Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash
Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Shutting Down


My husband and I have been married for almost nine months. I must admit that marriage has been much more difficult than I'd expected. I knew we would have disagreements, but when we fight I shut down and don't respond. I think this is because my family never talked things out. My husband's family was totally the opposite. How can I learn to communicate what I'm feeling and thinking to my husband?


The key to learning how to communicate feelings and thoughts to our spouse is to be clear about what is actually driving our hurts and pain. In other words, we must get to the core and actually talk about what is beneath the surface. Instead of getting stuck arguing about the issue (i.e., money, sex, kids, work, etc.) or what the other person is doing, we have an opportunity to discuss what is really going on deep inside of us.

What drives our hurt and frustrations in marriage? Buttons. Every person on the planet has buttons. What’s a button? Think about how you feel when someone says something or does something that hurts you, or scares you, or frustrates you. Instantly, you find yourself reacting to them in some way. Maybe you start to defend yourself or criticize them, or perhaps you shut down and start to withdraw. Regardless of what you do, the key is to notice that your “button” just got pushed.

So what are some of the most common “buttons” and what do they sound like in the marriage?

  • Rejected: My spouse doesn’t want me.
  • Abandoned: My spouse will ultimately leave me.
  • Failure: I am not successful at being a husband/wife.
  • Helpless: I will be controlled by my spouse.
  • Inadequate: I am incompetent.
  • Unloved: My spouse has little affection or desire for me.
  • Defective: Something is wrong with me.
  • Worthless: I have little value to my spouse.
  • Don’t measure up: I am not good enough as a mate.
  • Unimportant: I am of little priority to my spouse.

And these are just a few of the buttons we may have. Actually, another word for buttons is fear. If you think about it, this shouldn’t be so surprising. Fear is as old as the Garden of Eden. In the beginning, Adam and Eve enjoyed a perfect and satisfying relationship with God and with one another. But the moment they disregarded God’s instructions and chose instead to follow the serpent’s advice, fear took over. It spoiled their relationship to God and to each other. “He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid’” (Genesis 3:10). And we have been feeling its destructive effects ever since.

The reason identifying your buttons or fear is important is that it is the music that starts the dance that keeps a marriage stuck in this vicious cycle. We call this the “Fear Dance.” You would think that the Fear Dance is not a dance anyone would choose to do. You would think most people would rather do a Love Dance or a Joy Dance, something positive. But unless we understand the Fear Dance and how we can choose not to do it, it seems to be the default dance in most relationships.

So how does the Fear Dance work? To make sure you understand the dance, let’s take a look what the Fear Dance might look like for you.

Through thousands of counseling sessions, both in our clinic and with people around the world, we have come to realize that when a conflict stirs powerful emotions of hurt, it also touches specific fears. When someone pushes your fear button, you tend to react with unhealthy words or actions calculated to motivate the other person to change and give you what you want. What we want is usually the opposite of the fear. If we fear being a failure, we want to feel successful. If we fear being rejected, we desire to feel accepted. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1).

Often your reactions triggers fears in your mate, who then reacts with unhealthy words or actions to try to get you to fulfill his or her wants. And suddenly the two of you end up in a full-blown Fear Dance.

Most people—consciously and unconsciously—fall into this well-worn pattern of reacting when someone pushes their fear buttons.

They’ll do anything to soothe their hurt and desires. They’ll do or say anything to calm their fears.

More often than not, emotions and thinking result in behavior that damages relationships. When you fear that your wants will not be fulfilled, you react. You may fear losing control, so you try to seize control. You may fear losing connection, so you try to seize connection. Our team describes these reactions as your attempt to become the broker for your own wants. Reactions are “strategies” we employ to get the other person to help us with our desires. You desperately want your way—to be sovereign, to overcome your feelings of helplessness.

This means that it’s not merely your fears that disrupts and injures your relationships. It’s how you choose to react when someone pushes your fear buttons. Most of us use unhealthy, faulty reactions to deal with our fear, and as a result we sabotage our relationships.

The Fear Dance works with guaranteed success every time it goes in motion. It doesn’t matter what you throw at it; it works perfectly to get you right to where you don’t want to be. And it does it every time, without fail.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. We do cope in unhealthy ways, but we do it with a worthy goal of keeping the relationship going. You might call such a system “functionally dysfunctional.” It’s functional in that it keeps two people bouncing off one another. It allows them to continue some sort of interaction, even if that interaction consistently hurts. It functions in a painful, crazy kind of way. At the same time, however, it’s deeply dysfunctional. The relationships it creates bring tremendous pain. The Fear Dance “works” in that it allows the people involved to continue some sort of relationship, but it has no power to create the kind of relationships they really want.

When we describe the Fear Dance, most everyone “gets it.” They quickly see how destructive the Fear Dance can be. They grasp its dangers and recognize its sorry track record in their own relationships.

One of the worst things about the Fear Dance is that, eventually, it makes us dependent on other people for our happiness and fulfillment. We look to our spouse to fulfill our desires. And there’s something functionally dysfunctional about such a dependency. God created us to depend on him, and as human beings, we naturally gravitate toward being dependent. But there’s a problem: such dependency was designed and reserved for God alone, not for our spouses or friends or bosses. So although the Fear Dance “works,” after a fashion, it cannot bring us to where we want to be.

The key to breaking the Fear Dance is to first identify your buttons, and then your reactions. Remember, you can either talk on a surface level, arguing about the issue or what the other person does that hurts or frustrates you, or you can talk about what is really driving your hurt and frustration—your buttons. Buttons or fears can be a very useful source of information, and acknowledging and discussing your buttons can open the door to an intimate moment.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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