Or that your partner needs a medical or dental procedure, but her fear of needles and blood is so severe, she chooses to ignore the problem instead.
Or that your partner is afraid of cats, so when you move in together, your beloved cat who has been your companion for many years has to find a new home.
Most people have things they are scared of, but when your partner’s phobia prevents you from being able to live the life you want, confusion, frustration, and anger can ruin an otherwise healthy relationship. While a person generally is not able to “just get over” a phobia, there is help.
First, let’s talk a little about what phobias are and how they develop. “Specific phobias” are one of the six types of diagnosable anxiety disorders. Phobias are extremely specific and irrational. Generally, the person with a phobia knows that their fear is irrational, but even the thought of facing their phobia evokes panic and anxiety. Also, phobias are typically not around things people have to contend with in daily life, although they are certainly inconvenient. For example, someone with a fear of elevators or flying or heights could probably function normally most days, unless they were in a circumstance where they came in contact with their phobia regularly.
We don’t know what causes phobias to develop, although sometimes having a traumatic experience can increase the chances of the person developing a phobia of something involved in that experience as a result. Women more than men tend to develop phobias, and they often bloom in adolescence or early adulthood. Kids who have phobias often outgrow them, but not always.
The most common phobias (in no particular order) include fear of heights, flying, dogs, blood/needles, closed-in spaces, spiders, snakes, thunderstorms, and germs. A comprehensive list of other phobias can be found here.
My partner has a phobia. Now what?
You already took step one: learning a little more about phobias. Step two is to eliminate any accommodation behaviors you might be doing, such as checking the room for spiders before your partner enters, or avoiding flying, even though it would be far more convenient than driving, taking the train, etc. Although it may seem kind and loving to “help” your partner in this way, what you are actually doing is reinforcing the fear AND teaching your partner that they cannot overcome their phobia.
But you said my partner will freak out at the thought of facing their phobia. How do I not intervene or just roll with it so we can get on with life?
Professional treatment for phobias is fairly quick and easy. Most phobia sufferers are best treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Anti-anxiety medications help to ease your partner’s worries, and cognitive behavioral or exposure therapy helps your partner “unlearn” their response to what triggers their phobia. Other options include alternative treatments, such as hypnosis, homeopathy, and virtual reality.
If I get my partner to agree to treatment, am I done?
Once your partner is in treatment, your help and involvement is still essential. You need to be supportive and encouraging, especially since your partner will likely have homework to practice getting over the phobia. Your partner’s treatment team may ask you to attend some sessions so they can educate you. It is also important to make sure you are caring for yourself and are receiving your own support, if needed. With all support systems in place, your partner should be able to recover, and your lives together can proceed as planned.
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Last reviewed: 24 Feb 2012