The real danger in vulnerability is not necessarily that you might open up to someone. It’s the possibility that the person you’ve opened up to won’t do the same. I think in my life I’ve been on both sides of that equation at some point—the vulnerable one and the closed off pretending to be vulnerable one. I’ve long held that vulnerability is simple to manufacture: take a real struggle, deconstruct its parts, dumb it down, and spit it out. Vulnerability requires real relationship, or at the very least real trust and an honest commitment to the other person. Those things don’t just show up the minute you decide to be open.

If you have watched Big Little Lies, you know there are nearly unwatchable scenes featuring Nicole Kidman’s character Celeste and her husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgard. The show covers a lot of emotional and psychological ground, but in the midst of watching it through a second time, I’m struck by its representation of physical and emotional vulnerability. It’s probably not too much of a spoiler to say that Celeste and Perry’s relationship features horrific abuse. In the midst of the abuse scenes, or in their aftermath, the work Kidman does to simultaneously convey Celeste’s searing pain and deep strength deserves any award anyone wants to throw at her.

Celeste’s conversations with her therapist are particularly devastating. She’s hesitant at first, refusing to ruin the veneer she and Perry have created and kept up. Her therapist persists, gently but with conviction, and at long last Celeste begins to acknowledge the seriousness of her abuse. Their scenes together come without the quick cuts popular in the rest of the show, and to me the meaning is clear: vulnerability takes serious, consistent, and available work.

I hope to be the type of person who invests in real vulnerability, both for myself and anyone I might form a relationship with. If watching Big Little Lies has clarified anything for me, it’s that vulnerability becomes frightening and even dangerous when it’s practiced haphazardly—when it’s forced or manufactured or faked. Let me be clear here: it’s Perry who does the twisting, not Celeste, and the result is evil. But the show also provides an alternative to Perry’s machinations, both in Celeste’s friendships and in her relationship with her therapist. There are flaws in those places, too, but there’s also trust and intentionality. And that means there is hope.

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