Think about the last time a person intimidated you…maybe he was someone you wanted to impress, or maybe he was very articulate, or maybe he was someone you really wanted to be liked by. The stakes were high…and you were scared.
Quick, without thinking about it, how do you behave?
I’ll tell you what many do when in a conversation with someone that intimidates:
- She gets stilted in her conversation, with some stammering and dysfluencies
- She has trouble with eye contact…she looks all around except into that person’s eyes
- She gets quite serious…it’s hard to have a sense of humor and be relaxed when anxious
- She realizes she is not being her best self…she is feeling foolish and awkward…and she is eager to end the conversation sooner rather than later because she feels uncomfortable and self-conscious
Guess what the other person sees?
- He sees someone who looks like she is rushing the conversation
- He sees someone who is looking this way and that…like she is looking for someone else to talk to…or a way out of the conversation
- He sees someone who doesn’t look like she’s enjoying the conversation
- He sees someone who can’t end the conversation with him fast enough
So, she’s trying hard to engage him in conversation, but her anxiety actually has him believe that she actually wants little to do with him. Her anxiety has him thinking exactly the opposite of her desire. And…often, that’ll have him get kinda nervous…and so he’ll find himself closing up and pulling away…which she will notice…and she will make assumptions about what that means.
Now picture this same dynamic between husband and wife:
He’s nervous cuz he’s coming home from work late…again…because the boss insists. He dreads disappointing her…heck, he was looking forward to being home for supper himself! But he’s scared to hear of her reaction, so rather than phone her and explain it to her, be supportive of her reactions, acknowledge her disappointment as part of staying connected to someone when you are giving them bad news…rather than phone her and say all that, he texts her. He is scared of her reaction.
She thinks he’s cold and heartless and uncaring…that he “doesn’t even bother to phone”…when the opposite is true.
She notices that there is a couple of hundred dollars missing from their joint account. She is fearful because he’s been distracted lately…even distant. She worries that he’s doing something behind her back…and her “spidey sense” something is up…and she is fah-reaked out. She is so worried that he has found someone online, or is subscribing to porn sites or ??? And so she worries and worries…and eventually yells at him in terror when he walks in the door one day. He feels ambushed and attacked and is devastated that she doesn’t trust him…and cancels the surprise party that he had been very busy planning because the level of conflict and tension is so high.
These aren’t far fetched, people…these are stories similar to what I hear Every. Single. Day. when I work with a couple.
One of the major tasks of relationship therapy is finding ways to help folks who are scared to express themselves in ways that don’t damage the relationship.
That’s hard because it’s much easier to put up walls that to open up and acknowledge the fear.
It takes a lot of courage to “stay soft” and confess the desire for connection, when the instinct is to “armor up” to stay safe.
“Staying safe” usually means “putting distance” between you and the one that is intimidating precisely because of how very important that person is to you.
It’s hardest to be warm and open with a lover exactly because of how significant it is to be close to that person…so, at the time when you most want to draw close, your behavior pushes away.
Dare to let the other know that you’re scared? Dare to be vulnerable to let the other know that they matter, and that you are struggling not to raise walls, armor up, push away as a way to protect yourself?
It may be one of the biggest challenges in your life to figure out how to effectively work with that anxiety, to feel that fear and yet find ways to connect meaningfully…to figure out how to not have that anxiety hijack your relationship. Frankly, that’s one of the most common issues people deal with in therapy.