Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Marital Trick…or Treat? Turn Your Scare-age into a Marriage by Understanding Your Fears

scared couple

As a college freshman, I have a very vivid memory of returning to my dorm room one evening by way of the elevator.  As I exited, I immediately startled, shrieked, and jumped as a tiny black object hanging from invisible thread brushed against my face.  Heart racing, I surveyed my surroundings and noticed a couple of fellow co-eds seated cross-legged against the wall facing the elevator, munching on popcorn.  I realized that they had rigged up a small and very real-looking fake spider to a piece of fishing line strategically so that as unsuspecting victims stepped onto the hall floor, they would be hit in the face with the 8-legged creature.  It was an arachnophobic’s  nightmare.  When I calmed down, I asked, “So, is this tonight’s entertainment?”  After they nodded, shoveling fistfuls of popcorn into their mouths, I continued, “OK, so how was my reaction on a scale of 1 to 10?”  They laughed, “A ten.  Definitely the best so far tonight!”

They had tapped in to one of my greatest fears: Spiders.  Although I technically don’t have arachnophobia, spiders are to me as rats were to Winston Smith, the character in George Orwell’s classic political satire, 1984, which was my required reading in a political science class at USC in….1984.  I don’t remember a lot of details about the book, but I remember the rats, and I remember that I realized how much power someone could exercise over someone else if they truly knew their greatest fear.  (For those who don’t know what 1984 is and haven’t stopped reading yet, it’s basically a book about how the government, “Big Brother,” has surveillance everywhere, so they know everything about everyone and can use that information to control them—largely through their fears).

George Orwell understood that human beings have a lot of behavioral reactivity to their fears.  I recall that spider memory so well because it induced a state of deep fear and panic, though brief.  If we can remember scary, threatening events, we can prevent future pain for ourselves.  We are built that way.  It’s great for protecting us, but can diminish future risk-taking.

This appears in couples therapy over and over.  Couples have been so wounded or disconnected that they have fears about the relationship which maintain the disconnection, because to risk sharing the fears would be too risky.  Sometimes people use different names for fear: anxious, worried, panicky, desperate, and even “angry,” which often hides fear.  No matter the semantics, activated fear drives behavior in relationships that matter the most.

Here are some of the common fears that show up frequently.  They are related with some subtle differences:

  1. Fear of rejection.  Social rejection is incredibly painful, and if it is coming from the person you care about the most, it is that much more painful.  This is the person that you are supposed to be able to count on.  Rejection in marriages can take form in a number of ways.  It is commonly expressed through criticism or stonewalling.  It absolutely prevents partners from wanting to engage for fear of being hurt.
  2. Fear of abandonment. I realize that abandonment is a strong word, but the fear is strong because it is related to losing the relationship entirely, which is grief and pain.  That’s often why clients refer to the “D word,” (divorce) as a “bombshell,” or some other catastrophic metaphor, representing ultimate destruction of the relationship.  Nevertheless, when partners sense that they might ultimately lose the relationship, they act in desperate and panicky ways to preserve it.  From a relationships pursuer’s perspective, this means trying to get the other partner’s attention to improve the relationship quality (often because they are lonely and can feel themselves burning out).  From a relationship distancer’s perspective, this means trying to keep the emotional temperature of the relationship steady so that things don’t spiral out of control and create conflict and potential disconnection.  Distancers (often the male partners) will tell me over and over that, “If she’s upset and I say nothing, she will eventually give up and go away, but if I say the wrong thing, it might make things worse.”  In this regard, in the moment, it feels to them like they are actually saving the relationship by not risking saying the “wrong thing.”  This makes no sense to pursuers, who don’t understand how a relationship can ever get fixed by saying nothing.  In contrast, they are the ones who usually bring up the problems because they are trying to fix things to preserve the relationship.
  3. Fear of never being accepted. When partners try to engage and their efforts are rebuffed or criticized, they feel like, “It’s never going to be enough,” and because of the painful rejection of their efforts, they give up and withdraw further.  I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to appreciate a spouse’s attempts to improve, even if they are clumsy.  People must accept their partners as flawed.  Encouragement breeds more willingness to engage in those partners.  Criticism kills it.  Most people don’t realize how sensitive their spouses are to their criticism.  Critical partners don’t realize the extent of damage they create because their  spouses learn to numb themselves from feeling pain. Their masks make them seem oblivious to the criticism, but they are generally hyper aware of it instead.
  4. Fear of being alone. At first glance, this might look like I’m repeating abandonment, but it’s a little different.  Abandonment implies a loss of the relationship, and in some cases, that does mean loneliness, but many people stay in low quality marriages; they have high stability, but they still feel lonely.  People feel intensely more alone when they are in close attachment relationships and can’t engage their partners than they do if they are actually single and expect to be alone.  I often say, “It is more alone to be married and alone than alone and alone.”  This is why lonely pursuers who feel like they can’t reach their partners try so intensely to engage them, even if it means raising the volume and conflict.  It is more distressing to get no response from a partner than it is to get a reactive, angry or defensive response.
  5. Fear of not mattering. This is pretty universal, and it is also why something as simple as forgetting to get the milk on the way home can escalate into a huge fight.  When partners aren’t responsive, they feel devalued and invalidated, and get afraid that they won’t ever be important to their spouses.  Most people also want to know that they come first to their partners, which means before work, cell phones, extended family, neighbors, etc.  Most individuals have a strong expectation of being seen as special by their spouses.

