Different degrees of fear exist in all relationships. Just to preface, I am not referring to fear of abuse, intimidation, threats, and/or physical harm. I am referring to the fear that often goes unrecognized in relationships because when we think of “fear” we think of it on a larger scale. Fear of divorce or fear that your partner is cheating, for example. The fears that I am referring to can be subtle, beneath the surface. And I often find that when I suggest that one feels fear, the response is “no”. This is because it is subtle and we are not aware of its existence.
Fear Beneath the Surface:
In therapy, Joe reassures his fiancé that he will always be there for her, he will always support her, and he will never leave her. I notice that he has expressed this for the past few sessions. I made him aware of my observation and asked him if he provided this reassurance because Colleen asks him for it or if there is another reason for it?
Colleen jumped in and expressed that she knows all of these things and does not need the verbal reassurance although it’s always nice to hear! I pressed him to explore why he provides unprompted reassurance to her.
Joe began to talk about the time when Colleen briefly ended their relationship. As he continued to talk, I realized that he feared that she would end the relationship again. I asked him if this was the case. He said, “well, yes and my relationship before that ended abruptly and not by my doing too”. In essence, his reassurance to Colleen that he would be a good partner was so that she would not end the relationship. He was fearful.
He was shocked when he realized that he was indeed frightened. Colleen was surprised as well and felt remorse for briefly ending the relationship. Colleen expressed that just a few weeks ago, they were arguing and during the argument she said, “maybe we should not get married”. During our discussion, Colleen realized that she feared that she would fail again at another relationship – Colleen’s fear here is expressed as “maybe we shouldn’t get married”.
The important thing here is to recognize is that both Colleen and Joe were feeling fear from past experiences (as is often the case) and they were being triggered by one another. When Joe was able to identify and express his fear, Laura responded with remorse, empathy, and a promise to find different ways to express her fears.
Uncovering Subtle Fears:
Everyone experiences different fears in their relationships. For example, fear that your partner won’t experience personal growth in an area that is important to you. Or fear of having a conversation that might ignite conflict. Fear of being honest with your partner about something that might hurt them, such as not liking something about them that impacts you in a negative way. Fear of expressing things that your partner brings to your relationship that you find challenging, such as hearing them complain too much and finding it challenging to listen to them. Or fear of expressing that you are not sexually satisfied.
Others fear having a challenging conversation because they are worried about being criticized by their partner even in the smallest way – the real fear here is fear of feeling shame from criticism. Fear that when you feel disconnected from your partner you won’t reconnect again. Or fear that one of you changes in some way, and you don’t know what to make of these changes or how it will impact your relationship.
How do we respond to our fears?
This is a challenging question! The reason is because everyone has their own unique relationship which is different from every other relationship. It is necessary to apply any suggestions to each unique individual and each unique couple. This is true for anything that you read about relationships! However, I will offer some suggestions and you can decide what might work best for you.
Are your fears an emotional trigger based on past experiences such as in my example above? If this is the case, you can share this with your partner. Be sure to do it in a way that does not place blame on your partner. Discuss your triggers with your partner so that you can help them understand you. Fears can also be examined to discern whether they are legitimate fears. For example, if you experience conflict that results in a bit of disconnection, and you fear that you will not reconnect again, ask yourself “have we reconnected in the past when we have experienced conflict?” This might provide you with some comfort and reduce your fears.
Finally, some fears are a bit more challenging, such as feeling the fear of expressing something that might hurt your partner. It is helpful to be aware of how we express ourselves. One might say, “I am not sexually satisfied” which is NOT the best way to express this concern! It is better to say, “I would love to try new things with you!”. Remember though, this statement might evoke fears in your partner. If they response defensively, it may just mean that they are frightened to try something new. If this is the case, you can acknowledge their fear. Sometimes an acknowledgement is enough for one to take a step forward.
As you become aware of fears that exist in you and your partner, always remember to practice self-compassion and compassion towards your partner. It is the best tool to manage our fears.
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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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