The more we withdraw from challenges, the more fearful we become. The problem with avoidance is that the underlying issues don’t get resolved. Fear doesn’t grow unless it’s fed. Whenever we encounter a difficult situation, there is the possibility of deepening our fear through avoidance or diminishing it by facing what we are afraid of. The outcome of our actions may be less important than whether or not we confront the situation. The greatest failure is the failure to face the truth.
Rita and Mimi are a lesbian couple. They were both avoiders. Neither could bear to bring up concerns that might be disturbing. Rita grew up in a chaotic family where conflict almost always led to physical or emotional violence. More often than not, she found herself on the receiving end.
She learned to protect herself by keeping her mouth shut and going along with what she thought was expected of her. Mimi grew up in a family where no one ever spoke above a whisper. “My family was so quiet,” Mimi said one day, “that they made the morgue sound rowdy.” Not only did she never witness her parents fighting, she never even saw a minor disagreement. If they ever did argue, it was behind closed doors. She grew up believing that arguments were wrong and scary. They must be dangerous, she concluded, since her parents would do anything rather than fight, even drink addictively and endure major depression.
It wasn’t the past that was destroying Mimi and Rita’s relationship. It was the current reality of a shared conspiracy to avoid expressing feelings to each other. Rita and Mimi felt the normal hurts, disappointments, frustrations, and grievances that all couples feel from time to time. The problem was that neither ever acknowledged them. The more they withheld, the more fearful they became. This bred more withholding. Eventually their relationship deteriorated into a wasteland of resentment. When they finally felt they had nothing to lose, they came to relationship counseling wanting to find out if there was anything left to salvage.
Together they began the excruciatingly difficult task of breaking patterns of denial and avoidance that had been present in each of their families for generations. They struggled with their own fears of conflict, as well as the fears of the parents, grandparents, and beyond who had passed this pattern on to their children. If it weren’t for Mimi and Rita’s desire not to inflict this pattern on their own daughter, they would almost certainly have been unmotivated to take on this huge challenge. Their love for her prompted them to find the courage to finally speak openly to each other. At first, a painful level of anxiety filled their conversations. Both Mimi and Rita felt certain that the violation of their families’ unspoken rules of denial would result in unbearable suffering and grave punishment. But gradually the opposite proved to be the case. With each encounter, they both became less fearful and more courageous.
Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s the willingness to act in the face of fear from a deeper commitment. Rita and Mimi both had this commitment. Although it was born out of their love for their daughter, in time it took root in the love for themselves and each other. Their willingness to confront their own fear liberated them from what had only recently been the paralyzing grip of the past.