All of us need loving connection. We seek relationships to fulfill this human need. Yet many struggle to maintain the connection that they desire in their relationship. There is one emotion that will prevent growth in your relationship. That emotion is – Fear. And yet to experience growth and connection in our relationships, it is necessary to recognize and manage our fears.
Fear is a complicated emotion. While it can provide a necessary warning to protect us from danger, it can also hold us back from pursuing our dreams, including what we desire in our relationship. And, unfortunately, fear exists in all relationships for many different reasons. I’m not referring to fear of abuse, ever. I’m referring to fear of initiating a challenging conversation, fear that change will not occur, fear that your relationship may not work out when you are experiencing challenging times, fear that if you discuss your concerns it might lead to further disconnection, fear of abandonment, just to name a few.
Most importantly, we experience fear when we attempt to be vulnerable, we fear being hurt, and even fear that we might hurt our partner. Fear does not always look like fear – it can look like irrational anger, withdrawal, denial, avoidance, or even a state of paralysis, being unable to follow through on what we know is best.
~ Let’s take a closer look at fear:
We respond to our fears with fight or flight. You might approach your fears in your relationship by dealing with them head on – meaning you stand your ground in an angry and irrational manner. Or you may avoid them altogether. Either way is usually unsuccessful. Perhaps the most worrisome approach to fear is the concerns that we have go unspoken; it leads to erosion of loving feelings for your partner. Ultimately, fear can lead to disconnection.
“Know that it is probable that both of you are frightened”
It will be helpful if you attempt to understand that you are frightened and your partner is frightened – this recognition can lead you to mutual empathy.
Remember the fear that we feel in a relationship rarely looks like fear. It often masks itself as something very different. For example, we fear experiencing other emotions such as shame perhaps during conflict. When a person fears shame they may withdraw, lash out and/or blame others so they avoid feeling shame. Fear of change can result in being stagnant because fear of change is really a fear of potential loss. We can even fear success, such as in the pursuit of a career. I know it sounds odd, but when you are successful, you have to live up to that success. This can be terrifying because we fear disappointing others.
Many say that they “do not like conflict” and I am sure this is true. However, it is more so the “fear of what you will feel during conflict” that leads to avoidance of conflict. And we need conflict to experience growth and connection in our relationships.
~ Understand your fears:
Fear unexamined is just that – fear. It does not have words, only feeling. When you examine your fears, you might find that your fear is manageable. Examine your fears by talking with a trusted person and/or journal your fears. You might be surprised that if you allow the time to process your fears – you gain a different perspective.
When someone expresses fear to me – I ask them “What do you worry will happen if you ……….” Again, you would be surprised that when the person answers this question they realize that what they worry will happen, will never actually happen and/or they realize that they can manage what might come their way.
There may be things that you have not said to your partner for fear of them becoming angry or hurt, or perhaps for fear that they won’t understand. Keep in mind that it is important to consider “how” we say what we need to say to our partner. This can make it less frightening. For example, if you are feeling unloved, you will be met with an understandably strong negative reaction if you tell your partner that they are self-centered. However, if you tell your partner that you miss them, you feel lonely and would enjoy spending more time together – hopefully you will get a completely different reaction.
~Understand the consequences of avoiding your fears:
We tend to worry about what will happen if we face our fears, however it is equally, if not more important to understand the consequences of not facing our fears. For instance, there are consequences to not having those challenging conversations in your marriage which address the needs that you have in your relationship. If these needs go unmet and unspoken, it will lead to resentment. The risk in not expressing your needs and having them met is that your feeling of love and connection for your partner will slowly diminish. You can choose how to respond to your fear. Fear is normal but you can’t let it control you.
“Don’t let fear, whatever that might be for you, turn into a regret”
~Fight or flight does not work in relationships:
Once you recognize your fear – you can work toward managing your fear. When you gain clarity and perspective, you can move toward a ‘calm fear’. I know that may seem counterintuitive, however you can work on calming your fear rather than being derailed by your fear into a fight or flight reaction. For example, if you have a concern about your relationship or your partner – you can recognize your fear about having the discussion, otherwise you may appear agitated in the eyes of your partner. Once you recognize your fears, you can move toward calm understanding.
What is a boundary in a relationship? The best way to understand a boundary is this – everyone knows when someone is standing in our personal space. We immediately feel uncomfortable and want to find a way to gain physical distance.
The same is true for “emotional boundaries” – if we feel emotionally unsafe we need distance, and the way to do so is to set a boundary.
If you fear that your partner will react poorly if you address an issue in your relationship – know and understand the importance and value of boundaries.
The most important thing to remember about boundaries is this – a boundary is how you choose to react to someone – it is NOT telling them what to do. For example – you can tell your partner that you don’t like it when they yell at you, but you do not have the control to make them stop. If you are feeling unheard and overwhelmed, you can tell your partner that you need some time and distance to think things over. And then you can choose to go for a walk. This is a boundary.
HOWEVER, this is not meant to be “against” your partner, it is not withdrawal, rejection or punishment. And it is important to make this clear, otherwise it may just escalate the situation. It is meant for both of you to breathe and take a moment. Your partner may “fear” this boundary because it can feel like rejection or disconnection. Again, it is important to make it known that you will return to the conversation when both of you have gained some sense of calm. In a sense, a boundary is a giving gesture for both of you, even if your partner does not see it this way. It is giving to you because you need to feel emotionally safe and it is giving to your partner because you are ultimately protecting them from behavior that they will eventually regret if the conflict gets out of control and hurtful things are said to one another.
~Know how to self-soothe:
How do you nurture yourself? When I ask my clients this question I am often met with either confusion because they have never considered the idea of self-nurturing, or I am met with a guilty smile meaning they know what it is and do not take the time to do so. Nurturing or self-soothing is crucial to living a happy, peaceful and fulfilling life. In regard to fear, it is necessary to learn to soothe our fears, and to comfort and nourish our soul when we are frightened. It is the pathway toward ‘calm fear’. For me, I seek comfort from a trusted friend, journal, walk in nature, or I cuddle with my dog, and simply take time for me. I hope you find the path toward understanding your fears, and then deciding how to respond to them. And don’t forget – you need and deserve to self-soothe.
Thanks for reading!
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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!
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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
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