We all exist in relationships (with loved ones, family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, etc.), and it is within these relationships that we often learn valuable life lessons. And one of the most important lessons that our relationships impart to us is the lesson of how to be in relationship.
People hunger for relationship help information about how to create (and maintain) successful relationships/marriages. We want to learn how to communicate more effectively with our partners, we read marriage advice on how to increase passion, deepen intimacy and so on. While relationship books, as well as the advice and suggestions of “experts” have helped many couples, we shouldn’t overlook the wisdom of those who have created successful relationships through personal struggles—we have a great deal to learn from their lived wisdom.
One of my blog readers, Gretchen, a social worker who has been married over two decades, wanted to share what she considers her most valuable life and relationship lesson (she didn’t learn this in graduate school, or from books. She learned this through the challenges that come along with long-term love). In today’s article, she shares some important insights about how our fears hold us back. Thanks, Gretchen!
What marriage taught me about love and most importantly, fear!
To say that my husband has enriched my life is an understatement. We created something together that transcends each of us. It wasn’t always easy, and there were times where we both probably questioned if we should stay together. I’m so glad we did.
I’d like to share what I learned from our nearly twenty-five years of marriage.
None of us are prepared—truly prepared—for the twists and turns, and ups and downs that come with long-term commitment (believe me, just knowing this is important). While love is essential, it’s only part of what goes into making a relationship.
Fighting for your relationship starts and ends with self-understanding—not trying to remake your partner into what you think you need. If you’re not willing to discover things about yourself throughout your relationship (things you might not be so proud of, even things you might hate), then, you’re at a serious disadvantage. I know, because I was at a serious disadvantage for the first half of my marriage!
We bring so much emotional baggage and fear into our relationships. I know I did (though I didn’t know it at the time). I was the poster-child for excuses and for looking outside myself for reasons our relationship was in trouble or not working in some way. In hindsight, I did this because I was afraid. And if you told me that at the time it was fear holding me and my marriage hostage, I’d probably roll my eyes.
It was my therapist who once said to me, “You are one of the most confident and fearful people I’ve ever met…Confidence covers up fears, but it never eradicates them.”
For the longest time I kept asking myself, “OK, I trust my therapist. I’m willing to look at my fears…But what fears is he talking about?! What are my fears when it comes to love?” Of course, I had to find this out for myself. And as I slowly learned, there are obvious fears (like fear of driving on the highway, speaking to large groups, waiting for medical results), and then there are hidden fears (my therapist used to call these “masked fears”). It is our masked fears that have the most power over us, hiding in the shadows, steering our lives even when we think we’re the one driving.
Understanding and conquering our fears isn’t an abstract event (like solving a math problem). As I learned (and fought against for a period of time), facing our deepest fears (especially our deep-seated, masked fears) involves unearthing them and then experiencing them head-on.
The Power of Fear: How Fears Hijacks Our Relationships
First and foremost, fighting for your relationship means letting go of your own fears.
Here are some fears I became aware of throughout my marriage:
- Fear of losing the other person (to someone else, to an interest or cause or career, to illness or death);
- Fear of losing myself, my individual identity (Who will I be if I give myself to another?);
- Fear of losing the sense of security and control (or the illusion of control) that my relationship expectations gave me (sometimes our preconceived idea of what a marriage or relationship should look like does more damage then good);
- Fear of the unknown (Isn’t there the tendency to close ourselves off to what we don’t know or understand?);
- And for me, this was a big one: Fear of being totally known by another.
Why would anyone be afraid to be totally known by another?
We’ll, here’s how it worked for me. Remember, I was “Ms. Confident” (not in an obnoxious way, but I had just enough confidence that I felt there was no need to look at my own stuff), and overly-confident people rarely are attuned to feelings of insecurity, especially feelings of inadequacy! I dealt with my feelings of inadequacy by running from them—not showing myself or my husband that deep-down I didn’t feel deserving of his love (or my own love). And when our inadequacies and fears of being seen are at work, we hide most from the people we love, and we do this by trying to control circumstances, our feelings, and the people closest to us.
The greater the fear, the more intensely we try to control our lives and the lives of others.
It was only after I was able to repeatedly face my masked fears that I was able to let go, open myself up to love and truly be in relationship with my husband (and children and friends). In talking to others, I know I’m not alone—so many of us are held back by fear. Relationships are destroyed because of fear. And the most important reason my marriage is so wonderful today is because I wrestled with my deepest fears and won.
With fearless love,