The Fear That Wrecks Marriage

Suppose I could predict, with 100 percent certainty, whether your spouse would end up leaving you or would stand by you for the rest of their life. Would you want to know? Would it make a difference in that relationship?

Let’s look at it another way: If you were afraid your spouse was eventually going to abandon you, would you treat them differently than if you knew they were always going to accept you as a person and as their spouse? 

Even if you would like to think that you would consistently act loving toward your spouse, the reality is that our perception has a tremendous amount of influence over our actions, whether we want it to or not. So far, I don’t think I will get much intelligent resistance with my line of thinking. But let’s keep chasing this rabbit a little further down the trail.

None of us are 100 percent sure that our spouse will never leave us. Some of us are more sure than others, but none of us can fully rest in the idea that we are, and will always be, totally accepted by our spouse. So, it is safe to say that we all have some degree of the fear of abandonment.


Now think about how these fears play out in day-to-day interaction. 

If one of my biggest motivations for choosing a spouse was to be closer to that person than anyone else, to experience true intimacy, emotional and relational and sexual, then I am going to have to make myself vulnerable. However, the more I fear abandonment, the less vulnerable I am going to be. In turn, the less vulnerable I am, the more my spouse will feel abandoned by me.

For example, let’s say my spouse wants to engage in more deep conversations with me, but I tend to avoid deep conversations because I might say something that could lead to being rejected. My conversation-avoidance leads my spouse to feeling unloved and, in turn, rejected, increasing the likelihood of eventually rejecting me as a spouse. Fear then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we fear rejection, the more we do things that lead to being rejected.


For several decades now, it has been widely reported that the divorce rate in North America is about 50 percent. This “statistic” has a huge impact on the collective psyche of our culture. If you told me that a huge part of my future was going to be decided by a coin toss, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to totally invest in something that has just as much chance for failure as it does for success. I’m going to keep some things to the side so that I don’t lose everything if it lands on “tails”. Sign a prenuptial agreement that lets me keep my house? Nah, that would be too obvious! Instead I will spread it out over a bunch of things that don’t seem so obvious: I’ll invest some of my time, money, energy, emotions, etc., into some safety-net things, activities, and relationships. In other words, I’m not going to fully commit to this marriage. 

The problem is, if we don’t fully commit to the marriage, we simply won’t have a good marriage. I believe this is one of the great dilemmas in how our society does relationships. But, it doesn’t have to be!

So now I must confess, for I have been a contributor to the great American marriage fear factor by quoting many of these dismal “statistics”. I haven’t been very successful at substantiating them, so instead have held the “company line” that about one-half of all marriages end in divorce. 

But what if my chances are really better than 50/50? What if there are factors which, if applied, would greatly reduce those chances? Here are some recent findings by researcher and author Shaunti Feldhahn and her team:


The vast majority of marriages are happy.


72 percent of those married are still married to their first spouse.


Of Those who report being very unhappy in their marriage, 80 percent report being happily married, just five years later, with that same spouse.


The rate of divorce among those who are active in their faith is significantly lower than the overall average, most likely lower than 10 percent!

As Feldhahn points out in her recent book, The Good News About Marriage, the common denominator behind thriving marriages is hope.

When a spouse operates out of fear within the marriage, they tend to do a lot of things that keep the relationship on what I call “Relational Probation.” A marriage on relational probation will never see its potential. Some examples are:


Threatening the relationship with separation or divorce


Withholding affection/ love/ sex/ conversation/ approval, in attempt to get the spouse to change


Reinvesting (time, energy, emotions, money) into things other than the marriage


Developing friendships and social structures as a refuge from the marriage


On the other hand, when one operates out of hope, we see more of the following:


Showing more acceptance and less attempts to change the other

Giving love, especially when it isn’t deserved

Investing the bulk of their resources into the relationship (like they did when they were dating)

Developing friendships and social structures that have an interest in the marriage


Now here’s the rub: If you believe that your spouse is acting primarily out of fear, for Peter, Paul and Mary’s sake, don’t try to change them! Attempts to do so will only produce more fear that you don’t accept them. Instead, love out of hope and do more and more of the things that made them want to marry you in the first place!