Many women unknowingly carry a subtle undercurrent of anxiety. It often lingers beneath the surface, undetected, until it spills into the fabric of everyday life, making it impossible to ignore.
Married women in midlife dealing with relationship challenges may experience heightened anxiety. This is particularly true when compounded by the complexities of menopause, the demands of motherhood, navigating relationships with adolescent or adult children, managing careers, and grappling with a pervasive sense of lost identity. The latter often occurs after being in a long-term relationship.
The root of anxiety is fear, an inherent part of life.
In this blog, we will delve into the intricacies of fear within relationships, examining its significant impact on various aspects such as communication, decision-making about the relationship’s future, and overall relationship dynamics.
Additionally, we’ll examine how professional support, such as couples therapy, can help make our relationships healthier and more robust.
Unpacking fear in relationships
Relationships, like different aspects of our lives, experience highs and lows. The beginning is often filled with excitement and fulfilment (the honeymoon phase), but as time goes on, reality kicks in. When couples encounter life’s challenges, it’s normal for fear and anxiety to surface.
Fear triggers anxiety, which serves as our body’s alert system, making us more aware of potential personal threats to our safety. Our early life experiences shape how our nervous system interprets these threats.
Anxiety feels bad, and it’s stressful and fatiguing. Flooded with false alarms, it’s easy to miss real threats, especially those that grow slowly over time, such as an emotional distance creeping into a marriage.
Sometimes, we might be over-attuned, missing actual threats, or overly attuned, perceiving threats that may not be as significant.
For example, you might believe your partner dislikes you. Or, after an argument, you might impulsively check if their wedding ring is still on, even without objective evidence that they want or will leave you. Equally, you might minimise signs of aggressive behaviour, abuse, or more subtle emotional distance.
Here are three ways that fear can get in the way of love, intimacy and connection:
1. Fear-based inseparability or love & connection
Part of couples therapy involves unravelling emotional triggers and understanding how our nervous systems are attuned. This process brings awareness to our somatic experience because the roots of relationship anxiety run deep.
One common manifestation of fear in couples is the anxious-avoidant dynamic. In this pattern, couples hesitate to express their thoughts and feelings, resulting in a relationship marked by only the occasional argument and apparent inseparability.
But this strong dependence leads the couple to lose parts of their individuality. They often hide differences instead of appreciating and celebrating them in their interactions. As a result, passive-aggressive behaviour can linger beneath the surface.
Couples trapped in this cycle depend on each other to manage their anxiety, making it difficult for them to spend time apart. Empathy can be rooted in anxiety rather than compassion. Beneath the surface, there is a fear of confronting their own emotions and masking deeper issues like the fear of being left alone or separation anxiety.
The couple’s dynamics centre on concealing differences instead of nurturing intimacy and openness. Authenticity becomes challenging as they grapple with differentiation, asserting their true selves while preserving individuality within the relationship. This creates a cycle where both partners are acutely attuned to each other’s discomfort, attempting to alleviate any signs of anxiety swiftly.
Paradoxically, this dynamic leads to controlling and manipulative behaviours, intensifying concerns about the security of the relationship.
2. The hushed Impact: How fear silences effective communication
So, fear and anxiety, whether acknowledged or not, significantly affect communication in relationships.
It works like a filter, causing unclear and indirect communication. When we don’t say what’s on our minds, it opens the door to interpretation and misinterpretation, blocking genuine connection and intimacy.
In everyday life, our fears of being fully open with our partner may intensify as we attempt to express our desires and explain their significance. Memories of vulnerability, resulting in hurtful experiences, resurface, often leading to self-silencing.
Sometimes, we choose silence, fearing that our thoughts aren’t valuable. We cannot express our sexual longings and so shut a part of ourselves down. However, this self-censorship and constant suppression of powerful emotions will result in frustration, loneliness, and even depressed feelings. The life half lived becomes a poignant realisation.
Attention, acceptance and affection are crucial for couples to thrive. A successful relationship allows space for exploring the fears that block open communication and the accompanying anxiety.
So, couples need to openly talk about their fears and deal with concerns about upsetting the usual way things are and triggering conflicts. It’s crucial for building intimacy.
However, the actual harm lies in our silent self-talk. In moments of communication breakdown, we may convince ourselves we are unlovable and label our desires as unreasonable. Thoughts like, ‘I’m not worth my partner’s effort,’ surface when our needs go unmet. Criticising ourselves in these situations is a form of self-abuse.
3. How fear keeps us stuck
Sometimes, it’s the feeling about the feeling that demands our attention. The fear of facing the discomfort of anxiety can trap us in unhappy and painful relationships for extended periods.
Fear becomes the primary reason for our inertia. We unconsciously choose the comfort of not feeling anxious over the potential for happiness and intimacy.
When anxiety holds us back, we may:
1. Fear hurting our partner’s feelings, prioritising them over ourselves, leading to self-neglect and an incomplete life.
2. Fear disrupting the peace, finding predictable boredom preferable to an uncertain future.
3. Leave relationships prematurely for temporary relief, avoiding the tension of conflict and distress.
Simultaneously, you might feel desperate to escape loneliness but be scared about the unknowns ahead if you act. You may not know how to navigate your existing relationship or how to exit it. Fearful thoughts often keep you stuck, and seeking professional support while attempting to make sense of countless daily thoughts can further contribute to stagnation.
Whether staying or leaving for these reasons, there’s a risk of future regrets and continued stagnation.
Cultivating assertiveness, distinct from aggression, is crucial. It involves expressing feelings, thoughts and needs clearly and directly while respecting boundaries. However, for many, this proves easier said than done.
How to manage your fears
To break the cycle of fear, it is crucial first to acknowledge its presence in our lives. One effective approach is to cultivate awareness of our emotions and learn to recognise the physical manifestations of fear in our bodies.
The next time you find yourself emotionally triggered, take a moment to pause and observe the sensations in your body. Only by becoming more acquainted with your fears can you effectively manage them, putting an end to the unconscious expectation for your partner to handle them.
Navigating a relationship rooted in fear can be challenging and emotionally taxing. The initial step involves recognising and admitting that fear plays a significant role in steering the dynamics of the relationship.
The importance of couples counselling
Couples counselling provides a valuable space to unravel the complexities of fear within relationships and foster meaningful connection and love.
Couples counselling, particularly Developmental Couples Counselling based on differentiation, aims to assist individuals in managing anxiety triggered by fear, fostering more intimate and honest conversations.
This specialised approach empowers partners to navigate challenging conversations and openly share uncomfortable truths.
Recognising and addressing fear, coupled with acquiring skills to manage emotional arousal while fostering the ability to keep open dialogue, can lead to transformative changes. This process nurtures a deeper connection and cultivates a resilient relationship.
Engaging in professional help can help you understand and manage your fears and anxiety to foster more authentic communication as you embark on a more fulfilling relationship journey.
Over To You
What role does fear play in your relationships? Do you find yourself saying nothing to keep the peace in your relationship? If you want to explore your relationship with fear and anxiety and how this might be limiting intimacy, get in touch and book a clarity session. I offer video sessions online via a secure platform.
Or call me today on 07535 864836.
Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.
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© Sandra Harewood 2024
About Sandra Soul-centred couples therapist, counsellor,r and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialises in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriages. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.