being on the other side is greater than the fear of getting there. I experienced this when I started my Ph.D. program. I was convinced that I would never be able to handle the work, write and talk like the deep academics that were being presented to me. After my first weekend of classes, I felt lost, overwhelmed, and ready to withdraw. However, I was also passionate about wanting the experience and I sought support from professors and advisors who were excited to lean in and support me along the way.

Both types of vulnerability are important and serve a purpose. What is challenging is to be intentional about when we choose one approach over the other. If I am driving my car with my family during a storm, I am all about risk mitigation and risk management. If I am mad at my spouse, I don’t want to blow up my marriage – I want a healthy resolution that allows us to move forward stronger.

Take a moment to reflect. Can you think of a moment where you allowed vulnerability to be a source of strength and growth?  What was different for you?

If you want to learn more about vulnerability, you can read Dr. Kronenfeld’s book Couples by Intention, or contact him at or

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