The Scariest Thing We Do

Every day that I work with clients struggling with relationship anxiety I find myself saying some version of, “Of course you’re scared. Loving is the scariest thing we do.” As I’ve written about several times on this blog, fear doesn’t always present as fear but instead shows up as irritation, annoyance, numbness, ambivalence, lack of attraction, and doubt. It’s a convoluted defense mechanism, the ego’s attempt to circumvent being left or rejected by convincing you that you don’t love or even like your partner anyway, but in the end these are all manifestations of fear.

And the client almost invariably asks, “But why is love so scary?” It’s scary because we’ve been hurt by love. It’s scary because underneath the projections (“He’s not intellectual enough”, “She’s not attractive enough”) lives the belief that you’re not enough in some way. It’s scary because when we love another person we’re handing them our heart, which means we take a risk more terrifying than jumping out of an airplane or rafting down a 5-class river. Risks of heart are exponentially more terrifying than any physical risk we could take.

A longtime client wrote to me a few weeks ago as she was struggling with her marriage and needed support. She worried that her husband had changed and that she didn’t like the changes, and or that she was changing as well and perhaps they were growing apart. As I know her and her marriage quite well I was able to give a dose of reassurance that their marriage is fundamentally solid, but I did have a few things to say about this fear of changing.

This is how I responded:

Here’s the truth that most people can’t and don’t understand until years into marriage: We DO change in marriage. Both partners change. We find our voice and lose our voice and find it again and grow into different aspects of ourselves. Marriage is such a scary endeavor, and I think on some level, unconsciously, we know this going in and that’s part of the intrinsic fear that people have during the engagement. We know that this is the scariest thing we do as humans because we’re changeable and life comes in and transitions happen that inspire growth and knock people off center, and when one person grows or is stuck it’s just so scary for the other person. However you slice it it’s scary and unpredictable! So in some ways he’s not the person you married. And you’re not the person he married. That’s okay as long as we know it’s okay.

I often say that we heal in layers and spirals, and this applies to marriage as well. Decades into marriage you will be unraveling stories and patterns that the two of you brought with you into the marriage and spent the first many years unconsciously raveling around each other. If you’re on a path of awakening, you’ll understand at deeper and deeper levels how your original relationships with your parents and early pain effect your marriage. You’ll continually shed light on the ways in which you shut down and close off. You’ll become more and more familiar with your and your partner’s defenses. For me, this is one of the great blessings of marriage: it’s an opportunity to see shadow projected and mirrored in a way that we don’t see in quite the same way in other relationships. But I freely admit that during those moments when it feels like your marriage is slipping into a giant chasm that just opened up in the center of your house it sure doesn’t feel like a blessing. It feels like the scariest thing in the world.

So we strap on the headlight of curiosity and discover the hidden runes of fear that are etched into the cave walls of our souls. We learn fear’s ways and, in doing so, are able to name it more quickly. We learn to understand that every time we move toward love, fear comes in with a grenade of reasons why we’re making a mistake. Our fear-mind simply cannot tolerate that we’re actually going to risk our heart in this crazy, irrational thing we do called loving another human being!

For many people, this conscious tango with fear begins when they’re hit with relationship anxiety: when they’re jolted awake in the middle of the night with a hand around their throat and their basic ability to function is stolen by Hades. And I say “conscious tango” because the truth is that, for most of you, fear has been at the helm for most of your life. As a child you suffered from separation anxiety. As a teenager you struggled with social anxiety or test anxiety. Intrusive thoughts may have also hit early on; What if my parents die? What if I’m gay? What if I have cancer? are the most common ones to afflict children and teenagers. But when the fear manifests as relationship anxiety the stakes are so high that it initiates the process of making fear conscious. Once it becomes conscious, we can work with it, learn about it, and ultimately learn how not to allow it to control our lives.

41 comments to The Scariest Thing We Do

  • Gen

    What if we are still having these intrusive thoughts in our 30s

    • LinsG

      @Gen, those thoughts do not have an age limit. I feel like when we overcome one set of thoughts in our life, another challenge or transition brings new ones along. For highly sensitive people, it will be a constant process of learning and overcoming. That is when we dig down to those roots of where the truth really is. “I love this person.” “This job is a better opportunity.” “This new house/town/city/state/country will become ‘home’ to me.” And most importantly, “I am worthy of it all.”

  • Natz

    Again, Sheryl, a beautifully timed article 🙂 I read this today in a moment when I really needed it, and it helped to redirect my thoughts. Thank you for sharing xo

  • Sarah

    Your words are so comforting. I always feel a sense of community, a sisterhood, when I read your articles. That life can feel scary, and beautiful, (sometimes at the same time), and that this is where the richness of life is. I feel as if embraced in a warm hug. Thank you.

  • Ellie

    I have always dealt with relationship anxiety after having low self confidence from being bullied and always being interested in the wrong guys. With my first serious relationship the anxiety began about 4 months in and I began to see a therapist. The anxiety did not go away until we ultimately broke up after continuous fighting and him belittling me in front of family and friends a year and a half into our relationship. My therapist told me that maybe the anxiety was a sign telling me I wasn’t in the right relationship. Now I’m in a 3 year relationship with an amazing and supportive man and although the anxiety didn’t start until about a year and a half into the relationship, it’s there now and it’s progressively getting worse and unfortunately what my old therapist told me has resonated in my head and I’m terrified it’s a sign I’m in the wrong relationship.
    Your blogs have helped calm me down slightly during times of serious distress and I’m hoping I can have a session with you in the very near future!

  • Eshani sharma

    What if u always feel that u r not happy when with husband and feel happier when alone?

  • PaintedFlowers

    What a wonderful post. That last portion about anxiety all our lives resonates with me. Sometimes I feel like I never felt with fear so head on before in my life until getting engaged and married, but I truly did have anxiety in the ways you listed. One of my first intrusive thoughts as a small child was very powerful and clear that I can remember where I was and what I was doing when it happened. My mother and father were arguing upstairs and night when I couldn’t sleep. They didn’t know I was awake. I had partially crawled up the stairs (I was maybe 5 or 6 at the time) and listened through the door at their argument. I got very afraid that my parents would divorce. They never did, a thought their marriage wasn’t the happiest. And now in my own marriage hat very same intrusive thought has resurfaced, instead as what if I get divorced? This realization has brought me some peace. Thank you Sheryl.

    • That’s a very potent connection, PaintedFlowers. It can be very scary for children when their parents argue, especially if they don’t see the repair afterwards. It makes perfect sense that this unresolved and unattended fear would be surfacing in your own marriage now.

  • Dee

    Hi Sheryl,
    Thank you for the wonderful post that has hit the nail on the head just when I needed it; or rather a dose of truth water to dappen the fear flames.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I am another person who needed this blog! During the Easter long weekend, me and my husband drove to coffs harbour 6 hours drive from Sydney. On the way there I started to feel panicky, I felt pain from the stomach like a pit was there. I had those those thoughts pop up, I am suppose to be feeling happy relaxed. And that took me down the rabbit hole. I had another fight with my mum over 1 month ago. Plus i havent been journaling and beathing, which are such important tools. I guess i feel that i dont wanna journal the same thing all the time. I lack motivation. I was dissapointed in myself for not feeling happy and fully present with my husband. I felt lost.I tried to put a happy face. But i didnt feel good. On the way back home, we stopped for a bite. And i started to cry, i felt nervous.. like something bad happened to me. My husband said is it because ur mum didnt reply to ur text message of happy easter, yes i replied, but in my anxious mind. I felt like i wanted to leave him. An easy way out. But i didnt tell him I wanted to leave him. It was a scarey experience. Which i have encountered many times., will i break free from anxiety Sheryl?

    • The thought about leaving him is the escape hatch, Angela, so that you don’t have to address and feel your own pain about your mother and your own self-abandonment. And the answer to your question is in your question: when you stop using the tools – when you stop journaling and breathing – the anxiety will ramp up. It’s like not eating healthy foods and then asking, “When will this headache stop?” Our daily practices are the foundation of our well-being, and without them we can’t expect to feel good.

  • Eshani sharma

    Mam I would like to join ur course very much…my relationship anxiety started 3 yrrs back and I feel it is there whenever I am with husband…like all the time…that is why I feel I am not happy when with him because I feel a constant pressure in my head…pls help me…I want to love him red flags

  • Georgina

    Dearest Sheryl,

    Thank you. Your articles shed so much light on my life and my functioning and I definitely feel less alone, less of a freak, less weird, less complicated because when fear starts informing my actions, I become so anxious that I just shut down or disappear from everything and everyone (except my husband and children). I started therapy with a great professional and yet, I feel that I understand intellectually but my fears won’t vanish and my quality of life (health in general) deteriorates a little as a result. And I’m not talking about relationship anxiety because thanks to you, yes, really, honestly, and simply thanks to you, I overcame it. It’s the rest of the anxiety/fear about doing new things, daring and putting myself to the test. When I read the lines you wrote ” every time we move toward love (and here I took the licence to replace it by “toward x change/challenge/etc”), fear comes in with a grenade of reasons why we’re making a mistake. Our fear-mind simply cannot tolerate that we’re actually going to risk our …(comfort zone for the most part in my case)” And I cracked open and I started crying and shedding a thousand tears because I stress so much about the fear itself. My son saw me crying just a few minutes ago and started asking me what was going on and so did my husband. I pretended it was something else beause that’s the other thing about fear, we’re so terrified to be discovered. You’ve known me for quite a long time and we’ve met on all of your courses. You’re the only person who’s ever talked to my fears in their face. You helped me save my marriage. This article speaks to my inner child and me so directly, I’d like to be less stressed about fear itself, I’d like to relax about it as it’s such a pervasive character in my life, I’m afraid (maybe topic for another course – when fear is at the helm) Love dear Sheryl.

    • That course is in the works, Georgina. In the meantime, I encourage you to go back over the Trust Yourself program and make sure that you’re practicing your daily tools morning and night.

  • Lauren

    I am so glad to read this today. I wanted to know why I have been suffering so much since I realized I would be moving in with my boyfriend. Ive been suffering from hOCD and rOCD like crazy. I realized that this was likely because my parents were very hard on me and emotionally abusive at times. Love is an absolutely terrifying experience for me.

    I think my WS has been telling me that love is scary, and that I should not feel so safe and loved. I am constantly afraid of the unknown, and afraid that I will lose this relationship that has brought me so much happiness. Your work has shown me that this is the root of my anxiety and I am in need of a lot of healing and self-acceptance.

  • Daisy

    Thank you Sheryl! I’ve been following your blog posts and it’s helped me a lot through my engagement and now marriage. I was stressing myself over not feeling attracted to my partner and not feeling all lovey dovey towards him and I have only now come to the realisation that the reason is because he reminds me of all the things I haven’t addressed within myself. An example is that I recently find it annoying that he’s put on a bit of weight and is inactive because I have been inactive and I want to get fit again, so seeing him like that is just a reminder of how I’ve been lazy.
    I also noticed that when I focus less on him being MY PARTNER and more on him being a friend that I’m now living with, it makes it easier to deal with the things that I would typically find annoying and I find myself more loving and accepting.

  • Georgina

    Thank you Sheryl, you’re such a wise guide. So true, I’m going to start with the Trust Yourself and Trust Yourself extended tools asap.
    Look forward to your new course. Have a great week, a big hug from my soul to yours.

  • Marlene

    This post really hit me where I live. I did have anxiety most of my life as described in the post. But there is a part of me that feels SO REAL that says, “he never was what you wanted.” And part of that IS true. I never thought, “Oh my goodness he’s exactly what I’ve been looking for it’s just this darn anxiety!” It was more like, “oh no! I don’t know why I’m doing this.” It was like a moth to a flame. I’ve discovered in therapy that there were perceptions from my upbringing that affected me like, “Marriage is a horrible burden” or “Marriage is worse than death.” I know that sounds crazy and I’ve since worked through those ideas. But I still struggle with the feeling/idea that this isn’t what I really wanted. Can this be changed? And if so, how? Thank you for sharing your wisdom with those of us who are struggling and suffering.

  • Angela

    Yes, Sheryl 🤗 its just that i have felt the pain about my mother many times and i refuse to let her make me depressed. I am hurting and i do feel abandoned by her, not loved. She dosent treat me nice, she dosent acknowledge my feelings, i can never understand it. But i have to think of my life. I feel that i have done the work and to be honest i feel the tools are not helping me like before. I feel scared. I was at my friends place yesterday and i was feeling good, then when i came home. I started to feel down again. I was doing well. I feel im going backwards again. 🙏🏻😢😫

    • We don’t actually go backwards, although sometimes it can feel like we do. Healing isn’t linear and when we’re being asked to grow into a new layer of ourselves we have to dig deeper and work harder to find our equanimity. It also sounds like there’s another layer of healing and awareness about your mother that’s being asked for. And keep in mind that the tools aren’t going to work if you’re not using them ;).

  • Alyssa

    Thank you so much for this Sheryl, it is a kind reminder of the tools fear uses to try and sit itself at the helm. My boyfriend and I are in the process of renting out our current home and renovating a new home, which my brother and nephew will be staying in with us for the next 6 months. Getting the house ready – livable – for my brother (doing all the work ourselves), alongside finding renters for our house, on top of the transition of moving in general, and the financial implications of all of the above, is certainly a tumultuous task for my psyche. On top of that, I missed yoga two weeks in a row because of how busy we are with all of this on top of our full time jobs! All these transitions are stirring up a lot of fears. I hope I am able to breathe through them and embrace them.

  • B

    I have been with my boyfriend for nearly 7 years. Things started off rocky, but have been amazing for the passed 3-4 years as a result of communication and really learning to pick our battles ( we used to argue about everything). Recently he brought up marriage and suddenly I just felt nervous. I thought to myself well if I loved him as much as I thought, I wouldn’t be nervous to marry him. I also lost my grandmother recently ( a week after he brought up marriage). I know that I’m probably just anxious, but it’s been 4 months now and I just can’t shake the feeling that maybe there’s something deeper than just anxiety.

    Can the loss of a loved one cause relationship anxiety?

  • Meredith

    Love is so scary, Sheryl. I work in a hospital and am constantly afraid my husband is going to die. I am in therapy but I know this is a topic I have to explore more. It isn’t easy!!

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl,
    I woke up this morning feeling scared, i was feeling hot, such in an anxiety state full of fear. I did the breathing exercises and then i got dressed up ready for work. I was not feeling up to work today, i didnt have an appetite but then after midday. I chose to think i belong with my husband, its not him.. its me. Then my mood shifted into gear. I felt like i was back to myself again. I felt so happy. No longer in the fear state., Do i do the breathing exercises and journaling for the rest of my life, even if i feel better?

  • Stephanie

    I loved this post. I feel that because of certain experiences in my life and verbal abuse, I don’t trust myself in my relationship. I am desperately trying to tap into my fear and confront it head on. What questions should I ask myself or what should I do when these thoughts arise?

  • B

    Hi Sheryl,

    I have been with my boyfriend for nearly 7 years. Things started off rocky, but have been amazing for the passed 3-4 years as a result of communication and really learning to pick our battles ( we used to argue about everything). Recently he brought up marriage and suddenly I just felt nervous. I thought to myself well if I loved him as much as I thought, I wouldn’t be nervous to marry him. I also lost my grandmother recently ( a week after he brought up marriage). I know that I’m probably just anxious, but it’s been 4 months now and I just can’t shake the feeling that maybe there’s something deeper than just anxiety.

    Can the loss of a loved one cause relationship anxiety? Could I be projecting my anxiety about losing people I love on my boyfriend?

    Thank you

    • LinsG

      Yes. You witnessed how painful it was to lose a family member and it only reminds us that however wonderful our relationships are, they will end in death, in some way. An awful thought, I know, but I don’t mean that pessimistically or depressingly. Just that relationships here on earth come and go, but they are very much worth the effort and the joyful experiences that come from them. You might have great memories of your grandma and you wouldn’t trade those, would you? Even though you knew you’d lose her someday.

