Starting at midlife and accelerating thereafter, time seems to go by in a blur—and many of us feel an increased pressure to bring our relationship lives into harmony before it all runs out. Unfortunately, people typically respond to this pressure by trying harder to do more of what already isn’t working. We believe, however, that the roots of chronic relationship problems—the problems that recycle without getting resolved—are usually hidden from both people in the relationship.
Most often the root of our problems is fear. In fear, your partner looks like the enemy, you must defend yourself from the perceived threat, and you don’t see any possibility for change. But here’s the really good news: You can learn to shift from fear to flow quickly, easily, and reliably. In flow, you can choose new responses that deepen your intimacy. In flow, your partner becomes your ally and your companion on the path. In flow, solutions abound!
We don’t recognize fear because it fills the invisible fishbowl that most of us have been swimming in unconsciously for decades. It gradually permeates the moments of life, making us fear-logged and bogged down. Unnoticed fear reactions that distance us from our mates, such as cringing or holding our breath, gradually fade from awareness, leaving only the repetitive startles, freezes, faints, and fights echoing through the day. A lifted eyebrow, a certain tone of voice, the newspaper rattling, or the quick controlling reach create a coating of fear that gradually dulls presence and dampens creative connections.
In our culture, people don’t typically name fear outright. Instead, we call it anxiety or stress. Stress is simply long-term, habituated fear coursing through your nerves, muscles, blood, and organs. There are lots of statistics about destructive results of stress, and they usually point to long-held fear.Your muscles tense, and over time this reaction can become chronic. You produce more blood flow to your muscles, up to 300 percent more, depriving skin and organs of the nutrients they need for ongoing health.
Your adrenal system secretes increased amounts of cortisol, which cues your liver to produce more glucose, the blood sugar that feeds more fear responses. A host of cascading effects leaves you more at risk for cardiovascular and respiratory issues, including asthma and heart attacks.
As one of our clients said, “Fear makes you stupid.” Chronic anxiety can adversely affect the areas of the brain that control long- and short-term memory, as well as constantly activating your nervous system. Pervasive and habituated fear fuels prejudice, promotes labeling, and leads you to box your partner into a Not-Like-Me package you try to control or fix. When you lose connection through fear, you are much more likely to see the other as the source of what’s wrong and drop into the conflict pit to duke it out.
This leads to another big problem with fear in close relationships. We cannot talk ourselves out of fear. And our partners have even less success in telling us, “There’s nothing to be scared of—just relax.” When you are scared, you don’t have access to your logical brain. Period. Think of the gates that drop with a loud boom in a security lockdown— that’s your brain in fear.
If you look back at any destructive relationship interaction you’ve experienced, you’ll find fear at the root. Unacknowledged, unexpressed fear runs conflict, power struggles, miscommunication, broken promises, and discarded dreams.