Over the weekend, I attended a workshop about doing relationships with relationship armor and it got me thinking about my own armor in my own relationships.
Not just my intimate relationships with my other girlfriend, Kristen, but my many relationships with friends, acquaintances, colleagues, mentors, siblings, parents ... emotional armor can be present in any relationship, and can affect them all in different ways.
We all have armor, in some form or another: places that we have extra protection around showing our emotions or feeling our emotions. Some of us have more than others, and often, those of us who have complicated systems of armor tend to be drawn toward people who are more open.
Of course, there is no singular right way for your armor to operate, or for your expression or feeling of emotions to work, just as there’s no one way for anyone’s relationship to work, or for anyone’s emotional life to work. Challenges arise when you don’t know how your emotional life works, when you’re disconnected from yourself, when you have trouble articulating what you’re going through in some form or another.
When thought about in terms of masculinity, armor gets even more complicated. Armor is really common trait for masculine folks, and for folks like me, who weren’t socialized masculine, but came to it as a gender presentation after puberty, adopting armor as part of the adopting and adaptation of masculinity is practically required. Many of the defining traits of what it means to be masculine or a “man” in contemporary Western culture is to be tough at all times, to not show the supposed “weak” emotions of vulnerability, sadness, or grief, to always be in charge and in command, to never show softness or even tenderness.
But of course, having emotional armor doesn’t have to align with any particular gender. Women and feminine-presenting folks have plenty of emotional armor, and though it is not necessarily connected to a requirement of toughness in the ways that masculine-presenting folks often struggle with it, it can be connected to taking on an authoritative role of any kind.
Perhaps most commonly, though, emotional armor comes from being injured in the past. Most of us, regardless of gender, have had wounds and made mistakes in relationships, and many of us bear scars and thick layers of protection around the places where we, before, have been harmed. It makes sense. It’s part of the learning process, to be hurt, then to enhance protection around that place that has been hurt such that, when it is healing, it does not get jostled and have more damage done.
Where armor comes from, though, is not necessarily the most important thing. Regardless of how it got there, it’s there, for many of us, and we are living with it, our partners are living with it. Sometimes we wish we or our partners could operate differently, with less armor, more openness. Sometimes we work around it beautifully, acknowledge it’s there, and respect and honor the ways we need our armor, whatever it is, and however it works.
I often talk about this magical skill of being able to articulate what I need when I need it, or, likewise, being able to articulate what I feel when I feel it. If not exactly at the very moment, then perhaps soon after, when I am able to reflect upon it and see it, and articulate whatever need or feeling that I am having or did have to someone else.
It sounds like such a small thing to do: to feel sad, then to be able to express, in some form, that sadness. But it is not small. It is perhaps the singular skill that we all spend our lifetimes trying to grasp. And indeed it might take that whole lifetime of trying (and failing) and trying (and failing again) and trying to finally find a way that feeling and expressing those feelings, or needing and expressing those needs, feels comfortable and safe.
But, while we need relationships that are, to some degree, “comfortable” and “safe,” that place is not necessarily where our best growing happens. Our best growing, our pushing through to the next version of ourselves, happens when we are expanding our edges, pushing ourselves to be better and more and bigger than we are—but perhaps the expansion can only happen if we feel safe enough for it to happen in the first place.
So then, what happens when we never feel safe? What happens when we are always over-protected, over-judging the amount of potential damage that could be done to us? Perhaps we never get to that place of pushing and growing, to that place of safety where we can step out into the world and into a new version of ourselves, knowing that we have a support system in place which will catch us if we fall, which will adore our efforts at being bright and shiny, and which will let us know if our efforts were fruitful.
I’m still building this support system. I’m still attempting to find comfort and safety to the degree that I can keep pushing myself, and trust those around me to catch me if I fall.
Perhaps if there was more support in general around taking emotional risks, I would feel more safe. I like to feel listened to when I try to express something important. I want to feel considered, to be treated as valuable and valued. I want what I express to be taken seriously, though not too seriously, and for the risk to be acknowledged and felt, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to the other person. I want to be able to choose how much I risk and how much I put out there; I don’t want to be pushed to share more, asked a hundred questions, or told I’m not saying enough.
Usually, not saying enough is not necessarily my problem. I do talk about my feelings and needs, but often slowly, because I’m one of those people who practices what I’m going to say in my head before I say it, so I mean what I say. When I’ve dated people who tend to figure out what they mean as they are saying it, and revise themselves verbally, I have gotten confused, because I don’t always know which part of what they are saying is true, and which is temporarily true, but won’t always be true.
As I’ve better learned how to articulate and see these different ways that we work, however, it’s become easier. I’m more able to see what someone else means, and I’m more able to feel heard and safe in expressing what I mean, what I feel, or what I need. As my relationship with Kristen, in particular, deepens, the emotional armor that we both have has changed and grown, expanded and contracted, and we’re making a map of the hows and wheres and whys, navigating each other, taking care of each other, and ourselves.