When you hesitate and find yourself stopping just before sharing something very personal with your spouse, how do you make sense of that? Shouldn’t we be able to share everything with our soul mate?
Fear of Intimacy, Part 1
We all bring some fears to our relationship. Usually, one or more of the six fears of intimacy we’re going to talk about for the next few weeks. So, if you really like digging deep into your stuff, you’ll find this mini-series fascinating!
Before we dive right in, let’s think about fear for a few moments. How do we deal with fear? Usually, we think that avoiding fear takes us away from that fear. But that doesn’t work!
Fear is a valid, normal response in the human body and so avoiding or ignoring fear is invalidating what is real and what is normal. When we acknowledge our fear, talk about our fear, and share our fear then we actually end up disempowering it.
Our fear of fear is often stronger than our fear!
Fear Impedes Intimacy
Descutner and Thelen (1991) found that fear of intimacy is negatively related to comfort with emotional closeness and relationship satisfaction(as my fear of intimacy goes up, my comfort with emotional closeness and my relationship satisfaction goes down) and positively related to loneliness and trait anxiety (as the fear of intimacy goes up, loneliness and trait anxiety increases).
When we move closer to our fear through recognizing, acknowledging and naming it then we actually begin to see that the fear (which we feared) is not as big, nor as powerful, nor as overwhelming as we thought.
This reality is underlined in a brilliant Bible verse in Proverbs 29:25: “The fear of man lays a snare”. So often our fear of others, or our own fears, actually snare us – trap us. In the marriage context, fears of intimacy hold us back (and even trap us) from experiencing deeper intimacy.
Caleb had a funny personal story as a good example of the power of subconscious fear and the greater power of naming it. It’s not in the marriage context at all, but it really illustrates how identifying fear and moving towards it totally takes its power away:
For years of my life (including adult years), I had this recurring nightmare of finding myself suddenly aware that I was out in public with no pants on. I was always a a little boy in these dreams and I awoke from them with incredible feelings of shame.
Well, sometime in the mid 2000’s, I remembered that in Grade 3 I was in a brand new school, and it was my first year there, and I was late coming out of the change room for gym class. I was in rush, and I had gone in and got changed as quick as I could. I ran out in to the gymnasium , in front of my whole class… in my gym shirt, runners, and tighty-whitey’s! The whole class laughed at me. There’s enough shame associated with that memory that I remember it not from my perspective, but as if I was watching myself do this (in the psych world we call this a dissociation).
I forgot about that for years, but would regularly have these nightmares at least a few times a year. When I remembered the memory and shared it with Verlynda and some friends, I stopped having the dream. Talking about it undermined the power of that fear. Again: naming it and telling a few people I trusted about it completely disempowered this deeper subconscious mini-trauma and took the nightmares away.
A funny story, but definitely shows the difference in results between avoiding our fears and facing them!
The following six fears (2 this week, more to follow) are based on the research of Dr. Gerald Weeks, Chair of the Department of Counseling at the University of Nevada, and Dr. Stephen Treat, Director and CEO of the Penn Council for Relationship and an Instructor in Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia.
Fear #1 – Fear of Exposure
When we first start dating, we’re just a couple of plasticky Facebook profiles. We’re not really plastic, but our facades are. With time we become more self-disclosing and begin to take turns risking greater disclosure as trust builds.
But what happens if you think that exposing yourself will be too painful? What if you have low self-worth or self-esteem and don’t want your spouse to know? You’ll pretend to feel good about yourself. A gap begins to develop between how you feel on the inside (horrible, afraid) and how you act which leads to you seeing yourself as an imposter. You begin to think, “If you really knew me, you would not like me or love me because I do not like or love myself.”
If you grew up in a family where love was contingent on performance and not the person (I love you if you do this, rather than I love you regardless) this leaves your sense of self-worth under-developed and creates a fear of exposure.
If I’m only loved for doing well, or what I can do – and not for myself – it’s never enough.
To protect myself from losing my spouse’s love, I (as a person with a fear of exposure) will hide my negative and unpleasant feelings and expect my spouse to do the same.
Think of how powerful it would be to expose your darkest secrets and to experience empathy and love in return. Not every spouse can give this when they first come into a relationship, but it can be learned and this can be profoundly healing. It would just undermine all the fears.
Moving towards your fear instead of away from it is exactly the opposite of what you want to do, but it’s the best thing for you.
Fear #2 – Fear of Dependency
If you believe you need to be completely self-sufficient and independent, this may be you! In marriage, it often looks like emotional distance or aloofness and carries the thought, “I can get along fine without you…but admittedly, there are some financial or social conveniences to being married.”
Or it may be manifested in a person who marries someone very dependent and needy. Then everything will revolve around this needy person and I don’t have to look at my own issues because he/she needs so much from me.
Usually, this fear comes from values taught by our fathers to us during childhood and mostly affects husbands. Maxims like: “I am a self-made man. I rely on nobody but myself”. When fathers push children to independence without offering guidance or support, a fear of dependency is created.
Our culture reinforces this as well. It is not considered manly to say, “I need a hug” or “I’ve had a hard day, can you just hold me please?” But if a couple can express needs in a healthy way, it will lead to a much deeper closeness and connection.
Move toward it! Own that you have this fear of dependency if it is real for you and then share it with your spouse. It’ll be harder especially for guys but use this podcast/article as an excuse. Try, “Hey wife, I was listening to the OYF podcast and they were talking about the fear of dependency and it was like they were talking about me!”
Name it, talk about it, have those conversations. If you’re feeling brave, invite your spouse to call you out on it (gently) when she sees it in the future. “You’ve kind of gone into self-made mode again, hubby…”
What you’re most afraid of will make you stronger.
Fear: Final Thoughts for Today
Reading this article, you ay have become aware of how some of your fears actually hold you back from your spouse. Holding back is the exact opposite of what is required to overcome these fears.
God wired the human mind and heart so that love could heal fear. We see this in a very insightful scripture passage, 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear”. That’s a beautiful reminder that love displaces fear. This comes in our relationships when we reach out to our spouse and hold them when they give voice to their fears. But even within ourselves, when we show compassion to our own fear that undermines the power of that fear.
Your homework today is to share this article with your spouse and then talk about the fears you experience!
From Anonymous: “They” say that your 7th year of marriage is the hardest? Why? Is that true? If so, how do couples get through it?