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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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?
- 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.