You love your partner, but sometimes, your relationship makes you feel a bit … unsettled. Maybe your past relationships or traumas still haunt you, or perhaps you and your partner struggle to communicate.
Experiencing a fear of commitment, fear of intimacy and fear of everything that could potentially go wrong within a relationship is common for many people. It’s important to note that this is not about fear due to violence in a relationship, but rather anxiety and insecurity about a relationship that can lead you to search for the nearest exit. Tackling relationship fears can be tricky to navigate but a treat to overcome.
What causes fear in relationships?
“Fear can appear in many ways, but I think the phrase ‘walking on eggshells’ describes the most common type of fear,” says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, an author, researcher and professor of sociology at the University of Washington. “When you have relationship fear, everything is fraught with potential negative reaction — so you become very careful, tentative and anxious.”
Fear of your partner’s emotional outbursts, their constant judging, shaming and blaming, are common reasons for you to feel fearful in the relationship, Schwartz says.
Your experiences from previous relationships can also create fears in your current one. For example, if you had a partner who always judged and shamed you or cheated on you, the fear that your new partner could do the same might make it hard to be present in your relationship.
“We have vivid memories of pain,” says Schwartz. “So, if you had a relationship where your partner was reactive, defensive, blaming or threatening, you could cower in your next one, afraid those traits from your last relationship would appear there — even if they never have.”
How to manage relationship fear
While your instinct might be to run and hide at the first sight of relationship trouble, Schwartz offers some alternative techniques to help manage fear:
- Try breathing exercises to ground yourself when you feel the fear starting to creep up. Ask yourself: What’s causing these fears? Are they justified?
- When you feel ready, try talking about these fears with your partner. This conversation might include explaining your triggers, as well as your difficulties with past relationships or family members, and how these past (or present) relationships are affecting your current one.
- If you’re not yet ready to confront these fears head-on, try talking with a therapist about the origins of your fears and better ways to manage them.
In addition to the introspective work, the hope is that keeping an open dialogue with your partner will help them understand you and your fears and reduce the number of times your triggers are unknowingly provoked.
Schwartz adds that you should also allow yourself the ability to ask for space when you feel overwhelmed. You should always feel safe enough to step back and evaluate the situation.
“If your fears are frequent and mostly unfounded, you can go into therapy with your partner so that they can understand what creates these fears and help you avoid resuscitating old wounds,” says Schwartz. “Sometimes you can talk this through together, but other times, a trained third party can help both of you understand why you’re afraid and what needs to be changed not to elicit these fears.”
To stay or not to stay in your relationship
The fear that your new relationship might end up just like your last one can make it difficult to want to stick around to see how your new one progresses. So how do you know when it’s time to call it quits?
The fear you have about your relationship should only be managed if you and your partner are in consistent communication and dedicated to a healthy relationship, and there is no physical or emotional harm.
“Remember, however, sometimes your fear is justified and should be listened to and not just managed,” says Schwartz. “Sometimes you will need couples therapy. Sometimes, you should get out of the relationship.”
It’s a big red flag if your partner attempts to control, belittle or threaten you. Schwartz says that if your partner makes cutting remarks towards you, that’s unacceptable — you deserve a partner who makes you feel respected, supported and loved.
“You can double-check with a therapist to make sure it’s really your partner’s behavior causing your lack of self-confidence or trust, but if they are the cause of you feeling bad about yourself, then you need to find a way out,” says Schwartz.
Commitment isn’t for the fainthearted
Love shouldn’t feel like it sucks the life out of you, and your partner shouldn’t feel like a bolt in the neck. If your past influences your relationship fear, it may be time to brew up some courage to have difficult conversations with your partner or a therapist to unpack those feelings.
“It’s very possible to overcome fear in a relationship,” says Schwartz. “A loving, sensitive and trustworthy partner should be able to make you relax and feel safe by using the right words and finding out what actions you need to feel secure.”
And if your relationship fears are not motivated by your insecurities, remember your worth — and trust your gut.