Eventually, all of my clients and E-Course participants end up asking the same question: If I’m with such a great guy (or girl), why am I so terrified? It’s an understandable question to ask on the threshold of marriage as the terror (and yes, it’s terror, not just fear or anxiety) flies in the face of what you think you’re supposed to feel. The next question is: If I was with the right person, I wouldn’t be feeling this way. Again, an understandable conclusion since nothing in this culture prepares people for the normal fear and common terror that arise during an engagement.
So why would someone feel terrified to marry someone with whom they have a great relationship? Why would a loving, solid partnership trigger such deep-seated feelings of anxiety rendering my clients unable to eat, sleep, or function? The first reason is that it’s because the relationship is so safe that the anxiety is triggered. Let me explain with an example from someone who didn’t attribute the anxiety to her partnership.
One of my dearest friends met her life partner in her late twenties. After a whirlwind love affair they got married, and a few months into her marriage she developed severe anxiety symptoms for the first time in her life. Her ears started itching and she heard a ringing that wouldn’t go away. Then she felt like there was copper in her mouth and her anxious mind went into overdrive: I’m dying. I have cancer. I’m going crazy. (All common thoughts that accompany an anxiety disorder.)
We had fallen out of close touch, but she knew that I had struggled with serious anxiety during my twenties so she called me for support. We talked every day, and within a few weeks she was able to identify that the safety and stability of her marriage is what allowed the anxiety to surface. In other words, the anxiety (fear, terror) had been living inside of her since she was child but she had always kept it at bay. She was a typical “good girl”: good grades, a good job, never stayed outside the expected lines. Her psyche lived inside a steel-clad box of expectations and busyness.
A bit about her childhood: She had been raised by two young, drug-addicted parents who had no idea how to show up as parents. They were both narcissistic and emotionally unreliable, and my friend had learned at a young age how to take care of herself as best she could. In short, her parents didn’t attend to her in the way she needed to be parented; her father failed miserably as a dad and her mother was too narcissistic to give her real nurturing and mothering.
But now her psyche was exploding open. Within the security of her husband’s support, she finally felt safe enough to fall apart. For the first time in her life, she had someone who could keep watch as she delved into darkness. She knew that no matter how crazy she felt, her husband loved her and he wasn’t going anywhere. And that’s when the thirty years of terror came rushing to the surface.
After months of suffering with the anxiety and countless discussions with me and her therapist, she started to learn how to re-parent herself and to develop a relationship with a Higher Source. It was slow and hard work, but over time the physical anxiety symptoms diminished and she could feel some solid ground beneath her feet. She recognized that she would have to give up the notion that her mother would ever show up for her in the way she needed and that the only true healing was to learn how to mother herself and receive nurturing from other sources. But she credits the development of her spiritual relationship as the key to managing her anxiety. As another client recently said to me, “Relying on a Higher Source is very comforting for the anxious mind.”
I hope that by sharing this story it will shed light on your own terror. But if you’ve found your way here, it’s likely that, unlike my friend, you’ve attached the terror onto your choice of marriage partner. And for most of my clients, the projection onto the partner becomes so strong that they want to run, leaving them with the painful choice of either postponing the wedding or breaking up entirely. This is the wounded self at play, the part of you that’s terrified of real love.
So, again, the question is: Why is real love so scary? If you know rationally that you’re with a great partner (i.e. no obvious red flags like addiction, betrayal, control issues) and you’re ready to commit (when fear isn’t in the way), why would you feel so scared? The wounded self is the part of you that developed to protect you from the pain of your early experiences. Perhaps you were raised by narcissistic parents that didn’t know how to set their own needs aside in order to attend to yours. Perhaps your mother was emotionally engulfing and your father was emotionally absent. So the wounded self was born and developed a belief system that said, “There must be something wrong with me because I’m not receiving the love I need. If I was more perfect in some way, I would get love.” In essence, you looked around you and realized that love isn’t safe. It’s either too much or too little, both of which you ascribed to some fault within yourself.
Now, during the wedding transition, when real love stands before you in the form of a solid, reliable mate, the old beliefs come flaring to the surface. You’re terrified of getting hurt again. You’re terrified of risking being vulnerable, exposing your true self, and then being rejected. It’s too risky. It’s not safe. You’re knee-deep in a projection that says, “I must be terrified because I’m with the wrong person,” when in truth you’re terrified because the old fears have been unleashed. Let me say this as clearly as possible: The terror has nothing to do with your partner. The terror lives inside of you and has always lived inside of you. And the degree of the terror is directly correlated to the degree to which you love your partner (even though you’re so scared right now that you can’t feel the love at all).
Similarly, many people carry a rescue fantasy that says, “When I meet the right person I will be so happy and alive that I’ll be lifted out of my anxiety and misery.” I’ve written extensively about this misguided belief – and devoted Lesson 7 of the E-Course to it – because it’s so fundamental to many people’s belief system and is a primary reason why they leave a perfectly good relationship. Said another way, the belief is: “Someone else would make me happier.” I’ll say this clearly and bluntly: holding on to this belief prevents you from taking full responsibility for your pain and joy. Again, it ascribes the terror onto your partner instead of recognizing that this terror is old, it’s yours, it has nothing to do with your partner and you’d be feeling it no matter who you married.
If you’re going to work through the terror, there needs to be a recognition that it has nothing to do with your partner. It’s not his fault, it’s not here because you’re with the “wrong” person, and it won’t go away if you walk away from the relationship. Ask yourself honestly: How long have you struggled with anxiety? If you’re like most of my clients, you’ve struggled with it for years, often since childhood.
Anxiety is a gift. It’s an opportunity to address deep-seated belief systems that are no longer serving you and an invitation to learn how to connect with a source of higher guidance. The fear says, “Run! Love isn’t safe. He’ll leave you. She’ll smother you.” Something wise in you is saying, “Deal with me now! You’re finally with someone safe and loving who’s not going to run away from your anxiety. Within this safe space, you can fall apart and learn how to put yourself back together again in a healthy way.” That something might just be called love. Which voice will you listen to?