Fear and Its Effect on Relationships

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Fear isn’t just about physical danger. Emotional fear can look a lot like anger. But relationships do not thrive in anger or fear.

People who behave with fear, generate fear in others. People who behave with love, generate love in others.

Think about your relationships. Is there someone (…you?) who is behaving with fear? What are the effects of that behavior?

Healthy relationships are built on emotional safety, honesty and trust. Does your shame and fear cause you to punish those in your life for expressing emotional honesty? Will they continue to be honest with you if they fear your response? Emotional intimacy will suffer as they pull away from you and your shame-based and fear-based tactics.

Parents:  If you are yelling and shaming your children, you are generating fear in them. If your children yell, are oppositional and harm others, if is clear proof they are learning in an environment of fear not love.

If you function in a fearful mode, ask yourself: What are you afraid of? Rejection and abandonment? Exposing vulnerability and weakness? Failure and self-doubt? Shame and guilt?

What would happen if you loved yourself instead of got angry at yourself? What if you completely accepted yourself and others, rather than reacted with shame, fear and anger?

 

Anger: A Sign of Fear of Conflict

I had a patient describe her husband as someone who bites his tongue for days about an issue, then becomes angry at her out of the blue.

I said: “Oh, he is afraid of conflict,” and she looked at me quizzically.

“But he gets angry and we fight. He seems to like conflict.”

“Yes, it may look like that on the surface. But, first he tried hard to avoid a fight by biting his tongue and not saying things. Then he blew up, perhaps in an attempt to avoid future fights by teaching you to not confront him. Overall, this tells me he is very uncomfortable with conflict.”

Avoid or attack are two common communication and relationship strategies people use. But when I see this dichotomy it signals to me that this person is afraid of conflict. If he fears conflict he will do everything he can to avoid it — either by directly avoiding it or by attacking others to keep them from confronting him.

Someone who is comfortable with direct, assertive, forthright conversations can have those interactions without behaving in either extreme — avoidance or aggressive attacking.

Assertiveness is not a skill many people are comfortable with, perhaps because they did not learn it as a child from their parents. Many people learned and had modeled for them those unhealthy extremes of avoid and attack. Perhaps as children they were raised by parents who attacked them via criticism, judgment or lack of warmth and connection.

Assertiveness, however, can be very healthy for relationships. The assertive person gets to speak her mind and feel heard in a healthier way than automatic submission or dominance. The person hearing the truth may get a lesson in self-awareness that can lead to improved behaviors in the long run. The relationship itself is healthier because thoughts are expressed appropriately and promptly, not held in, leading to resentment, or vented in dysregulated anger.

Assertiveness may seem to go against our natural human instinct to avoid conflict. Getting along with others is a prosocial, adaptive skill that helped assure our survival in tribal days. But while social hierarchies can be greased in the short term with submission and dominance, in the long term it is a healthy boundary established with prompt assertiveness that is essential for healthy relationships.

What Type of Person Never Admits to Needing Therapy?

It is a truism in psychotherapy that those who actually should be attending therapy are the ones who rarely find their way into treatment.

In “Pack Leader Psychology” I categorized personalities into three types: Dominators, Submissives and Avoiders. Dominators are the types most likely to need therapy yet also least likely to seek treatment. However, the behavior of Dominators is also the most likely to send others into therapy.

Scratch the surface of anyone in therapy for common problems such as depression or anxiety or ADHD and you’ll usually find a Submissive or Avoider whose life has been made difficult by a Dominator.

This shows up in predictable ways such as:

  • a child with an intrusive, opinionated “helicopter parent” who develops behavioral problems or school attention problems due to the parent’s anxiety and over-control
  • a spouse who has been controlled, threatened or even abused by a partner and who is experiencing nervousness, anxiety and insomnia
  • a family member frustrated with a sibling who is attention-seeking, dramatic, and can never be wrong about anything
  • a spouse who believes she has to submit to her husband who argues about everything and cannot back down in a fight

Submissives and Avoiders come to therapy to find ways to cope with the Dominators in their lives. While I can certainly help these patients, especially by helping them be more assertive, my effectiveness is limited because the person who really needs therapy is not in the room.

I actually would love to require that everyone come to therapy WITH the person who is the source of their problems. That would really help the process along! All psychology is about human relationships, after all.

But getting Dominators to show up in therapy or stay in therapy for the long haul is the trick. Because of their strong reluctance to admit any faults, Dominators have great difficulty admitting that they might need therapy or might need to address any personal deficits.

Dominators can’t admit fault because they experience high levels of shame and, as a result, have great difficulty being accountable for their behavior. Challenge them on a mistake and they will lash out at others rather than take the blame.

Of course, if the Dominator were in therapy we could dig deeper and look at their insecure attachments to parents in their childhood to explain this self-protective behavior, but…

This leaves Submissives and Avoiders to seek help to address their own emotional problems that often developed as a result of the Dominator’s behavior. If the Dominator is “always right and never wrong” this sows chaos in the lives of those around them.

