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The Mystery of “Vulnerability”

Brené Brown, through her now virally-popular Ted talk, her interviews, and her books, has encouraged us to see vulnerability as a characteristic to be admired and sought after.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity,” she says. “It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” 

And yet, to the women and children caught in the clutches of a domestic abuser, vulnerability . . . is terrifying.

Vulnerability—“openness to attack or injury” according to the Oxford English Dictionary—is what got the victim there in the first place.

The power is on one side, the side of the one more skilled in

    • tactical workplace negotiation
    • interpersonal vigilance
    • global boundary protection
    • refusing all emotions except anger

The vulnerability is on the other side, the side of the one more skilled in

    • nurturing others
    • empathy
    • interpersonal interaction
    • expression of emotions

To the abuser, as to an army general, any vulnerability at all is seen as weakness. And weakness is to be exploited and subjugated.

As this website tells us, American Sign Language shows the word “vulnerability” as fingers on the palm showing someone who is “weak in the knees.” That is the way the abuser thinks of one who is vulnerable.

Life to an abuser is a game or a battle. That battle calls for the undetectable capacity to lie, cheat and steal, to feel no anxiety or remorse, especially while committing heinous crimes. The capacity to “not feel,” means the abuser has a brain in which the lobe that would usually light up with feelings of guilt, compassion, anxiety, or fear doesn’t light up (which makes lie detector tests easy to pass). That brain doesn’t have that kind of vulnerability.

In his or her mind, that kind of weakness.

Imagine finding yourself—the partner with the vulnerability to love—locked in the conflict of high-conflict divorce with an adversary who possesses skills to compete in a bare-knuckle battle.

You came into the marriage thinking it was a . . . marriage. Marriages need mutual vulnerability in order for there to be true love and trust.

You didn’t know you were coming into a battle, a game. The rules of the game were defined by your adversary—the one you thought you could trust, the one you thought would share mutual vulnerability with you.

Instead of sharing the ups and downs, joys and sorrows along the path of life, the adversary refuses this form of vulnerability in order to win. He or she will, unbeknownst to you, gather allies to himself, often your very own family members and friends.

What are you to do?

Is your answer to become hard, emotionless, and without empathy? Should you become like your abuser?

No, you still want to have compassion for your children, still want to protect them, and still want to love others. Instead of responding with hard-heartedness, you’ll want to gain a stronger sense of self and purpose, to learn how to step out of the abuser’s  “game” and refuse to play.

Many who have been through the grueling court process of protecting their children from an abuser come out on the other side wanting to help others in similar ways.

This website tells us that American Sign Language also has another symbol for vulnerability. It is a symbolic opening of the shirt, to reveal the heart.

This is the mystery of vulnerability. With it, we can be harmed.

But without it, we cannot be all that we were meant to be.


When you fight against an adversary determined to exploit your vulnerabilities and attack you in your weakest spot—your children—you need help. The Foundation for Child Victims of the Family Courts can provide the services you need.

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