How to Create a Fearless Marriage

[Adam] said, ‘I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.’
— Genesis 3:10

In nearly every aspect of life, fear is the greatest motivator. Political candidates use fear to get votes. Marketers play on fears to drive sales. Insurance, childcare, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, home security, firearms, health care, and termite exterminating companies all use fear to keep their revenue streams flowing. Cable news outlets fear-monger to keep their ratings up. Fire and brimstone preachers invoke fear to drive altar calls. Fear is everywhere.

All of your fears are rooted in your insecurities, which are just perceived threats to your life, image, or desires. It makes no difference whether the threats are real or merely imagined — either way, they drive your behavior. Even the ways in which you respond to conflict and make decisions stem directly from your insecurities.

Fear is a tool. We all use it, and we all have it used against us. While there is a healthy degree of fear, called caution, most fear-mongering is excessive and unhealthy. And nowhere are the devastating effects of our own fears more immediate and destructive than within our relationships.

Within marriages, fear creates all sorts of issues, such as:

  • Lack of communication and disclosure
  • Distrust of decisions
  • Inhibitions regarding sexual desires and expression
  • Feelings of being degraded and unappreciated
  • Stunted growth in emotional intimacy over time
  • Anxiety regarding longterm security
  • Abusive control
  • Manipulation
  • Self-serving (what the Bible calls "covetous") choices that cause harm to others
  • Infidelity
  • Addictions
  • Poor planning for the future
  • Failure to act on positive opportunities
  • Limited friendships and community connection

It's important to recognize the impact of fear on your life. Through honesty, information, and self-awareness, you can take what had been subconscious, uncontrollable responses and turn them into conscious, self-controlled decisions. Great relationships require intentionality. You have a choice: You can either remain ignorant of the fears that drive you, or you can choose to understand and harness them. If you choose to accept the challenge, you can begin to disarm the fears that threaten your marriage.

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear...
— 1 John 4:18a

Understanding Your Fears

For the sake of clarity, I focus on two primary types of fears within marriages. Let's quickly define both.

Circumstantial Fears

These are the types of fears that often relate to possessions, opportunities, or activities. Examples include the circumstantial fears of:

  • Loss of wealth
  • Poor health
  • Marital disagreements
  • Getting fired from a job
  • Failing a test
  • Sexual incompatibility/disfunction
  • Poor returns on investments, financial and otherwise
  • Physical destruction of property
  • Being single
  • Death
  • Injury
  • Public speaking
  • Flying

Circumstantial fears often have very obvious solutions. It's usually not too difficult to find a way to mitigate the immediacy or probability of any of these threats. For instance, a person who lives in fear of losing their job could begin proactively searching for a more secure job, get appropriate training to better secure their position, diversify their household revenue streams, and/or start their own side-business. Likewise, a wife who fears that her husband's spending might jeopardize their future, could simply work to establish a household budget.

Emotional Fears

These are the fears that are rooted in your own sense of self-worth. They can be tied to a circumstantial fear, but they come from emotional needs and desires — not just external factors. Examples include the emotional fears of:

  • Ignorance
  • Unrealized potential
  • Incapability
  • Isolation or abandonment
  • Shame
  • Dishonor
  • Loss of autonomy or control

Emotional fears are usually long-lasting and rarely have simple solutions. It can take years to understand them and their array of effects. They're often impacted by circumstantial fears, but they tend to persist even when the circumstances change. For instance, a fear of shame may manifest itself in body image issues. However, because the underlying emotional fear exists even when no one is viewing the person, it may also manifest itself in a distanced relationship, lack of communication, excessive control over your family, or outright lying. Similarly, a husband who worries about meeting his wife's sexual expectations may actually be dealing with the much deeper, emotional fear of isolation or abandonment. As such, playing Whack-A-Mole with the endless symptoms can be exhaustingly futile.

Diagnosing Your Fears

To begin gaining ground over your fears, you need to first determine if your fears are circumstantial or emotional. There are a couple easy ways to diagnose this:

  • Ask your spouse for their opinion. (Ask, "In your opinion, why do I fear ______?") Often, the things we struggle to understand about ourselves are incredibly obvious to those around us.
  • Write down your fear. Then, ask yourself "why?" and answer the question on paper, below your fear. Keep repeating the "why?" question until you have clarity about whether the fear is circumstantial or emotional. Here are two examples:
    • Fear: My spouse finding me unattractive.
      • Why? My spouse may leave me for someone else.
      • Why? I don't want to have to handle life on my own.
      • Why? I won't be able to balance my career and childcare responsibilities.
      • Answer: Circumstantial Fear. (It's really about the activities of life.)
    • Fear: My spouse finding me unattractive.
      • Why? My spouse may no longer desire me sexually.
      • Why? I won't be able to satisfy my spouse's libido.
      • Why? My spouse will perceive me as being insufficient for their happiness.
      • Answer: Emotional Fear. (It's really about a sense of incompetency.)

