Features ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Learn to look at fear

Posted on November 8, 2007 by Sonoma Valley Sun

Guest Columnist

Last week I began to explore how fear drives people into a fight or flight response, and how that leads to conflict within marriage. At a very primitive level we all have a fear of being alone, of being abandoned by those we depend on for love and safety. A major aspect of growing into a mature human being is learning to feel okay on our own. The sense of being both physically and emotionally independent is something we work hard to achieve. When we get married, we have the opportunity to move beyond independence into inter-dependence, this is a state in which two independent people choose to form a partnership and work together for the betterment of both. However, most relationships tend towards co-dependence, which is when two people who feel afraid of being alone, neither of whom has achieved independence, cling together in hopes of increasing their survival chances. Co-dependence as opposed to inter-dependence is the difference between two scared children holding on to each other for safety, and two mature people choosing to be together in order to create something that no individual can create. However, part of what is so confusing for many couples is that both conditions are commonly found in the same marriage.
We are complex, multi-layered creatures. Our emotions, thoughts, and reactions are constantly shifting. As we grow and mature, it is not that we leave our earlier, more instinctual reactions behind, but rather that we learn how to be responsible for our different levels of experience. A child feels an emotion and must immediately express it. An adult can perceive whether expressing the emotion now will actually serve his/her larger purpose, and how to express their feelings responsibly. It is not that the emotion is denied or suppressed; it is that as responsible adults we can choose an appropriate place and manner in which to express ourselves. Except when we can’t.
Humans, when frightened, have a tendency to resort to very primal or childish behavior. When our partner does something that triggers our fears of abandonment, we are likely to revert to flight or flight behaviors. Even though our fear is of losing our partner, the fight or flight response will most likely be directed at that partner. We will fight with, or withdraw from, our spouse in a misguided reaction to our fear of losing them. In fighting we hope to gain control of our spouse; in withdrawing we attempt to shield ourselves from the pain of being the one who gets left. We wind up creating exactly the loss we are afraid of because we are unwilling to feel our fear.
The willingness to feel our fear, to embrace and explore it, to discover its underlying roots, its illusions and realities, this is one of the most important stances that we can take to create harmony and closeness in our relationships. When we feel anger, there is always fear underneath. When we feel the need to defend ourselves from our partner, fear is the driving force. If we can allow we to stay with and feel that fear, rather that retreat into fight or flight, and then tell our partner about the fear, most fights will be avoided or ended quickly.
Learning to look at our fear, rather than turning to anger, is a skill that must be learned and practiced over time. We learn to do so by working our way back from anger towards our fear. Each time you get angry, stop and ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” Then express your fear rather than your anger. While the basic technique is very simple, it is difficult to master. However, each time you make the choice it gets easier. Stick with it. Fear is scary and therefore hard to confront, but the rewards of getting beneath your anger, and of being more authentic with your partner, are great and long-lasting.

Dr. Jeffrey Low has been a therapist since 1978. He is the founder of The Marriage Path workshops. He works privately with individuals and couples in Glen Ellen, California.

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