I've noticed when the dust settles after a major fight, and Steve and I communicate about what caused the dispute, one word comes up repeatedly.
That word is fear.
Every husband and wife enters marriage with fears. It's part of what some counselors call "our baggage." Too often when a fear in my husband is combined with a fear I'm battling, explosions occur that threaten to destroy our marriage. Steve and I didn't know this early on, and we had battles that rivaled heavyweight matches in their intensity. Yet we've been fortunate over time to bring our fears out in the open and deal with them. Here are some ways we did that, and in the process strengthened our marriage and increased our intimacy.
1. Ask God to reveal fears.
As I've asked God to show me my fears, he has. One day when I asked, "What am I so afraid of?" after a skirmish with my husband related to my cooking, God revealed this, which I communicated to Steve:
"Honey, when you criticize my cooking, it really stirs up my fear of failure."
Then I gave details.
"When I was growing up my father was a perfectionist, and I felt like I couldn't please him. It seemed no matter what I did, such as cook him a meal, he had a negative comment about it. When you criticize me, I feel as if I'm a failure as a wife, just like I felt I was a failure as a daughter."
It was after one of many fights that Steve and I began talking more about our childhoods. In doing so, we realized my number-one fear was fear of rejection—especially from men.
Because much of my feeling rejected as a child was because of my father's anger, Steve's anger triggered my fear of rejection.
On the other hand, Steve's number-one fear was being controlled by women because of his mom's and older sister's controlling ways.
So how had I been trying to avoid feeling rejected and hurt by my husband's anger? I had attempted to control him. And how did he try to keep me from controlling him? By using anger, which I interpreted as rejection. What a vicious cycle.
God revealed that our deep fears were colliding and setting off sparks which led to fiery fights. Once we became aware, we also became more empathetic. Our fighting has decreased dramatically.
Now when Steve raises his voice, I know that one reason might be fear that I'm trying to control him. I can back off and return later with a gentler approach.
After revealing our fears, we began to pray for healing. We are still in the process of being healed of childhood hurts, which are at the root of our fears.
2. Be honest and loving when communicating fears.
When I've asked Steve, "What are you afraid of?" I've wanted him to be honest instead of acting macho and saying, "Me? I'm afraid of nothing." He has been.
I have to be honest also. Sometimes I want to pretend I've overcome all fears. But the truth is, fears seem to stay hidden like weeds underground. At various times—especially during trials and hardships—suddenly they're back and trying to choke the life out of our marriage.
I've learned that when Steve admits a fear and gives details, I need to show empathy and not say things like "You shouldn't be afraid of that." Because Steve and I have different fears, it's easy for me to think, "That's a silly fear" or "He should be over that by now." Instead, I need to remember that our fears were formed in childhood and are deeply rooted and not necessarily logical.
As we became honest with one another and before God, my husband and I made lists of our top fears. Each of the fears on our lists is intertwined with other fears on that list.
Steve's top three fears:
Fear of being controlled by a woman
Fear of failure
Fear of intimacy
Elaine's top three fears:
Fear of rejection—especially from men
Fear of failure
Fear of feeling disconnected
To help him understand my fears, I told my husband more about my family of origin. I related that I had often felt disconnected. We had a large family with eight children. I remember longing for more time with my parents and thinking that if I ran away no one would miss me. This left me with a longing for intimacy and reassurance that might be greater than other people's. This collided with Steve's fear of intimacy.
I communicated to my husband that after we were married I noticed he seemed to enjoy being disconnected from me and spending long periods of time alone (because of his fear of intimacy).
These days, he works at initiating time together, and I work at not triggering his fear of intimacy by avoiding demanding togetherness. Instead I invite it—something a counselor taught me. I've realized that demanding intimacy from someone who is afraid of it and fears being controlled is not a good idea and can ignite a fight.
As I maintain an awareness of Steve's fears and my own, I can keep them in mind to avert a conflict or fight. He tries to do the same.
3. Avoid taking things personally.
Early in our marriage, Steve seemed angry so often. At first I saw him as a monster who wanted to destroy my soul. But as I prayed about how God saw him, I realized he was like a frightened child (just like my dad). That picture of him helped me to not withdraw, lash out, or take to heart his hurtful words when he got angry. Instead I asked him or the Lord what he was afraid of at the moment.
For instance, Steve often got angry about money. He would shout, "Where did all the money go?" If I couldn't remember every penny I spent, he seemed about to panic. I would argue about how unreasonable he was being. This only caused him to shout louder.
Why? God showed me that it was because I wasn't dealing with the fear he had—the fear of being a failure as a provider.
These days if he starts to get upset about money, I realize it's not about me, and I remember he battles that fear. Then I say something to calm the fear rather than try to argue against the anger and/or defend myself and my spending habits (I confess I do sometimes waste money).
What works is to say, "Honey, you've been an excellent provider. And God has been faithful to bless us financially over many years. I don't think he's going to stop now."
4. Seek the Lord to deal with fears.
I can't make Steve deal with his fears, but I can do what the Lord leads me to do so I can deal with mine.
The verse I've clung to in dealing with fears is Psalm 34:4: "I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears" (NIV).This is not a one-time seeking. Whenever fear rises up in me, I try to go to God and pray my way through it. I like how one man put it: "I go to God in prayer afraid, and then I keep on praying until I am no longer afraid."
Another verse that helps me overcome fears is Psalm 56:3 "When I am afraid, I put my trust in you" (NIV). Often I'm afraid because I feel Steve can't be trusted, but that's OK. As I learn to put my trust more fully in the Lord, fears dissolve.
I've concluded that perhaps all of our fears are tied in with trust issues. But can anyone but the Lord be trusted 100 percent? I don't have to trust my husband completely to love him.
Steve's fears sometimes cause him to reject, disconnect, and communicate, "You're a failure" when he criticizes. That triggers my fears and my desire to fight, but instead of concluding, "He doesn't love me anymore," I can choose to allow God's perfect love to flow through me to Steve. This erases my fears and soothes his. As God's Word reminds me, "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18, NIV).
Dealing with fears can take a lifetime together. When fears collide, we can let them take over or work with each other to defeat them, realizing that fear—not our spouse—is an enemy of peace and intimacy in marriage.
Steve and I have chosen to embrace this Scripture for both of us and for our marriage: "God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns" (Philippians 1:6).
Elaine Creasman is a freelance writer and speaker living in Largo, Florida. She and her husband, Stephen, have been married for more than 30 years. They have two grown daughters and one granddaughter.