How has fear affected you in your life? Have you ever thought about all the things you wish you had done or said? What stopped you? Being afraid to do or not do things is common. This can lead to a lot of resentment and anguish.
In marriage, fear has a way of distorting perceptions. Unfortunately, people make choices during moments of great fear and cause harm to intimate relationships or cause more tension. There are two parts to the fear process in relationships. First, it’s important to understand how fear works in the brain. Basically, an event from the outside world can cause the fight or flight (fear) mechanism in the brain. Once this happens, chemicals are released and over take the brain. These chemicals tell the brain that you are in danger! You are in danger and must fight against your foe or you must run away! Of course, this is very simplistic, but it does happen. This might be helpful if you were being attacked by zombies, vampires, or at battle. But this is not the case when you’re trying to communicate with another person.
So why does it feel so real? The feelings are real, but the feelings are being run by chemicals that are meant to protect your life. Do you need to be afraid of losing your life if your spouse is flirting with someone, if your spouse forgets your birthday, or if your spouse is angry with you? Though these are stressful situations, the answer is no. No, you do not need to afraid for your life. Outside of the usual frustration and sadness that these situations cause, the over whelming sense is fear. The chemicals make it feel real. That’s what they’re supposed to do. However, this is not the time to make decisions on what to do next.
Why not? The brain will not allow for a full understanding of your situation when you are drunk with fear chemicals. When the brain is flooded with such strong emotion, poor choices can be made when under the influence of fear. Fear can look like rage (pushing against something aggressively) or like withdrawal (avoiding conflict) because you feel afraid.
What can I do? What can be done is to NOT make decisions. Allow the full experience of the fear to complete its natural course. Each person is different so that looks different for each person. Once the fear sensation (anger, avoidance, rage, insecurity) has passed, which could be hours or minutes, then readdress the topic with yourself or with your partner. See if you can talk about both issues the core “scary” feelings and then the details around what you were trying to resolve. These are two different portions of the communication.
For example, the stressful nature of a simple conversation about parenting or doing the dishes can become heated. The “heat” is about core issues, fears, not about the simple tasks of parenting or doing the dishes. In the video, I discuss approval seeking through flirting…I’ll address that one later. So, the discussion around doing the dishes or parenting has heat. Clearly, there are some fear based issues going on in someone’s core persona that isn’t being discussed and is instead hidden inside the discussion of doing the dishes or parenting. It is crucial to separate the fear based perceptions from the details. Might be that your spouse doesn’t feel competent, might not be heard, won’t feel believed, etc. Ask the clarifying questions to become aware of such fears. Once you can talk about these basic fears, you may be able to reduce the tension and sway some of those beliefs. The next time you need to talk about the dishes or the kids, you might be able to stay on topic and come up with some solutions.
The other example in my video was about approval seeking. Engaging in approval seeking behaviors, like overly flirting, or having inappropriate conversations, points to evidence of avoiding core issues. This is pain killing that does not allow the brain to address the real issues. The flirting is a problem if the other spouse is feeling hurt by it and causes lack of intimacy in the marriage. The person doing the flirting also does not want to disconnect from their spouse but is participating in a behavior that has a self fulfilling prophecy of shame. In order to purposely cause discord, shaming, and approval all at once, the client feels compelled to behave this way. Fear of shame, ridicule, and being found out is the brain’s main purpose in seeking the pain killing activity of approval seeking. This is a much more complex example of how fear manages to blow up someone’s perception of a feeling or experience.
Fear IS the true mistress of marriage…all people are fearful. Being introspective about your own fears can aid in becoming a better communicator and listener. Focusing on your fears can bring to light your issues that keep you from resolution. Fear is not to be avoided, but to be danced with, understood, and not underestimated.