Updated: Jun 21, 2021
Don’t be afraid: I’ll be brief here! My point is simple, but deep and rich: when you want to understand what is going wrong in a relationship, find the fears.
Fear always makes everything worse. Let’s say you have two people shopping for clothes. Edie and DeeDee. They both have $300, which should be enough for them. But here’s the thing.
Edie has plenty of time. The store isn’t crowded. She trusts she’s not going to get crap from anyone for whatever choices she makes. She’s not afraid. So Edie’s likely to end up happy with what she buys.
DeeDee, on the other hand, feels rushed. The stores are crowded, so she’s nervous that maybe the things she wants will disappear. And she knows her boyfriend and girlfriends are going to have “opinions” about what she gets. So DeeDee’s afraid. And way less likely to be happy with her choices.
Same thing between two partners in a relationship. If my partner and I find ourselves in a knot, then somehow, somewhere, someone is afraid of something. Like what? The list is endless:
Maybe my partner says something and I’m afraid they're lying.
Maybe I can’t trust them to follow through on what they’ve promised.
Maybe I’m afraid they don’t really care about me.
Maybe I think that what’s important to me isn’t all that important to them.
Maybe I’m afraid I’ll be hurt again the way I was in the past.
Maybe I’m beginning to suspect there is something not quite right about my partner.
Maybe I don’t feel my partner can or wants to support me.
Maybe I’m afraid of my partner’s power.
Have I left something out? I’m sure I have.
The point is, though, that the fear itself isn’t the problem. It’s what we do because of our fear. Here comes another list! When we’re afraid:
We hide the truth instead of speaking out.
We project anger to get an upper hand and make our partner more afraid than we are.
We make distance, so we can’t be hurt.
We assume the worst about our partner, instead of the best.
We see our relationship through the eyes of fear and so get a highly distorted view of our partner and our relationship as well.
We reject our partner, so we won’t have to fear rejection.
We feel resentment, based purely on fear-based assumptions.
You see all the mischief fear can make.
So what can you do about it?
Let’s see if I can offer some help here without making yet another list.
We have to begin by saying that since we’re animals, and we are!, our fears are more compelling and feel more real than they need to. That’s how animals survive, after all. By taking their fears seriously. Better to overreact a hundred times than to underreact that one last fatal time.
But this hypervigilance is exhausting and leads to too many mistakes. And so it means that maybe we’d be smart to not get so pushed around by our fears. Here’s what you can do.
Ask yourself, What am I afraid of here? In every situation. Try as best you can to pinpoint the exact fear.
Then question the fear. You can always fall back into it if you want to, but give yourself a chance to fall out of it. Ask yourself, Is this thing I’m afraid of even real? I’m acting like Joe’s gonna leave me, but do I have any evidence whatsoever that that’s true?
Ask yourself, How likely is this fear going to come true? Okay, maybe Joe is cheating on me with his assistant at work, but, since I have NO EVIDENCE, how likely is it, other than the dumb shit that one girlfriend of mine tells me about men and their assistants?
Ask yourself, Okay, so maybe I have some reason to be afraid here, but so what? I’m afraid Joe doesn’t care about me? Well, on some level, sure! He’s busy, he’s distracted, he takes me for granted. But come on! If the chips were down, wouldn’t he do his best, even if his best weren’t super-great? Of course! Can I be content with that? Of course! It’s way better than chewing myself and Joe to bits because of my fear!!
Beyond that, stop talking to yourself! Talk to your partner!! Check things out. Get information to see if your fears are warranted. Ask for reassurance. Get some reality checks. Just make sure, though, that when you ask questions you do so in a relaxed way so your partner feels safe giving full honest answers.
I’ll assure you of this. People who deal with their fears as I’ve outlined here—rather than letting their fears control them and their relationships—will find things are much, much better in their relationships.
After all, the power dynamics we talk about in Why Couples Fight all grow out of fear. It’s all so unnecessary.