Your past experiences have the potential to show up as fears in your current relationships — but you can learn how to face them.
Relationship fears may stem from a number of places and require different levels of care and attention.
Experts suggest that most relationship fears are linked to a perceived “threat” in a previous, formative relationship and a desire to avoid repeating the negative experience.
“The more evidence one has that the threat is unavoidable, the more fear there tends to be,” says Mallory Frayn, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Impulse Psychology in Montreal, Canada.
According to Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California, common sources of relationship fear may come from:
According to Manly, relationship fears may develop in the “primitive brain” — the unconscious, impulsive part of the brain associated with survival instincts.
Some relationship fears are natural, while others are more powerful and may hinder your relationship success.
“It’s OK to be fearful,” says Mitch Keil, PsyD, of Keil Psych Group in Newport Beach, California. “However, the ways that we act out this fear can cause harm to a relationship.”
According to Keil, root causes of relationship fears may include:
- a need for excessive reassurance
- premature commitment or exclusivity
- difficulty tolerating the ambiguity of a new relationship
These root causes often lead to larger, more complex fears that need addressing. The most common fears within relationships may include:
Intimacy may include physicality, but it’s not limited to sexuality.
Intimacy may mean a connection to another person through:
- shared interests
A fear of intimacy may show up in varied ways and cause barriers within romantic relationships.
During the process of getting close to another person in an intense way, it’s common to feel some sense of hesitation, especially if you have underlying anxieties around self-esteem or acceptance.
What to do about it
What intimacy looks like may vary, and learning what your partner needs is just as important as what you need.
To work through fears of intimacy, it’s best to talk with your partner about what makes you both feel at ease, loved, and heard.
“Communication and mutual understanding are essential,” Keil says. “Both need a willingness to honor each other’s unique histories and needs. Many couples report that learning each other’s love languages was a helpful tool in creating a sense of feeling loved and secure.”
The fear of being inadequate can stem from different places and show up in different ways.
If you’ve ever found yourself questioning whether you’re worth investing in, you’re not alone.
Louisville, Kentucky-based author and therapist Deedee Cummings speaks to the presence of our inner child when feelings of lack of self-worth and inadequacy arise.
“Every one of us has a child inside of us who is still wanting what we craved when we were little,” says Cummings. “Some of us want to be held. Some of us are afraid you will leave and never return. Some of us are still angry.”
What to do about it
“Inner child” wounds often run deep, so it’s important to be patient with yourself and your partner.
“Communication, vulnerability, and responding rather than reacting is key,” says Donna Novak, PsyD, of Simi Psychological Group in Simi Valley, California. “Making sure you have [trusted folks] to talk to outside your relationship really helps as well.”
When negative self-talk arises, you may wish to use more open-ended language in responses — especially during discussions about your relationship with your partner. This may look like:
- trading your “buts” for “ands” as a way to stop discounting yourself
- adding “yet” to things you’ve yet to accomplish, making them goals rather than shortcomings
- remembering that a “perfect relationship” doesn’t exist
A fear of abandonment is often associated with childhood experiences.
Cummings says that abandonment is a common root of issues with her clients and often leads to partners making moves based on what has yet to occur, almost as a preemptive defense mechanism.
Like other experts, Keil says that a fear of abandonment is related to attachment style, which may manifest as anxiety.
“Learning both yours and the other person’s ‘love maps‘ and attachment styles can help you to co-create a way to work with each other’s vulnerabilities, rather than to act blindly or exploit them,” Keil says.
What to do about it
Attachment work may occur through self-examination, often with the help of a therapist.
Keil says that for anything to change, we have to be willing to move past the discomfort and look within rather than simply resorting to pointing the finger at everyone else.
“If you find yourself externalizing the problems in your relationships, this is a red flag,” he suggests. “Moving from statements like ‘I just keep finding the wrong people’ to ‘I wonder why I am drawn to this type of a person’ is key.”
A fear of rejection may stem from an aversion to loneliness or be connected to fears of inadequacy or abandonment.
“People fear they will not be accepted or are good enough for someone,” Novak says. “In response, due to many deeper subconscious habits, we tend to push away people and consequently set ourselves up for failure. Oftentimes, this revolves around responding with reactivity and defensiveness rather than vulnerability and authenticity.”
