How to identify the fears blocking your relationship—and melt them away to restore wonder
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 the 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.
Here are some examples of how fear shows up in common relationship patterns:
- You criticize your mate, either out loud or in your mind.
- Your partner starts to look boring.
- You have things you withhold from your partner.
- You don’t easily share your feelings when they arise.
- You imagine that your mate is hiding things from you.
- You experience regular bursts of disdain or contempt for your partner.
- You’re not sure you really love your mate as much as you did.
- You monitor your partner’s activities and play Time Cop, Money Cop, or Sex Cop.
- You compare your mate negatively with others.
- You put a lot of time into improving your lover in some way.
Fear devolves into boring, tedious, dreary, and numbing interactions. But that’s not even the worst of it. Fear gushes through your body with adrenaline, but the rush fades quickly and fatigue sets in. Then most people escalate the conflict so they can ride the roller coaster again. Then conflict and power struggles become the norm, alternating with the despair and boredom of stressed-out bodies and repetitive arguments that go nowhere. “Here we go again” dims any possible bright horizon.
We can learn to get off this roller coaster but first we have to recognize which ride we’re on.
The 4 Flavors of Fear
Most people recognize the phrase “fight or flight” but don’t realize that fear comes in four flavors that can be blended into many combinations.
The Fear-Fight Reaction often gets mistaken for anger. Imagine making fists, jutting your chin out, and barking “Oh yeah, oh yeah!” as you thrust your body forward like a boxer. That in-your-face instant aggression most often masks fear, not anger. Fear-fight fuels blame and criticism, the reflexive attack that partners often use to defend themselves.
The Fear-Flee Reaction. In modern times the tigers you’re fleeing may take the shape of loved ones demanding time or attention, and the fear-flee reaction may look and feel as if some of your awareness stays put in your body and some of you starts to leave. Imagine a shoulder moving away, or your head backing up, or your foot edging toward the door. Breath for flee-fearers diffuses and deflates like a pinhole puncture in a balloon. A fleer can disappear while his or her feet are still in the room. Relationship interactions caught in fear-flee often involve automatic nods and “uh-huh” instead of conscious listening. In extreme states of defense, fear-fleers make the “I’m outta here” move of literally heading out the door. Fear-flee can also move people toward the “high ground.” Under attack, they try to analyze fear away or “transcend” the issue by fleeing body sensations altogether.
The Fear-Freeze Reaction may be the easiest to recognize: Just tighten your whole body while holding your breath. Imagine a loud noise and the startle that jolts your body. Or think of coming into a dark house at night and hearing a strange sound. Notice the whole-body halt that focuses your senses intently. That’s fear-freeze. In relationships, fear-freezers often pair with fear-fighters. Imagine a hawk mating with a mouse and you can get a sense of the interplay. One partner gets louder and in the other’s face, or barks critical demands, while the other freezes into invisibility until the storm passes. Each relationship partner brings a learned fear pattern into their current relationship that will repeat and escalate unless they shift into flow.
The Fear-Faint Reaction is often overlooked, but also has a powerful impact on relationships. Imagine your life energy draining out of your body through your feet, puddling beneath you. You might also experience a brain fog moment of “going stupid” that isn’t actually an indication of intellectual decline but a fear signal. We’ve seen many relationships where one partner will get completely confused when the other gets loud and large.
Don: “Where are the keys?! I gave them to you when we came in.”
Lisa: “I. . . uh, don’t you have them? . . . You always keep them.”
Don: “Jeez, can’t you remember anything?”
Lisa: “Umm (swallowing and looking down), I’m pretty sure that, um. . .”
Don: “Oh, never mind. I’ll find my spare set.” (stomps off)
Your own favorite flavor of fear is probably a long-standing preference. For example, imagine a scenario where Dad often came home from work angry and frustrated and Mom tried to make him feel better. One of the children may have learned how to become invisible by freezing or fleeing so the wrath would land on someone else. Another sibling may have found that a preemptive fighting strategy would distract Father long enough to make an escape. The invisible strategist formed a quiet, compliant temperament over time, whereas the fighter’s aggression morphed into a rebellious attitude toward life. As adults, both are afraid of anger but have generated completely different, successful strategies for protecting themselves.
Alas, all these unloved fragments we bring to our partners—the anger about an old injustice or the sadness of a loss that hasn’t been grieved—are cocooned in layers of fear. They may even seem to be the cause of yet more fear. Here are some of the most common forms emotional fear can take:
I’m afraid of my anger.
I’m afraid my sadness will go on forever.
I’m afraid of your anger.
I’m afraid of all my feelings, that I’ll just run amuck.
When fear mixes with the primary emotions of anger and sadness, it creates some of the stickiest feelings that glue people in conflict and disharmony. Fear plus anger creates guilt. Fear plus sadness feels like an endless pit of despair. Fear plus judgment and anger feels like hot shame in your gut. When fear grips these other feelings, it blocks the free flow of energy and prevents constructive responses. But there is a solution. By “presencing” fear, we can melt it away and open the gateway to authentic connection.
The 4 Fear-Melters
Here’s the good news: You can easily learn to discern your own fear signals and use simple movements called Fear-Melters to break the blockage and shift into flow. When you use our Fear-Melters, you literally connect body to breath and breath to brain so you can respond creatively rather than react from a sense of perceived threat. These moves are deliberately simple to make them easy to access even in the hottest moments of defending.
The Fear-Fighter’s Ooze. Imagine your hands and arms moving as if they were hot fudge over ice cream. Or let your shoulders, head, and spine undulate like seaweed in gently rolling waves. Oozing melts the fight response, wakes up your whole-body breath, and dances you out of attack mode. You can shift an argument into a slow-motion fight scene à la The Matrix or Batman. The slow motion adds fun and creative thinking, instills listening and responding, and eventually gets both your bodies oozing. Totally fun.
