Fear can wreak havoc in your relationships. Most of us don’t identify our relationship difficulties as fear based. Instead, we assign blame for our relationship woes on such things as incompatibility, miscommunication, thoughtlessness, disrespect, controlling behaviors, cheating, insecurities, or simply bad timing. And while these issues are very real and need to be addressed, I believe that at the core of most relationship challenges is fear.
Fear is a natural and important response to perceived danger. We need fear. It protects us from harm. It ensures the survival of our species. Sometimes we react to physical threats and other times we react to emotional or psychological threats. Sometimes our fears are justified in facts and sometimes not. To make matters worse, most of us have difficulty telling the difference in the heat of the moment. And furthermore, our physical and emotional response is the same regardless. In other words, fear can be running your relationship without your knowledge or permission.
So how do we get a handle on our fears? What is our fear teaching us? And how can we use this information for the good of our relationships?
The human condition is set up for us to fear some basic things. While this may not be an all-inclusive list, I think it will cover most of the basic fears we have in regards to our significant relationships.
You and your significant other may have a fear of being…
- Abandoned and left for dead… or at least it feels that way
- Rejected and made to feel unlovable and undesirable, validating your belief that something is wrong with you
- Smothered or engulfed by another, thus leaving you unable to function as an independent adult
- Controlled and manipulated to the extent that you will lose your power, sense of self, and freedom
- Emotionally harmed, forcing you to deal with emotional pain and loss
- Physically harmed or possibly even killed
I know that these items sound very dramatic and extreme but remember, your brain does not differentiate between a real physical and emotional threat from that of a perceived threat—one based on your past experiences, emotional and physical makeup, the immediate environment, and the current circumstances at hand.
So what happens when these basic fears get triggered? This is when all the other issues come running into your relationship with fervor—things like lack of communication, yelling, name calling, drug and alcohol use, violence, infidelity, disagreements, withdrawing, controlling, not returning calls, etc. All these behaviors are ways in which we attempt to deal with the underlying fears—mitigating any danger and restoring a sense of safety. In other words, all those problems and issues that come up in your relationships really reflect strategies to deal with the fear.
It’s important to know that fear is never going away. We need our fears to keep us safe. But we also need to help our fear understand when it has responded to a false alarm. And when a false alarm has been activated, we need to teach our fear how to release its control. Here are some things you can do to prevent your fear from wreaking havoc in your relationships.
Learn how fear shows up for you. What behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations get activated when you are scared?
For example, if I am in a car on an icy road with someone I don’t trust to drive safely, I will immediately start micro-managing their driving or find a way to drive the car myself. My muscles get tense and I will continue to escalate the power struggle until the tension is released or we safely arrive at our destination.
Get rational. Ask yourself if the threat is real or if you are making assumptions? Test out any assumptions you may be making.
For example, I may determine that the road conditions are truly hazardous; I may also determine that the driver may not be incompetent. He may have had more experience driving under these conditions than I.
Acknowledge your fears. Understand where they come from. Remind yourself of the similarities as well as the differences between then and now. Be compassionate and gentle with yourself.
For example, I may tell myself and the driver that my experience on icy roads is limited and I’m scared. I don’t know how safe the roads truly are and I don’t know how much experience he’s had driving on them.
Find healthy and constructive ways to cope. If there’s a legitimate reason to be afraid, then find constructive ways to problem solve and handle the situation. If your reasons are irrational and have little or nothing to do with the real situation at hand, then find ways let go of the fear and get back to your center. These strategies may include challenging and changing your belief system and interpretation, releasing your control to a higher power or your inner self, taking deep breaths, redirecting your attention to something else, etc.
For example, I may ask the driver how much experience he’s had with these conditions and elicit some reassurance. I may ask him to pull over for a while so I can take some deep breaths and calm myself down. I can distract myself with my cell phone until the dangerous road conditions have passed. In other words, I can do a lot of things to help myself other than becoming contentious and controlling to the point of creating unnecessary conflict and damage in my relationship.
Getting a handle on your fears is a lifetime process. Understanding how fear shows up in your relationship is the first step. Managing your fears is your ticket toward personal freedom. And mastering through the process is what enables you to create powerful and transformational relationships.
If you and a loved one are struggling with how to deal with your fears constructively, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m here to help. I want you to have the best possible outcome when it comes to strengthening your relationships.
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Julie Orlov, psychotherapist, speaker, and author of The Pathway to Love: Create Intimacy and Transform Your Relationships through Self-Discovery
Create Relationships in Your Life That Work — learn more at www.julieorlov.com