Why do we fight with our partners? I’m not referring to small arguments that resolve reasonably quickly with a compromise. I am talking about fights that blow like a hurricane into a peaceful day and leave us broken, exhausted, and confused as we wonder, what just happened?
These consuming and crazy-making fights are generally fueled by unspoken and unnamed fears. Because most of us do not like feeling scared, we have spent years developing strategies to try to control our fear by squashing it or avoiding it. The problem is, fear does not like being forced out of town. It may ride away for a while, but it will come back, with its posse, armed and ready to force us to hear it and take it seriously.
It is often in a marriage or committed intimate relationship that our fear comes riding back into town, ready to avenge us for casting it out. We have treated fear as the enemy, so it has gone into fighting mode. In fighting mode, fear is ruthless.
In fighting mode, fear attacks by pulling us into a dark and catastrophic drama where we become so panicked and terrified that we can’t ignore the fear any longer. For example, perhaps a woman has a deep fear about being isolated and lonely. When this fear hits her periodically, she keeps it inside, trying to push it away. Eventually, the fear fights back, spinning a tragic story that features her husband as the ‘losing interest’ spouse who will eventually leave. Her mind, now controlled by fear, gathers bits and pieces of information that confirm and support this story.
Now, perhaps the relationship does need some work. Perhaps her husband has been distracted and has not been attending to the relationship. Perhaps her husband’s energy is unavailable because he is being attacked by his own fears. As in any relationship, these thorny issues of ‘give and take’ must continually be addressed and worked out.
Once fear has gone into attack mode, however, and the tragic story has been spun, there is no way to deal with these issues in a productive manner. Instead of a respectful and solution-focused conversation, the husband is now locked into the bad guy role. As a result, he may feel so trapped, frustrated and misunderstood that he is likely to lash out or run away from any discussion. This just confirms that he is the villain.
To further intensify the drama, perhaps the woman is now the villain in the partner’s fear-driven storyline. He is now seeing the woman as the demanding and ‘never satisfied’ demon in the story that was created by his underlying fear of ‘not being good enough.’ Now stuck in the demon role, the woman feels so trapped, misunderstood, and frustrated that her own story reaches a fevered pitch of terror. The relationship hangs on the edge of a cliff, with imminent doom and total destruction.
Coping with Fear in Your Relationship
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is another way to deal with fear:
1. Name the underlying fear. Some examples are: Fear of falling apart, fear of rejection, fear of not being understood, fear of being judged, fear of being alone, fear of loss, fear of change, fear of aging, fear of being overwhelmed, fear of your needs being ignored, fear of boredom, fear of lack of control, fear of failure, and fear of helplessness.
2. Tell your partner that you have some fear arising inside of you, and share those fears. Own your fears instead of blaming your partner. For example, say ‘I am feeling afraid of a loss of control of our finances’ instead of ‘You always have to be the boss with our money.’
3. Listen to your partner’s fears. Do not try to minimize, negate or ‘fix’ the fears. Do not try to bully your partner’s fear into submission. Do not belittle, humiliate, shame, and threaten the fear. Do not make snide remarks such as ‘Oh, you are always afraid of something,’ or ‘Why can’t you just relax and be happy for once?’ By trying to run the fear out of town, this technique to try to avoid a difficult conversation will backfire and leave you with a bigger mess.
4. Recognize that your partner’s fears are likely to trigger your own fears. For example, if your partner voices a fear of boredom, you may interpret this to mean that he or she is judging you as not being interesting enough, and you may feel a deep fear of rejection. It is important that you do not take over the whole discussion with your reaction-fear, and leave no space for your partner’s fear. On the other hand, it is also important that you make some room for your own fear, letting your partner know how you feel.
5. Focus on the fear and do not get detoured into specific details of the relationship. For example, don’t let ‘I feel fear of loss of control of our finances’ turn into ‘Why can’t you stop spending money on golf?’ Plan to discuss concrete and practical relationship issues at another time, when fear is not running the show. (And then stick to that plan!)
6. Contain the fears within boundaries. Recognize that these ‘fear’ talks will occur regularly throughout the course of the relationship, but keep each discussion within a reasonable time limit, such as 10 to 20 minutes. Kindly support each other to move on and enjoy life once the fears have been named and heard. Don’t set the boundary with anger and bullying by saying things like ‘Aren’t we done with this yet? Can’t you just let it go already?’ If one person is not done processing, gently but firmly plan for another time to talk the next day.
No one is very good at this. It goes against our lifelong patterns that have been set up to push fear away. Even if we move slowly in this direction, however, it can lead to a triumph of love over the destructive potential of fear, and make the difference between a relationship living or dying. That is not to say that love and acceptance transforms fear into rainbows and butterflies. Even within the arms of love, fear is still raw, painful, and deeply unsettling. But when fear becomes an accepted ‘citizen’ in the relationship, it is no longer the enemy. It’s just the colicky baby that needs your time and attention once in a while.