When people’s attachment fears are activated, they tend to become more desperate and raise the volume, protesting the disconnection, or they withdraw, numb, and become silent and/or leave in order to bring the emotional temperature down.  If any of this sound familiar to you, then you are in the majority.

What You Can Do About It

  1. Ask yourself which of these fears describe you in your relationship.  How do you express it?  Does your partner know?  What would it be like to talk to them about it?
  2. Try to identify your partner’s fears. If your marriage isn’t too highly distressed, ask them if any of them apply to them and see what they say.  If you find out, ask how you can ease their fears.  Can you offer some type of specific reassurance to them?

Realize that to reveal our deepest fears to our spouses is akin to handing them the algorithm with which to hurt us.  One of the markers of distress in a marriage is how safe it is or is not to reveal our fears to our partners.

If you think it’s too risky to share your deepest fears, then see what you can share that isn’t quite as risky and if that’s received well, you can move down the fear ladder.

When we share our fears and are not only accepted but reassured, we build marital resilience and actually increased independence, because the marriage feels safe…which is always a treat.

Couples, Family, Holidays, Humor, marriage

Halloween, Happiness and a Holstein: A MOOving Memory

Copyright: tomwang / 123RF Stock Photo

The current trend in Psychology to study “happiness,” has resulted in consistent findings that making memories brings more enduring happiness than accumulating material possessions.  In our family, there are few holidays that evoke more lasting memories than Halloween.

I love Halloween.  However, I definitely prefer the kinder, gentler Halloween of smiling Jack-o-lanterns and friendly looking ghosts to the gruesome displays of zombies, open wounds and scenes from the dark side.  Mostly, I have enjoyed dressing my kids up in costumes and watching their excitement at being in character for the day.

Before I had so many kids, I used to sew my kids’ Halloween attire, because I thought that’s what good mothers did (I know—and I regularly thank the high heavens that I dodged the Pinterest bullet, which was non-existent in my young mother days).

One year, in a pregnancy-induced nausea fog, I managed to sew my way through my oldest son’s costume:  A stuffed chicken eggshell for him to wear over yellow, fuzzy, baby chicken-like pajamas, complete with a top half which he wore like a hat and bottom half which he wore pulled up like shorts.

The expression on my husband’s face when I showed him the costume I had sewn was priceless.  His eyes got big and he nearly shrieked, “My SON is going to be a CHICKEN?  Could you have thought of anything less masculine????!!!!”

“Why yes,” I replied, “Actually, I can in fact name many things stereotypically less masculine right now, starting with fairy princess.  Do you want me to continue the list?  Besides, he’s a baby rooster, and it doesn’t get any more masculine than that.  He’s also a riddle, as in ‘Which came first?’”

My husband rolled his eyes at me, but how could he argue with a Halloween costume which doubled as a deep philosophical question?  As we took my son trick-or-treating, the homemade chicken in an egg costume was a big hit, and my husband admits that it made for a good memory.

While I enjoyed dressing up my kids, we have never been one of those couples who goes all out on our own costumes.  We’re both too reserved and too tired for that.  The last time we had to dress up for a Halloween party, I wore a bathrobe with my hair in curlers and attached a baby doll to my leg, representing a clinging toddler, with two more baby dolls strapped to my front and back in baby carriers.  I bought my high tech husband a pocket protector, nerd glasses, an orange oxford button-up. We appeared as the “reality-based couple.”  Easy Peasy.

One year stands out, however, and it’s one of those instances in which my husband’s loss was my comedic gain (which really is a win-win if you think about it).  We got invited to a costume party a few days before Halloween.  I had only a few hours to pull costumes together in the short time I had a babysitter for our two young children. I rushed to the nearest store to try to find anything that wasn’t too complex or cost-prohibitive.  This was back in the days before large brick and mortar Halloween superstores were available in my area, and Halloween didn’t have quite the same hype that is does today, so I had far more limited options.

