One of Two Fears is Likely Driving You in Your Relationship
Within the context of a relationship, which do you have the tendency to fear more -- losing your partner, or losing yourself?
We humans are confusing creatures.
On the one hand, we need certainty (some basic level of predictability, safety, and security) in our lives. Having a degree of certainty allows us to develop expectations, make plans, set goals, and generally operate in the world. We need to feel safe so we’re able to live our lives without being paralyzed by fear, uncertainty, and insecurity.
Yet, on the other hand, we also crave variety, freedom, and independence. We are neophiles - naturally drawn to new and interesting things. We get bored with routines and tend to seek out adventure.
While both of these conflicting needs reside within each of us, we very commonly favor one over the other - meaning, we experience one of these two needs more frequently or with greater emotional intensity than the other.
And, as if the natural tension that exists between these two opposing polarities didn’t generate enough complexity on its own, the dynamic they create also tends to follow us into our relationships.
In the context of a couple, there’s often one person who is more afraid of abandonment (i.e., afraid of losing the other) and one person who is more afraid of suffocation (i.e., afraid of losing themselves). And while both members of the couple may experience each of these fears at one time or another, they’ll most frequently polarize with respect to each other - latching onto and favoring opposite fears from one another in a sort of complementary system.
But what leads someone to more regularly fear losing their partner than themselves - their unique identity or sense of autonomy?
For that answer, we must look to the past.
A given individual’s upbringing is largely responsible for determining their placement along this spectrum of fears.
As an example, let’s look at my own childhood.
My parents were physicians (and both specialists), so they had very long work days and frequently had to work weekends as well.
As a kid, especially if I’d had a tough day or if there was something I wanted or needed to speak with my parents about, I remember sometimes fretting over when I’d get to see them and connect because they’d regularly get home from work after my bedtime.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this dynamic began to generate a fear of abandonment within me. I was learning to view time with my loved ones (as represented by my parents) as a scarce resource - something to be relished and maximized, but not something that I could depend upon.
And as I grew up, my placement along the fear spectrum gradually continued to solidify.
When I hit my teenage years, my parents granted me a ton of freedom (perhaps out of necessity, because they were both so busy). I didn’t have a curfew, and neither my Mom nor my Dad pried into my life unless I asked them to or unless something happened that warranted their involvement.
I don’t recall feeling constrained as a young adult or unable to be myself. My parents trusted me to act freely, independently, and autonomously. They let me make mistakes, then would sometimes step-in to offer support or help me learn from my missteps.
As a result, I rarely experienced the fear of losing myself or feeling trapped. I felt free and positively enabled to explore and find my own path.
(By contrast, some of my friends’ parents were very strict with them - perhaps a little overly involved in their lives. In response, I often saw those friends react by breaking away or lashing out and striving to assert their independence and autonomy through sometimes-extreme measures. It’s likely that this contingent of individuals went on to develop more of a fear around losing themselves later in their lives than a fear of abandonment).
My childhood fear around losing others unfortunately got further reinforced in my romantic relationships. In basically every long-term, committed relationship I was ever in, my partner cheated on me at one point or another. So I adopted the story and honed the fear that I’d be abandoned by whomever I loved.
Even my marriage - a construct buttressed by the values of commitment, safety, security, and certainty - ended with my husband leaving me...and thus deeply cemented my fears around losing “the other” in my life.
Now, all of this isn’t to say that I don’t ever fear losing myself or getting swallowed up by a relationship. Because at times I do. And particularly when I’m stressed out or working against a tight deadline, I’ve been known to crave space to the point of lashing out and being a *bit* of a dick to those around me in an effort to push them away.
But the punchline to my backstory is that I more often fear abandonment than I do suffocation. And if I’m ever operating from a scarcity mindset, living from a place of fear, and not being my “best” self, my fear of abandonment sometimes drives me to want to possess or control my partner in an attempt to keep them from leaving.
Enough about me though.
What about you?
When I first introduced these two fears, you may have immediately recognized that you align more with one fear versus the other. But if not, and if you’re unsure about which fear you tend to favor, then here are some helpful indicators:
Have you ever found yourself --
asking questions in an attempt to find out what your partner did all day?
trying to learn who your partner has been talking to / interacting with?
feeling upset / hurt / fearful / left out if your partner wants to take a trip without you?
If you’ve ever caught yourself engaging in these sort of “surveillance”-type activities or if you’ve ever felt possessive of your partner, you more than likely tend toward a fear of abandonment or loss of the other.
You may test your partner or question them in an attempt to decrease your anxiety about being abandoned. And you probably look for ways in which you might be able to secure greater certainty and/or control within the context of your relationship.
Alternatively, have you ever found yourself --
feeling stifled, smothered, or controlled by your partner?
interested in exploring or trying out more open relationship constructs than monogamy (i.e., polyamory, etc.)?
feeling trapped by or in your relationship?
If any of these situations resonate with you, you likely tend to fear suffocation or loss of yourself (your independence, autonomy, or unique identity) when it comes to your relationship.
It’s important to be conscious of whichever polarity you trend towards. And not because one is inherently better or worse than the other.
Rather, it’s important to have awareness around your tendencies because understanding which end of the spectrum you gravitate towards can help explain many of your behaviors and the actions you engage in when your fears get triggered. And only with awareness can you start working to counteract those behaviors and achieve greater balance.
Once you have insight into the underlying fear that’s driving you, not only will you begin to better understand yourself and why you behave and act as you do in your relationships, but you’ll have the opportunity to choose to behave or act differently - consciously.
Operating based on your fears isn’t healthy and will rarely serve you. (In fact, more often than not, when you begin to act based on your fears, they manifest into self-fulfilling prophecies).
But if you can learn to recognize which fear tends to drive you, as well as the behaviors or actions that it most often elicits, you can gather your courage and choose to walk a different path - one that reflects your hopes as opposed to your fears.