Spiritual Reflections

Connections Between Intimacy and Vulnerability

To the extent to which we try to be authentic, to that extent we hold ourselves open to our loving God, and to the companionship of those around us. We do not go to God alone.

Vulnerability means, of course, the ability to be wounded or hurt. It is the opposite of invincible strength, of being indestructible. We may, for a time, have the illusion of being invulnerable: the unthinking energy of the two year-old and the risk-taking of adolescents comes to mind. Vulnerability means not only our physical limitations, but also our emotional, social, moral and religious weaknesses. Our growth in self-knowledge reveals to us strengths and weaknesses. Knowing ourselves is itself a daring adventure, which sometimes brings gratitude and pride, and sometimes chagrin and embarrassment. 

Dictionary definitions of intimacy include “familiarity” and “something of a personal or private matter.” Intimacy means the “closeness between people in personal relationships.” Friendships and relationships can be viewed along several dimensions. Relationships can be of different types, so that we share certain interests with some friends but not others. Another dimension concerns the depth of the relationship from casual acquaintances, to “just friends,” to close friends. 

Before discussing close friendships, I’d like to comment on the idea of familiarity and acquaintances. There can be a closeness with those whom we see very often, even if the relationship wouldn’t be characterized by either party as a friendship. I think this is true of neighbors and co-workers with whom we have frequent, pleasant small exchanges. A former colleague once called them “friendlies.” The idea of “just acquaintances” doesn’t fit. We miss simple interactions and would grieve their loss. The isolation imposed by the coronavirus included the loss of natural, everyday connections. 

On the other hand, intimacy is usually thought of as including mutual and shared affection, and a deeper connection, the kind found in close friendship, love relationships, and marriage. Erik Erikson, in explaining the adult task of developing intimacy, includes generosity as well as sexuality. Sacrifice and mutual compromise are expected in Erikson’s description of intimacy. And unlike love, which can be one-sided or unrequited, intimacy must be mutual. 

Although Erikson’s work is organized around times of the lifespan, his theory is not a strict stage theory. All of the tasks he mentions have repercussions or actions at each of the stages of life. For Erikson, the task of forming (or re-forming) one’s identity is connected to his description of intimacy. Intimacy, for Erikson, means having enough confidence in knowing who one is that one is able to share that identity with another. Intimacy involves both a fusing and a counterpointing of identities. One is able both to give up, and hold onto, one’s identity, in a healthy intimate relationship. 

This brings us to the connection with vulnerability. If mutual sharing and mutual self-disclosure are central to intimacy, reasons for fear of intimacy become clear. We need to expose our thoughts and feelings. The example of the development of identity and intimacy among youth provides a clear picture of the relationship between vulnerability and intimacy. Young people (and all of us) have to form a cohesive sense of self which will necessarily have both positive and negative features. (It does not matter if these are truly negative or positive; the individual will have judged them in some way.) Teenagers are famous for having idealistic and perfectionistic views of how other people should be. Though they may be most irritating when we see their unrealistic expectations of us, the adults in their lives, they also have highly unrealistic views of themselves. Therefore, how they project themselves to others is very important to them. 

Well, we are not very different from youth. We also have images of ourselves we want to convey. We also have aspects of ourselves we’d like to conceal. Often, because we live in a society that overvalues independence and strength, we want to conceal weaknesses of any kind. We want to be invulnerable. We want to be indestructible. 

In developing relationships, we cannot be certain of the response our sharing will elicit from the other. We do not know if the other person, who seems to care for us, would care for us if they really knew us. The ways in which we think, believe, or feel differently than the way we present ourselves may vitiate our worth in the eyes of the other. However, if the other does not know us, and we do not know the other, we may have pleasant interactions, but are not sharing selves; we are sharing something like social media selections of ourselves. 

One of the joys of friendship is finding out that you are not the only person, or the only woman religious, or the only senior, to feel, act, or think that way (whatever way that is). I think it is a truism, though one not immediately apparent: “The more personal something is, the more universal.” Sharing in friendship can help us to know we are not singular, or absolutely unique. Some aspects of each of us are shared by others. A very great joy of friendship is finding out that you are accepted and loved as you are, not necessarily as you wished to be. 

I once heard a young person complain that for people who were supposed to be following Jesus, sisters did not speak of Jesus very often. I have suggested that the deeply personal is likely to be the most universal. However, the most personal is also what is likely to make us feel most vulnerable. What is highly personal will differ from person to person. My favorite sports team may be very important to me; your favorite sports team may be less important to you. Now substitute political belief, prayer practice, religious devotion, thoughts about God, beliefs, and doubts. Now we are treading on (1) more deeply held areas of our life, and (2) areas of varying import for people. No wonder discussion of personal spirituality has seemed for many fraught with difficulty. 

However, the fact remains that we are vulnerable even in those areas of central importance; less believing than we would like, more broken and more unsure. IHM sisters have increased their sharing of spirituality (not to be confused with spiritual or religious topics) in recent years. Somehow, we (that is, I) need to believe, not only that God loves me in my weakness, but comes to be with me. That idea is central to our personal spirituality. However, sharing my vulnerability with others brings another dimension to my spiritual life. 

Another truism from a graduate class: “Relationships are all there is.” To the extent to which we try to be authentic, to that extent we hold ourselves open to our loving God, and to the companionship of those around us. We do not go to God alone. We are responsible for knowing and helping and being helped by others. We find God in others and God seems to find us in our relations with others. Our openness to sharing our vulnerabilities provides the intimacy we need for this journey we make together. “Let no one walk alone; the journey makes us one.” 


  1. Cooney, Rory. Jerusalem, My Destiny 
  2. Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton. 
  3. Intimacy Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *