An angry wife greeted her husband, who was late getting home again from work, as he walked through the door. As was their usual pattern, an argument followed. This has been an ongoing issue between the two for several months with no apparent resolution in sight.
In Gary Smalley's book, "The DNA of Relationships," he wrote that the external problem couples tend to argue about over and over again is rarely the real problem. Believe it or not, many couples argue about superficial issues, never actually getting to the real problem for the duration of their marriage. Smalley contended that this is a destructive dance many couples are involved in, and it stems from fear.
"We have found that most women have a core fear related to disconnection — they fear not being heard, not being valued, somehow losing the love of another," said Smalley in his book. "Most men, on the other hand, have a core fear of helplessness or feeling controlled — they fear failure or getting stepped on. We noticed that the common core fears are all related to two main primary fears: the fear of being controlled (losing power) and the fear of being disconnected (separation from people and being alone). Without identifying your own core fear and understanding how you tend to react when your fear button gets pushed, your relationships will suffer."
The tardy husband had no way of knowing that at the core of his wife's anger was the reality that her father used to come in late from work because he was seeing another woman. While she and her husband argued about his tardiness, the real issue — her fear that he might be cheating on her — did not surface until much later.
Smalley's book encourages people to do a self-examination to determine their core fear. Maybe it is rejection, feeling like a failure, being unloved or being humiliated, manipulated or isolated.
Couples who are dancing the fear dance know the steps well. The cycle begins when your feelings get hurt or you experience gut emotional pain. You want to stop feeling this emotional pain, and you want the other person to stop treating you in such a way that "causes" you to feel this pain. You fear they won't change, so you react and try to motivate them to change. In doing so, you start the same process in the other person.
"The fear dance can start with discussions of sex, money, in-laws, disciplining children, being late, etc.," Smalley wrote. "People fall into patterns of reacting when their buttons are pushed. Most people use unhealthy reactions to deal with fear. Most of us try different ways to change the other person's words and actions so that we will feel better. As a result, our relationships are sabotaged. It's how you choose to react when your fear button is pushed that determines harmony."
So how do you break the rhythm of the fear dance? According to Smalley, the first step is to take control of your thoughts, feelings and actions. Your thoughts determine your feelings and actions.
Second, take responsibility for your buttons. You choose how you react when someone pushes your fear button.
Third, don't give others the power to control your feelings. Personal responsibility means refusing to focus on what the other person has done. The only person you can change is yourself. You can stop the fear dance.
Fourth, don't look to others to make you happy. Don't fall into the "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" myth. Come to relationships with realistic expectations.
Fifth, become the CEO of your life. You can't force people to meet your needs, but when you express legitimate needs to others, they can choose to step in to assist you.
And last, forgiveness heals relationships. Taking personal responsibility means confessing your wrongdoing and asking for forgiveness. You also forgive others.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at email@example.com.