Is Fear Unwittingly Sabotaging Your Relationship?

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How to move past it and experience love’s full potential

It’s no secret. Relationships can be messy, even ugly at times. So much so that once-adoring partners can wonder if they’re actually meant to be together.

Sound familiar?

Paige Marrs, PhD, and Don Marrs, relationship experts and co-authors of Grabbing Lightning: The Messy Quest for an Extraordinary Love, suggest you step back and examine whether fear might be unwittingly sabotaging your relationship.

The topic of love is one we know quite a bit about. Not only did we just celebrate our 33rd anniversary, our professional practice is devoted to helping people achieve the uncommon experience of extraordinary love — a love that continues to deepen and grow rather than fade or stagnate. 

Having a relationship that fulfills and exceeds your dreams requires a more fine-tuned understanding of the connection between relationships and fear. 

Here are three tips and a pitfall alert for building such a rapport: 

Tip # 1 — Get to know the difference between healthy fear and the fear that derails your relationship. 

Ahealthy fear is one that helps you avoid physical harm. For example, it’s that split second, hardwired impulse to leap away from a coiled rattlesnake. Trouble is… that same fear system can’t discern the difference between a truly dangerous snake and a painful misunderstanding in your relationship.

For example: Let’s say that you had an unresolved argument with your loved one in the morning, and when he or she gets home, you hear the front door slam, then heavy steps down the hallway, and then the slamming of the bedroom door. The anger and hurt from that morning’s conflict rush back in, triggering a fear reaction. Your stomach tightens, your heart races, and your critical mind prepares to either resume the battle or hide from it — even though you recognize that neither choice leads back to love.

Tip # 2 — Get to know the antidote to fear’s way of sabotaging your relationship.

Those instinctual defensive reactions — the knot in your stomach, dryness in your mouth, angry thoughts racing through your mind — are clear signs that your body’s fear system is engaged. 

This is a perfectly natural and useful reaction in the face of a life-endangering threat. But it’s not so useful when the perceived threat is painful disconnect between you and the person you love. Thankfully, when it comes to relationship challenges, choosing a better response is a very real option. And accessing a better option is simpler than you might think.

The first step is learning to recognize your fear system’s favorite ways of trying to keep you safe when the perceived threat is relationship trouble. The challenge is that almost none of them fit our usual definitions of fear. For instance, fear commonly masquerades as subtle jabs, bursts of anger, detailed criticisms, pouting, going silent, walking out of the room, changing the subject, making demands instead of listening, pretending things are okay when they’re not. On and on, we start to see that the human fear system can show up in almost any disguise.

The good news is that the simple act of consciously recognizing fear in action initiates a much needed inner shift — one that gives you access to your capacity to make choices that amplify love instead of sabotaging it.

Tip #3 — Be brave enough to use your own inner resources to restore love — even when your partner doesn’t seem ready.

Here’s more good news. It takes just one of you to turn things around. 

Imagine yourself in the door-slamming example above, but this time, when you notice yourself tighten, you say to yourself: “Oh, I get it, these reactions mean that my fear system thinks I’m in real danger, so it’s preparing my body to fight or flee.” And then next thought might be: “Sure, this is painful, but I’m not in mortal danger here.” 

With that self-talk, your brain begins to calm your body, and this allows your sense of care, compassion, and empathy to return. And with that, your mind will naturally start reaching for productive ways to approach the challenge.

Pitfall Alert — In this new-found awareness, you might feel motivated to talk to your beloved right away about how to resolve the problem. The intention is right — it comes from wanting to restore your loving connection — but the sequence is backwards and often restarts the argument. 

You’ll get far better results if you start by finding a way to restore your loving connection, and then, when your hearts are open to each other and you’re thinking more clearly, sit together to creatively resolve the problem.

Don and Paige, who have been married for over 30 years, devote their professional practice to helping people achieve an uncommon sense of extraordinary love — and how to deepen and expand that experience over time. This, they explain, requires a more fine-tuned, insightful understanding of fear’s role in ruining what could otherwise be a beautiful relationship.

To learn more about Paige and Don Marrs’ approach to relationships, check out their new book: Grabbing Lightning: The Messy Quest for an Extraordinary Love. VIsit them atThe Love Conversation and on Facebook.