Fear in Relationships

Fear can exist in all relationships.

But what is the fear in relationships about? As you’ll see in the examples below, when we feel frightened, we usually take action or retreat.

Let’s look at these examples:

Jeremy’s heart races as he walks into the office. His boss, Frederic, snapped words at him like “disloyal” and “to rethink his attitude” yesterday when he found out Jeremy had been oversharing with a client some “funny” stories about Frederic. Now Jeremy feels ashamed of his behaviour and finds it hard to focus on his work.

Jeremy is frightened because Frederic holds more power in the work hierarchy than him. Frederic has the power to keep him in the shameful “dog box”, or he can impact his career and/or financial progression. Jeremy now feels extremely insecure and anxious. He’s not used to having awkward or difficult conversations, so he decides to put his head down and avoid eye contact with Frederic. Jeremy retreats.

Farrah (aged 12) is frightened of her mum when she drinks alcohol. Her mum’s personality could change from hilarious or loving (where Farrah was “special” and “wonderful”) to verbally annihilating her, where she drunkenly slurs that she wished Farrah had never been born as she was a burden to look after.

Farrah is up against a highly weighted power dynamic. She can’t leave home. She can’t raise herself and doesn’t have any other options for where to live as her father travels a great deal for work. She loves her mum but doesn’t trust her when she drinks. She believes she can’t discuss this with her mum. Farrah has recently started controlling the foods she’ll eat and restricting calories. She’s taking action.

One sunny morning, Kai was frustrated and criticised his partner Greg for being “lazy” and “undeserving” of everything he did for him. Greg immediately felt nauseous and inadequate as a partner.

They were both preoccupied with the incident throughout the day. Greg worried that Kai truly believed his words and could end the relationship. He had no experience of resolving conflict, as growing up, issues weren’t resolved just dissolved by time. Despite Kai having somewhat enjoyed his self-righteous position, he worried that he’d over-stepped in his criticism of Greg. Kai was concerned that Greg could become flat and despair about their relationship and withdraw from him terribly again. He texted him anxiously during the day (Taking action). Greg didn’t respond. (Retreat)

When Kumar’s parents started yelling at each other, he’d run to his room. He’d found his dad’s expressions scary as his jaw locked into what he called “mean mouth”. He would try to protect his mum by getting into the fight with his dad. This came to an end when his dad screamed at him to “mind his own business” and to go to his room.

At these times Kumar would fantasise about owning a campervan and travelling with his dog around Australia. (Action in imagination)

Sylvie was getting the serious shits with Marc at work. They were both on the same level, yet Sylvie constantly had to correct Marc’s client presentations. Their team leader, Ingrid, expected this from her even though it wasn’t in Sylvie’s job description.

Sylvie was increasingly irritated at work but never expressed this to Ingrid. She feared Ingrid would be disappointed with her for not being “a team player” and that it would impact her relationship with Marc. Sylvie had a similar situation in childhood. As the oldest child she was expected to be a role model and in charge of her siblings. She knew this was an honourable position, however she could also feel burdened by this. She could never just be her own self and often felt emotionally unseen and overlooked by her parents. At work, she often created narratives of being “invisible” and “unimportant” and started disconnecting from close friends. (Retreat)

Felicity and Dalia gossiped mightily about their friends in their friendship group. The two of them delighted with hilarity when recounting their friends’ “inadequacies” and “oddities”. The group had known each other for 18 years, and for some reason gossip had endured across this time. They didn’t even think about why they gossiped.

Recently, it dawned on Felicity that her friends probably gossiped about her too. Suddenly she felt unsafe. Her face and neck became flushed, and her hands started shaking. She imagined they found out about her gossiping and that she’d be no longer able to remain in the group. Felicity’s mind created stories about whether they really liked her or not, and she became somewhat paranoid, deciding that they only liked her because she hosted many gatherings. In a panicked state she started texting everyone funny memes. She wanted to reinstate her position in the group – even if only in her own mind – and would use their responses to determine whether she was safe or not. (Taking action)

Fear has a power over us and how we conduct relationships at different ages and stages in life. We feel fear when we are or believe we’re powerless and/or disrespected. If we’re not up to scratch, we may be let go of, excluded, or fired. These are all forms of exile.

As social animals we are wired to find any of these forms of exile dangerous. It’s in our DNA. A lone human in the wild faced impending death. These days, we’re exiling others through ghosting, subtle or not subtle power plays, and even via the dreaded cancelling.

In childhood we’re vulnerable and have the least power. We need our parents to hold onto us tightly as we’re unable to survive alone. This is primitively encoded in our DNA too.

In couple relationships, we fear being told or shown we’re not good enough, as ultimately, we could be left.

In friendship groups we work hard to remain a reliable and viable member. Groups can be precarious as members vie for who’s in, who’s on the way out, and who’s already out.

This is also seen in the work environment, where we have hierarchies and power dynamics that mirror our earlier relationships. There are bosses (parents), co-workers (older or younger siblings), and other departments (extended family). There’s also fear connected to our financial value at work and the power one has over us to either elevate or fire us.

As social animals we are wired to find any of these forms of exile dangerous. It’s in our DNA. A lone human in the wild faced impending death. These days, we’re exiling others through ghosting, subtle or not subtle power plays, and even via the dreaded cancelling.

In childhood we’re vulnerable and have the least power. We need our parents to hold onto us tightly as we’re unable to survive alone. This is primitively encoded in our DNA too.

In couple relationships, we fear being told or shown we’re not good enough, as ultimately, we could be left.

In friendship groups we work hard to remain a reliable and viable member. Groups can be precarious as members vie for who’s in, who’s on the way out, and who’s already out.

This is also seen in the work environment, where we have hierarchies and power dynamics that mirror our earlier relationships. There are bosses (parents), co-workers (older or younger siblings), and other departments (extended family). There’s also fear connected to our financial value at work and the power one has over us to either elevate or fire us.

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