  • Emmy

    My name is Emmy, I’m currently in a relationship with my boyfriend of over half a year. We are both young, me being almost 17, and him being 17. I have had my share of bad partners. In all of my past relationships, I was treated very wrong (cheated on, ignored, USED). In my last relationship, which was almost 1 and a half ish years ago, the boy used me, cheated, ignored, and didn’t overall care for me in any way. After that ended, I told myself I wouldn’t have another relationship because I was tired of being used and hurt. Then I met… let’s call him James. I wasn’t looking for love in any way, but we kind of just found each other, and automatically clicked. I knew I wanted to spend my life with him at first, without any doubts in my mind. He is everything I want and need in a lifetime partner. He is kind, big-hearted, supportive, loving beyond belief, and logical (which is what I need in my life). I can tell he’s not like the others, and I think God brought me him for a reason. Lately though, James and I have been breaking out of the honeymoon stage, and that’s when my doubts seeped into my life. Thoughts would tell me “you don’t love him, you’re only staying with him because he’s nice, There’s someone better for you…” you get the gist. I have anxiety issues, along with my mom, dad, grandma, aunt, and other family members. For me at first, these thoughts were DEVASTATING. They happened around the 5 month mark, when I started having a awful “gut” feeling that I didn’t love him, even though I know it’s not true. We have been told multiple times that we are too young to know what love is, and to really have a future together. That in itself makes me think “we’re too young, it’ll never work, etc” I’ve been bogged down by these worries for 2 months, and, while my partner is incredibly supportive, it is starting to affect how we act around each other now. We are more tense and get annoyed more easily around each other now. I want to be with him, seriously, for a lifetime. I’m not just some teen writing about her high school boyfriend who only cares about sex. I’m realistic towards relationships now, thanks to all my exes. I know that he contains all the attributes I need in a lifetime partner, but my brain has started to pick him apart and show me all his “flaws”. I hate it, because I know in my heart I love him. Recently, my dad told me, “if you’re having these thoughts maybe your subconscious is telling you that you aren’t ready for a relationship”… which only made me more anxious. Even if I wasn’t ready, I know I’d stay with him and learn to grow together and make something beautiful. I am wise for my age, I know love isn’t a feeling, I know it’s a choice. I choose him, but even my brain can take that away sometimes. I want to love him fully, but I feel that I can’t until this fear is gone. I need help.

  • Emily

    Sheryl, thank you so much for posting this. Thank you for posting regularly! If it hadn’t been for your Concious Bride book and the ecourse I honestly don’t know what I would have done in terms of going through with or calling off the wedding. You are an answer to a prayer. I’m still working through my anxiety about getting married, but it’s gets better every day. My fiancé thanks you too! 🙂 Loving him while dating came very easy, but choosing to love him after the anxiety hit was a huge challenge. I realize now that love really is a measurable action and an active choice, and ALL of us are human, myself included. Thank you so much for all you do!!

  • Jo

    Hi Sheryl
    I think I’ve been struggling with relationship anxiety for over a year now and I’ve now come to a point where I feel like I feel like nothing for my boyfriend of 3 years. We’ve broken up a couple of times in those years, first because he didn’t know if he loved me which then lead to him sleeping with someone else a few days after the break up which completely broke my heart but I took him back because I still loved him then the second time around a year after that because he felt he couldn’t be himself around me however he came back again because he felt he made the wrong decision. But now I’m stuck with pretty much constant anxiety. I struggle to feel love because I’m always questioning if I love him, this was the original intrusive thought which started my anxiety. I feel like my subconscious has put up a barrier and I can’t get through. I feel empty of good feelings toward him and at this very moment it’s makng me feel sick, I’m at a point where my mind is telling me to leave because I don’t want to be with him. I’ve been to a councillor but she didn’t really help with this and I’m unsure what to do now. I feel so much fear and confusion, where did my loving feelings go? I had he same thoughts with a previous boyfriend in the past when I was young, intrusive thought came out of nowhere and my love was gone in an instant! I don’t want to leave my boyfriend but I’m so panicked I want to run away.
    Any advice would be great.
    Thanks so much,

  • Ammu

    Hai, I am having intrusive thoughts about my feelings for my boyfriend. I mean, a trigger enough for me to crazy fro like a long time. I do love boyfriend though it doesn’t feel that way often and I know that. Now the trigger is my male friend and now, since my relationship started I feel kind of weird when I chat with him. I get intrusive thoughts like, you ha e feelings for that guy and all that.

  • Ammu

    It was not a problem before, but one day that person messaged me asking me how I had been and that became my trigger. I know these are my thoughts and anxiety making me crazy. Is it possible that you think, no this guy’s name just pops up in my head for no reason, and I absolutely hate it. Does it mean I don’t love my boyfriend, who has been with me through thick and thin.

  • Ammu

    I am just 21.Does my age has to do with this.?

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