If you want to enjoy being married, it’s a good idea not to frighten your spouse.
There are two big things that frighten people about relationships. Some are frightened by one or the other, some by both. And if you’re not frightened by the same one, it’s pretty easy to accidentally frighten the person at the center of your life.
One of these two fears is you taking off. They’re scared of being abandoned, rejected by someone they love and respect.
Before marriage, they may keep multiple relationships going, just to minimize the feared pain of being dumped by the one they really want (which was probably you, the one they married). Or they might have clung pretty tightly: “Will I see you again?” “Tomorrow?” “Where do you see this relationship going?” “We’re soul mates, I will never leave you.”
Who tends to harbor this fear? Anyone can, but it’s even more likely if your spouse had a parent walk out or die early in life or an unreliable parent or if he or she depends on you for income or physical care.
This is definitely the one that affects me. Unfortunately, the fear tends to make me do things to reduce my fear that will frighten a partner with the other fear, and the way they handle that fear will increase my fear of a takeoff. What a mess! I’m really glad that my second husband and I are both aware of these fears and how easy it is to set them off.
The other big fear some partners have is you taking over, dictating what they wear, who they see, where they live, which dreams they pursue, what they’re responsible for and whether they’re handling it well enough.
They might expect most marriages eventually fail and be okay with divorce. This might even be their escape hatch in case they feel suffocated.
Who feels this fear? Anyone can, but those who grew up with a helicopter parent or a parent living vicariously through them and their talents or an unpredictable parent are even more likely to.
So, how do you scare your partner?
Danger: Prepare for Takeoff
If your husband or wife fears being left, you scare them when you start spending more hours at work or with friends or on your hobby or less time on sex or the things you normally do to show your love — anything that hints of a lower priority for your marriage — without enough reassurance that you still value your relationship.
Then there’s the supreme takeoff, the one where you both abandon them and stay in their life, taunting them, by cheating on them. Hints of infidelity are probably even scarier, even if there’s nothing actually going on, if you’re married to someone fearful of abandonment.
Danger: Brace for Hostile Takeover
If you want to scare someone afraid of being suffocated or penned in by a relationship, tell them your expectations of what marriage is all about as if they come from a rule book instead of your imagination and limited experience. Try to “fix their flaws.” Overbook their time without their consent. Accept a job in another city and announce the impending family move as a fait accompli.
Or, at the scarier end of the spectrum, blame your obnoxious or physically threatening behavior on drugs or alcohol or your religion, as if you have no control over it and no way to protect them from it.
Of course, these two fears are big enough that you can trigger either of them with even an off-the-cuff comment. I just told a friend what I’m writing about today, and she said, “Oh, I think I just scared my husband earlier today. We passed a painting of a house in a gallery window. I recognized it immediately. It’s my 2025 vision, the very house I’d love to buy down the road. He said, ‘It’s not my vision.'”
Which fear did she trigger? It could have been either one. If he’s afraid she’ll take off, he might imagine she means to move there without him (thinking to himself, whether accurately or inaccurately “surely she knows it’s not a place I would ever like”). If he fears a takeover, he might imagine she’s actually got an 8-year plan to uproot his life and force him into a house he doesn’t want to live in, rather than a goal to afford such a place and find one they both would enjoy.
So, what happens next? Nothing, I hope, if she didn’t trigger very much of either sort of fear. Or if he will Assume Love when he feels fear well up from something as simple as a mention of a dream house. Or if he’s confident in their ability to Find Third Alternatives to whatever they disagree on.
If he sees this as a warning sign that he could be dumped, either an attempt to either hang onto to her more tightly (which she’s likely to notice) or to begin preparing himself for life without her (which she’s not likely to notice until it’s too late).
And if he sees it as a warning sign that she’s taking over his life, now that he’s retired and can’t use his profession as a protective wall? Well, then he might start imagining life after divorce or start subtly scuttling her efforts to continue building her career or to be able to buy such a house.
How to Dial Back Your Scariness
If you’re angry at the wonderful person you married, you may not feel like reducing the fear you’re triggering. But if you’re feeling loving or if scaring your spouse doesn’t seem likely to improve whatever’s got you angry, here are some things you can do.
- When you change your routine in a way that gives you less time with your spouse who is fearful of Takeoffs, announce the change and the reason for it and provide some reassurance that you still value him or her.
- When you announce a goal that might be misconstrued as a step away from your marriage, announce your intention for your marriage at the same time, and don’t tell yourself those vows years ago ought to be all the assurance anyone should need.
- Don’t say you don’t care to a Takeoff-fearful spouse.
- When you want something that affects your joint lifestyle with a spouse who’s scared by the possibility of a Takeover, use the language of Third Alternatives to share your wish: tell them what it is about the change that appeals to you and let them know your goal remains a lifestyle that suits both of you.
- Before you make a suggestion for how your Takeover-fearful spouse can become a better person or a better partner, remind them of what you already appreciate about them and ask if they’d like any input on whatever you see as the goal of your suggestion.
- Don’t nag or insult a Takeover-fearful spouse.
- And, of course, do whatever it takes to make sure you don’t cheat, threaten, manipulate, or harm your spouse: walk away from temptation, quit drinking, quit drugging, and stick to the loving core of your religion not the fine print justifications.
It’s not about being a good or bad person. It’s about creating an environment in which you can enjoy being married, because the benefits of a happy marriage are huge.