Ask About Fear
Put Fear Into Your Vocabulary
I became a better marriage mentor when I put fear into my vocabulary.
Honestly, I first became a better husband when I was able to recognize my fears. Our fears affect us and they affect our behavior. When I started to recognize that I was reacting to my fears, it helped me to understand my behavior.
When I was able to articulate my fears to my wife, it helped us both to deal with our misconceptions.
As a marriage mentor, it has helped me to understand a bit more about how fear motivates us. I’ve learned to talk to couples about their fears and how that might be motivating their actions. I’ve often asked if there is a bit of fear behind their emotions.
Fear Causes Us to React
Fear is considered a reaction to something that threatens your security or safety. If someone jumps out from behind a door and startles you, you naturally react to the fear. Your body reacts to the threat of physical danger.
Common reactions are fight, flight or freeze. When we feel that our safety is in danger, we tend to react in one of those ways. We act to protect ourselves.
In relationships, it may be emotional danger that we perceive. So, we may fight by criticizing and attacking. We protect ourselves by freezing or shutting down. We stonewall. We dismiss. We put others down.
Fear Can Deeply Rooted
Fears can go very deep within our souls.
We’ve talked to a number of people that have real fears.
Our childhoods can be the basis of emotional triggers that cause us to fear abandonment or rejection. Perhaps you learned that you couldn’t trust people to be there for you.
So, when your spouse does or says something that triggers that fear, you react to it by pushing them away or attacking them.
We like to help couples to understand how past fears or insecurities are now impacting their relationship.
What You Fear May Be Rational
Couples that are recovering from affairs have real trust issues. It’s natural to fear that your partner, who has been unfaithful in the past, will be unfaithful again in the future.
Doesn’t that make sense? That fear is rational.
A common fear is that nothing will ever change. If your spouse is doing something to hurt you and they haven’t worked at changing it, then it is natural to fear that it won’t change. Addressing the fear may include demonstrating your willingness to change.
Rebuilding trust is all about proving that you are trustworthy. Trust can be restored by demonstrating your trustworthiness over and over again. That can address the fear.
What You Fear May NOT Be Rational
Just because you were hurt in the past by someone else doesn’t mean that your spouse will hurt you in the same way. Emotionally, it easy to get caught up in a fear that may not be rational.
Fear can cause you to look for evidence of something that isn’t really there. Your spouse says something and, because you fear abandonment, you interpret their statement through that lens. Suddenly, you fear they will leave you. Your fear overcomes you. You act in a way to protect yourself that isn’t building your relationship.
We were speaking with a couple that were fighting over how to parent their teenage daughter. They disagreed on her curfew and whether she could go out with friends. They couldn’t come to a solution. When we asked them what they feared, they thought about it and identified the things they fear about for their daughter: being hurt, being abused, getting pregnant, using drugs, etc. At this point, none of these things had happened. Once they were able to identify what they feared, they were able to put rules in place to protect their daughter.
Marriage Mentors: Ask About Fear
My wife and I were mentoring Cheryl and Tony. They had repeated fights and disagreements.
We asked them to describe one of their recent fights. Tony described how he was angry that Cheryl wasn’t helping about the house. When he asked (not very kindly) Cheryl to help, Cheryl just exploded.
We asked, “Cheryl, it sounds like that triggered you in some way. Is there any underlying fear to your reaction?”
It was like a light bulb went on in Cheryl’s head. She was afraid that her marriage wasn’t going to work. When Tony asked her to clean, she heard that he doesn’t value me and he wants a divorce.
We asked her about that and she explained that her parents had gotten a divorce when she was young. She was afraid that she was repeating her parent’s mistakes. Whenever Tony would get angry, it would trigger her fear. So, she would first counter attack and then distance herself from Tony. Tony couldn’t figure it out. He thought that she was over reacting.
Once Cheryl was able to recognize that her reaction was based on fear, she explained it to Tony. Tony was very understanding. He realized that Cheryl needed some reassurance. Cheryl expressed that it would help if he would just say, “I’m angry at what you did, but I still want you.”
That simple phrase helped them to work through their issues.
I don’t know if any of this would have happened if we hadn’t asked Cheryl about her fears.
Ask couples about their underlying fears.
Tips for Marriage Mentors:
- Validate the Fear – Helping a person to recognize the fear can be a first step in dealing with it.
- Is What You Fear Rational? – In Cheryl’s case, Tony wasn’t about to divorce her. The fear wasn’t real.
- Rebuild Trust – If the fear is based on actual events, like something that would break trust, then working on trust building may address the fear.
- Refer in Case of Trauma – If there is past trauma, then current events can bring all of those emotions that were once experienced back to the surface. Past physical or sexual abuse, violence, emotional abuse, neglect or even serious accidents or illnesses can cause trauma. If this is the case, encourage the person to see a mental health professional.