There is the notion that fear and love cannot coexist. It suggests that fear makes real love impossible and, by the same token, real love eliminates fear. In an ideal world and for those who are genuinely enlightened, I’m sure it’s true. But, most of us don’t live in an ideal world and very few of us are seriously enlightened. For most of us, the struggle between fear and love is daily…even though we don’t typically recognize the struggle for what it is.
The two fears that come with our efforts to love deeply are, the fear of abandonment and the fear of engulfment. Most of us reside in one camp or the other.
For those who fear abandonment the expectation is that their partner will leave. Even when a relatively stable relationship has been established, there’s a nagging sense that sooner or later the loved one will walk out the door and never come back. That nagging sense grows with thoughts like, “I’m sure he’s getting tired of me.” Or, “I just don’t have what she really wants.” Or, “When he discovers who I really am, he’ll call it quits.” If the fear of abandonment is strong enough it can actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, the fear of abandonment can push a partner into questioning the relationship.
Those who fear engulfment expect their partner to limit freedom and essentially smother them. Smothering behavior can come in the form of excessive affection or excessive information seeking. In either case, the fear of engulfment can create an urgent need to move away from the partner. Those who fear engulfment are likely to withdraw or attack as a way of getting the space necessary to feel free and safe. When the fear of engulfment is strong enough, it can lead to deception. Rather than being straightforward about what’s going on, the frightened person will avoid openness by giving vague responses or simply lying about things.
Whether your dark truth takes you to feelings of abandonment or engulfment, genuine love asks you to hold steady despite the fear that threatens to overwhelm. Having the courage to admit the fear to yourself is, of course, the first step. Once recognized and named, the next step is to, as much as is possible, ground yourself in love that is unconditional and aware. This can be a pretty difficult task given the fact that everything in you will point to the “genuine” threat of abandonment or engulfment. The real task is to recognize that neither abandonment nor engulfment have the power to defeat mature and deeply rooted love.
Most of us go into marriage with the belief that it will provide the stability we need to live the life we’d like to live. In many ways that makes sense. Sometimes we look forward to marriage as a respite from the relentless risk-taking that comes with the dating scene. That, too, makes sense.
The truth is, we usually begin marriage with a lot of trust and a pretty clear sense of the stability that comes with it. That reservoir of trust is the product of successful risk-taking that occurred in the months or years prior to the wedding. But, once marriage begins, the stakes go up exponentially. There are all kinds of things that make leaving the relationship increasingly costly…things ranging from a financial hit to assaults on tightly held values. Because the stakes are so high we become less and less willing to take risks. We steadily back away from the very thing that builds trust and creates the sense of aliveness necessary for relationship health.
The Dark Truth is that couples should take risks precisely when risk-taking seems least desirable. It’s not about taking outrageous risks. Small and reasonable risks are exactly what need to happen. Here are some risk-taking suggestions.
When you feel yourself playing it safe you can be sure you’re in dangerous territory. Do the counter-intuitive thing and take a risk.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.