What to do about it
Research shows that feelings of fear may resemble feelings of physical pain. Similar to pain, we aim to avoid fear whenever possible.
“It’s normal for people to fear being rejected given that this fear has its roots in our very primitive need to feel safe and accepted,” Manly says. “That said, it’s important to work throughthe fear of being rejected to ensure that this fear does not take over a partner or the relationship.”
According to Manly, working through the fear may include:
- acknowledging that fear is present
- taking time to think about what’s at the root of fear (what are you really afraid of?)
- talking through your feelings (maybe with a mental health professional and then your partner, or with your partner) under the guidance of a relationship counselor
- taking a moment before responding (are you reacting out of defense or protection?)
If your partner seems fearful, it’s helpful to reassure them that you’re empathetic to their concerns. You may wish to remind them that your relationship is different from their past experiences.
Here are a few ways to support your partner when their relationship fears arise.
Challenges are common
Because each person within a relationship has their own set of lived experiences that fuel different types of fear, challenges may be inevitable.
The goal isn’t to eliminate the presence of fears but to be aware of their origins and intentional about addressing them in the moment.
Active listening is key
Frayn says that effective communication needs to be two-sided.
What you say is just as important as howyou say it — and what’s being said is just as important as how well you’re listening.
“The more that you and your partner can hold space for each other’s emotions without judgment, the safer, more open, and more connected both partners are going to feel,” Frayn says.
In practicing active listening with your partner, you can learn more about them and gain deeper insight into why they feel the way they do.
“It helps if you can learn about your partner’s upbringing,” Cummings says. “What was it like? Did they have any fears? What did they want that they did not get? When there is an argument, you will often hear some of these childhood fears emerge.”
Once you and your partner have identified what you need to work on, you may start to figure out how to work together, both collectively and individually. Here are a few important steps to consider.
Don’t ignore the issue
“Our innermost fears do not ‘go away’ on their own,” Manly says. “We must address our fears consciously and patiently in order to get to the root issues. Healthy relationships give us the opportunityto work through our fears in safe, healing, and bonding ways.”
According to Manly, once you move through your fears, you can form healthy, safe relationships that bring you joy and fulfillment.
“If we don’t face and work through our fears, the unresolved issues will fester and haunt us in myriad ways,” she adds.
Notice any patterns
Cummings says that it’s helpful to map out commonalities within all of your relationships — not just the romantic ones.
Looking at the different dynamics between family members, friends, and coworkers may reveal the root cause(s) of conflict for both partners.
“When you are able to take this kind of data and show a pattern of destructive thoughts and behaviors to the client, they often are shocked and surprised to see that they continue to have the same thought pattern and draw the same negative conclusions and consequences,” Cummings explains.
Take advantage of resources
Experts agree that both individual and relationship counseling may be useful for addressing relationship fears. You may also wish to educate yourself with relationship-focused resources.
“Through personal growth and self-awareness, you are able to learn about the deeper parts of yourself and why you do the things you do,” Novak says. “This can be done from a variety of methods including self-growth books, podcasts, and therapy.”
Remember that the work is ongoing
Tackling fear isn’t something that can be done in a day. Keep in mind that if you or your partner are in the process of healing, the journey is nonlinear and may take time.
“Honesty, respect, communication, kindness, empathy, and consistency are the six top factors required for creating safety within a relationship,” Manly says. “These factors must be put into daily action within the relationship.”
The work is worth it
Despite the tough moments, if you and your partner are committed to working through your fears together, the end result is a stronger, more communicative relationship. As a bonus, you’ll each gain deeper insight into yourselves, too.
Relationship experts agree that communication serves as one of the most important ways to tackle any fears about your relationship.
“Your partner will feel heard because they will feel like you know them, you know their triggers, and together you are going to build a healthier relationship for both of you,” says Cummings.
Although there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for success, try to remember that working on yourselves and your relationship will build reassurance and strengthen your bond.
Remember, not all relationships are built to last. But healing from a breakup and learning from what happened may inspire personal growth and change to help you face your fears in future relationships.