As I shuffled through the rack of costumes, a clearance item marked down 75% caught my attention.  It was an adult-sized costume in an XL.  Since my husband is over 6’2” and fairly broad-shouldered, I thought I hit the jackpot.   As I examined the white fabric with black splotches, for a split second, I worried that he might not want to dress up as a Holstein cow, but then I envisioned a gingham skirt hanging in my closet that looked just like it belonged to a farm girl, and decided that if I put my long hair in two braids and carried a bucket, we could go as a milk maid and a cow, and he would surely see the wisdom in my decision.  Mission accomplished.

Then, he came home from work and saw what I wanted him to wear for the party.

“You can’t be serious,” he whined at me when I presented him with my brilliant idea.  “What is it with you and farm animals?” he complained.  “What?” I answered innocently, “It’s just a cow—they’re everywhere.  It’s not like people haven’t seen a cow before—besides, that’s all the store had left in your size–now hurry and put it on because we are going to be late.”  While he reluctantly started undressing, I ran downstairs to give final instructions to the babysitter.  When I ran back up to our room, he was standing there looking bovine-ish, and I couldn’t help it.  I started to laugh.  He was not amused.  “There is no way I can go out like this,” he explained, “I look obscene.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to stifle my laughter, averting my gaze from the obvious source of his discontent.  He gestured toward the large, disturbingly realistic looking polymer udder protruding from his lower abdominal region and explained, “Just look at this!  It looks inappropriate.”

I couldn’t help myself, “Well, you could be an exhibitionistic cow, which is way more interesting than just a cow.”  He wasn’t amused, and suddenly narrowed his eyes at me, fixing me with an icy stare.  “Wait.  Where’s your costume?” he demanded.   “I’m wearing it,” I answered quickly, “Now come on, let’s go.”  I was hoping he would drop it and just follow, but the reptilian gaze continued, “So…I’m going…looking like…this….and you’re going…looking…normal,” he said slowly, as if English was my second language.

“No way,” I said, “I look like I just walked out of an episode of Little House on the Prairie.  Plus how often have you seen my hair in braids?  And look—when have I ever left the house with a galvanized accessory for a purse?” I tried to be convincing as I swung my bucket toward him.  “Now come on, let’s go, and stop staring at me like that.  I keep expecting your tongue to dart out and catch a bug.”

He sighed heavily for the first of many times that evening, but followed along begrudgingly.

On our way to the party, I apologized for not having the foresight to realize what a focal point the udder was going to be, but tried to be optimistic.  “I really don’t think anyone will notice.  They’ll all be so busy with conversation and everything.  You’ll be fine.”  I was also wondering how with my Southern California street smart public school background I had missed any torrid implications of dressing us up like a milk maid and a cow.  I was hoping that my fellow Utahns wouldn’t notice.

We walked into the party a little bit late, and the guests were sitting around in a circle, chatting warmly.  I kid you not when I say that palpable silence descended upon the room as we walked in.  In other words, EVERYONE noticed the udder.  In fact, the udder was now center stage.  As my husband and I greeted everyone and sat down, the man sitting near my husband burst out, “Don’t aim those things at me,” and laughter erupted, bouncing off the walls.  I tried to lighten his darkening mood.  “Can you MOOve over?” I asked, and then whispered, “You’re a MOOvement–A costume that is also a pun.  How cool is that?”  He rolled his eyes at me and sighed.  Again.

I do believe that as the evening wore on and we engaged in a variety of games and activities, there were moments my husband had enough fun that he forgot for a moment that he was dressed as a female cow.  However, as soon as we walked into our bedroom that evening, he made a point of saying, “Take a good look, because this is the last time you are ever going to see me in this costume again.  That was humiliating.”

I replied, “But that was such a MOOving experience…you actually look LITERALLY udderly ridiculous,” and laughed.  He didn’t, so I went on, “I understand, honey.  The next time I get a cow costume, I will get the one for two people and I will even be the back end if you want.”  He made his position clear, “No more cow costumes.”

True to his word, he absolutely refused to ever put the costume on again, and I ended up giving it away to a friend.  However, the costume was the gift that kept on giving, because now every time we are out together and see anything cow-related, I can say, “What does that remind you of?” and we dissolve into laughter, although I admittedly laugh a little harder.

You cannot just go to the store and buy memories like these, people.  It takes special talent to be clueless enough to create something so “a-moo-sing.”  Sometimes our best memories are the mishaps we make as we stumble along and bump into each other in our relationships.  Fortunately, my husband is a good sport.  So, do you think he’ll like the Holstein-print sheets I got him for our bed for Christmas?  Animal prints are neutral, after all!