Meg, married more than 30 years, describes how oozing has changed long-held fights with her husband, Tim, the battles that typically started when she heard the car door slam—before he had even walked through the door. This time, when she heard the car door slam and felt her fear rise up, she greeted him, saying:
“Hi, I’m going to turn on the music and ooze and move while you talk to me. Say anything you want, and I’ll keep moving and oozing and listening. But don’t talk to me unless I’m oozing.”
So the two moved and oozed together for 30 minutes while he told her what he’d been up to. At the end, she had created her own safety through oozing and her perception had widened to see a larger, safer landscape. Choosing to conduct a conversation while oozing greatly increased her feeling of being response-able.
The Fear-Fleer’s Sumo. While standing, spread your legs wide, place your hands on thighs, and sink into the support of your bent knees and solid pelvis. Now feel the urge to flee melt into full-frontal presence.
Harry, a single man in his 50s, describes how valuable sumoing has become to him:
“When I notice my flee arise, which shows up as a physical spin around or sometimes as an inner spinning feeling, the first thing I do is name it to myself—I want to flee. Then I use sumo to support me in staying with the situation, and in combination with ooze, I slow down. Then I add breath as part of my sumo stance, imagining the weight of my breath going all through my body down to the ground and anchoring me. I imagine it as a sticky glue where I can move and place myself and stay connected. This has been very helpful to me. No more slamming down the phone or leaving the room with a slammed door.”
The Fear-Freezer’s Wiggle. If you’re really frozen, you can’t “just relax.” But you can wiggle. Begin with fingers and/or toes and let the wiggling gradually expand to thaw out the frozenness in the rest of the body. Here’s a story one of our clients told us as an example of how the fear-freeze can be thawed:
“Post-dinner, we decided to take a walk together. (We have been prioritizing evening walks lately, noticing how simply taking the time to walk together generates so much more connection in our relationship.) During the walk John casually asked me, ‘Hey, Linda, do you think you are in “Freeze” right now? Is there something you are feeling afraid about? I notice you are walking but you look rather frozen and I notice I don’t feel connected to you.’ I paused, noticing I felt immediately defensive (a great indicator that he was probably spot on).
“In that moment, I didn’t have any awareness of feeling afraid. John then invited me to breathe and wiggle. I followed his suggestion, wiggling and shaking right there on the sidewalk. Using full-body breaths and wiggling, I was able to come back into presence, and soon enough I began to notice a tension in my jaw and shoulders. I was angry and I didn’t even know it! My sense is that at some point during the day I had felt angry and then gotten afraid of my anger—thus, I went into freeze. I said out loud, ‘Mmmm. . . I feel angry.’ Each time I said this I felt myself come more fully into presence. John and I continued walking, exploring my anger with curiosity and feeling deeply connected as a result.”
The Fear-Fainter’s Love Scoops. If you go all noodles-in-a-puddle and lose a sense of actually being in a body, you can welcome yourself back with what we call love scoops. When fainters use their arms to reach out and embrace themselves, circling in to touch heart or belly, they come back home to right now and can choose consciously again. Here’s an example of using welcoming love scoops that came from one of our students, a female single pastor:
“I had noticed a strong attraction toward a wonderful man on our board, but I assumed he was married until I was approached by another pastor who wanted to set me up with him. My immediate response was a deflection. Oh, no, I can’t, he’s a member and on the board, etc. Pastors shouldn’t date members, etc. Then I went to my office and realized I was afraid. I reached and gathered in, welcoming and scooping love especially to my heart area. Then I returned to her office and admitted that I was really scared. He was too handsome; I was too large; I’m not pretty enough; not his type; he wouldn’t be interested. She was surprised, shared her perspective of me and more about him, and said she thought we would truly meet each other. Two Sundays ago, I was preaching. I stepped into that big high pulpit, did my introduction about humor in church, and looked down to see him in the second row, grinning from ear to ear.”
Recycling old relationship hassles doesn’t end until someone taps into and communicates the underlying fear. Communicating a simple “I’m scared” drops the armor and lets your partner know you are available to connect deeply. You’re uncovering your soft parts to your mate, and that move disarms the reptilian brain and sparks the emotional, connecting brain.
Fear-Melters provide that opening, a breath of possibility that you can expand with new choices. When you melt fear with these simple movements, you wake up new connections in your brain and new choices through your body. Follow a Fear-Melter with a few breaths and an appreciation, or a simple statement of something you notice in the moment, and you’ve presenced yourself and turned toward connection and intimacy.
Releasing fear can open magic portals in your relationship where the formerly impossible becomes entirely imaginable. Here are some “wonder questions” to try. Think of these as powerful pebbles to drop into the open pool that Fear-Melters provide:
Hmmm, I wonder how we can both have what we most want?
Hmmm, I wonder how we can easily resolve this issue?
Hmmm, I wonder how I can continue supporting you in expressing your deepest creativity?
Hmmm, I wonder what wants to emerge right now?
Hmmm, I wonder how I can express love in new ways?
Hmmm, I wonder how we can generate enough space for both of us to feel connected and fully engaged in our own creativity?
Hmmm, I wonder how I can most easily return to harmony and flow?
Gay Hendricks, PhD, and Katie Hendricks, PhD, are best-selling authors on a mission is to teach singles and couples everything they have learned in their combined 80 years of counseling and teaching, as well as what they practice within their own 30-year marriage. heartsintrueharmony.com
Adapted from Conscious Loving Ever After: How to Create Thriving Relationships at Midlife and Beyond, by Gay Hendricks, PhD, and Katie Hendricks, PhD. HAY HOUSE, INC. hayhouse.com