Solving Your Fears

Once you know whether your fear is circumstantial or emotional, you can begin building a plan to overcome it.

Circumstantial fears are often the easiest to resolve, but doing so still takes intentionality. If you're facing a circumstantial fear, write down a clearly defined, step-by-step plan to eliminate the fear. Whether it's having an emergency fund in the bank, moving, buying a home security system, exercising daily, learning a new skill, going to an intimacy program, setting clear boundaries in a relationship, or something else, it's usually fairly simple to put together a plan to overcome your circumstantial fears.

It takes incredible diligence and self-awareness to overcome emotional fears, because you often need to look beyond the symptoms. The first step is to find a confidant who can provide accountability and a somewhat objective perspective on your progress. If you're married, your spouse is likely the right person for this role. Just make sure that you're expressing it as your fear — not their fault. You need to be vividly honest about your fear and openly discuss its impact on you and your marriage.

Next, document the manifestations of your emotional fear, especially right in the moments when they arise. It can be helpful to keep a running list in your phone's notes application or even text or email them to yourself. Once you have started your list, begin trying to identify the things that trigger your fear. Acknowledge whether your fear was beneficial or harmful.

As you build your list, discuss the items with your spouse/confidant. An example of this type of conversation may go something like this: "I'm trying to work through my fear of abandonment. When you/they were unable to answer my phone calls, I became irritated and reacted emotionally. I need to gain the confidence to not fear the worst. What do you think?" Talking through the symptoms is important. Often, the stories we tell ourselves when we're afraid are not reflective of reality. Honesty is necessary for clarity, accountability, trust, and security. Keeping it to yourself will neither ease your fears nor resolve the issues facing your marriage.

Trying to ignore your fear will only make you obsess about it. You need to think it through. With each manifestation of your fear, ask yourself a series of affirmative questions about the situation. For a husband facing the fear of being unable to fully express himself to his wife, the coping questions may be something like this:

  • "Do I know what I want to say? Yes."
  • "Am I capable of expressing myself to my wife? Yes."
  • "Is my wife intelligent and able to understand what I say? Yes."
  • "Do I know how to phrase this in a way that is constructive? Yes."
  • "Does my wife love me, even when she doesn't seem to understand me? Yes."
  • "Do I know what outcome I would like to see from this conversation? Yes."
  • "Does my wife want us to have the best possible lives? Yes."

For a wife facing the emotional fear of abandonment by her husband due to insecurities about her own physical appearance and age, her affirmative questions might be:

  • "Does my husband still sexually desire me? Yes."
  • "Am I capable of captivating my husband's attention? Yes."
  • "Do I know my husband better than anyone else does? Yes."
  • "Has my husband remained faithful in our marriage? Yes."
  • "Do I offer more than just physical benefit? Yes."
  • "Is our relationship based on more than just physical attraction? Yes."
  • "Did my husband vow to love and remain faithful to me through the years? Yes."

This sort of internal Q&A is a powerful coping mechanism to deal with fear or anxiety in most situations. If you are a person of faith, adding in faith-based questions can make the exercise even more effective (e.g. "Does God want me to succeed? Yes."). This exercise can help you get through the momentary insecurities as you work to address the core emotional issues. By focusing on the facts of your situation, you're able to cut through the emotional hysteria and gain confidence in your situation.

As you and your spouse gain clarity about your underlying emotional fears, strive to build an environment where those fears are negated. Seek opportunities to undermine your emotional fears. For someone dealing with the fear of being considered incompetent, this may involve taking the time to consciously celebrate accomplishments, keeping a resume of capabilities, or intentionally pursuing opportunities where their skills can be utilized. Even doing something as simple as home repairs or helping a child with their homework can help restore a sense of value and competence. 

Since your spouse is (or, at least, should be) the primary human influence in your life, continue to keep them involved in your progress. Tell them about your emotional fears, and ask them to help you work through them. Even if your spouse doesn't understand or agree with your fear, ask them to partner with you in this project. Tell them where you feel you are and what you think the future will look like once you've overcome this fear. The benefits will serve both of you — so bring them along in your journey.

Lastly, if you still feel unable to make progress in overcoming your fear, make the investment of speaking with a counselor or therapist. A few simple sessions could make the difference between you overcoming your fears or being overcome by your fears. Don't let the ridiculous stigma of meeting with a professional scare you away from doing the right thing. Your life, your peace, and your marriage are worth it.

Fear doesn't have to control you. You can control it. But it takes courage, kindness, humility, and perseverance — all necessary parts of perfect love.

— John