While Dominators are reluctant to accept blame, Submissives tend to be very self-blaming. These people-pleasers have learned to default to thoughts of self-criticism. Even if they have been treated terribly by a Dominator, perhaps abused physically or emotionally, Submissives may dismiss feelings of resentment or anger because they “shouldn’t feel that way.” The disconnect between the obvious reality of the Dominator’s inappropriate behavior and dismissal of the Submissive’s true emotions leads to confusion and a loss of authenticity or sense of self. Anyone would be anxious or depressed in that situation!

If you know someone who lacks accountability, does not like to be proven wrong, can’t apologize and hates criticism, you probably know a Dominator.

When I gently point out some behavior patterns in their lives, patients often come to the obvious conclusion themselves, saying: “Sounds like my wife/dad/sister is the one who should be in therapy.” Yep!

Relationship Problems? Shame Is To Blame

I was conducting a therapy session for relationship problems with a married couple, their second, and the wife continually escalated to anger when any topic came up. Even when the husband kindly suggested they put their toddlers to bed before 10 pm so the couple could have some time together, the wife felt criticized and “attacked.” She failed to recognize his suggestion was an attempt to connect with her and was not solely a criticism. The root of their relationship problems was that her discomfort with feelings of shame led her to attack with anger.

In discussing this topic I’ll use the terms “Dominator” and “Submissive” that I describe in my book “Pack Leader Psychology.”

Dominators react to feelings of shame or low self-worth by attempting to control or dominate others so that they can manage, redirect or prevent shame-laden messages from affecting them. They have great difficulty admitting fault, apologizing, or being wrong. Dominators attack others with anger when they feel shame.

Submissives handle shame by attacking themselves with internal messages of shame: “See, you really are a loser. You need to change.”

Here is another example of how the feeling of shame plays out in relationships.

Janae, the Dominator wife, forgot to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home. David, the Submissive husband, asked if she picked up the dry cleaning. Rather than feeling the shame of her mistake and admitting her fault, she goes to great lengths to manage her pain. She makes excuses: “I had to work late” or “I didn’t think they weren’t going to be ready today.” Or she blames him: “You were supposed to text me to remind me.” Or she lashes out at him for an unrelated past mistake: “Well, you forgot to pick up the milk yesterday.” or “You should have taken them in last week.” These angry responses are “reactive emotions,” with shame as the “core emotion.”

To Janae, the feeling of shame is so intolerable that she must defend herself from experiencing it at all costs, even if it means damaging her relationship with her husband.

Shame plays out in minor ways like this or in major relationship problems, such as domestic violence. Dominators who go to the extreme of physical or emotional abuse cannot tolerate any sense of being criticized or rejected. The perception that their partner is withdrawing love in any way, no matter how minuscule, triggers their fearful reaction. So they become aggressively confrontational, to the point that they are then legitimately criticized and their partner does withdraw her love.

Sadly, Dominators then get exactly what they are working to avoid: The feelings of shame they dislike are now piled on even more deeply and intensely.

In my session with the couple, the wife eventually began crying, was resentful and stopped engaging in session. I could see she knew she had over-reacted, but she could not admit that. Even though I recognize the roots of shame underlying her behavior, it is difficult not to dislike a Dominator when she behaves in this way. I have to remind myself that those who need the most love often behave in ways that often drive love away. Finding compassion for these hurt people is essential, but can be a challenge for those in relationship with them who often trigger to anger themselves in response.

The other side of this relationship equation is the Submissive partner, who also is mishandling feelings of shame. He may take on more than his fair share of blame for the argument. He may learn to avoid directing shaming messages at his spouse because he fears her aggressive reaction. He wants to keep peace and will do anything to avoid causing a fight.

I also believe that because Submissives dislike the feeling of shame themselves, they avoid placing blame or shame on their partner. It’s as if Submissives know the pain of shame and want to protect their partners from it. This well-intentioned behavior, however, leads to a lack of assertiveness that enables the Dominator to continue to act out and avoid feelings of shame.

An attack-and-withdraw pattern then ensues in the relationship, leading to a painful and disabling feeling of disconnection.

If both partners could learn to manage feelings of shame in a healthy, self-compassionate and self-accepting manner, they would experience much less turmoil in the relationship. The Dominator would feel less urge to lash out at the Submissive. The Submissive would feel able to fairly criticize the Dominator and would not submit unthinkingly to the Dominator’s wrath. Both could be open and vulnerable about their feelings of shame with each other, which would lead to emotional intimacy, a closer bond and a deeper connection.

Shame is the root cause of most relationship problems and many other behavioral problems. It is sad that today so many people seem to have great difficulty handling this feeling in an emotionally healthy manner.