If Your Partner Has a Phobia

© By Peter S. Silin, MSW, RSW, CCC

Being the partner of someone who has a phobia can bring up many different emotions. It can be frustrating and make you feel helpless. Sometimes people feel that they are failing because they should be able to help their partner when there is such fear. You may also be totally baffled about why your partner is frightened, because it just does not make sense to you.

Phobias do not make sense, usually. But the fear is real. People can also not be talked out of their phobia. If they could, it would not be a phobia. Whereas rationally they may understand it is nothing, the fight/flight activating part of their brain does not. There are literally hundreds of things that people have phobias about. Common ones are heights, flying, bridges, snakes and spiders. But it can be literally anything.

A phobia is an extreme fear reaction in which the body's fight/flight system is activated. When that happens, whether a fear is real or not, a person just reacts, the fear is the body getting ready to protect the person. The greater the fear, the less able someone is to calm themselves down. Even the fear itself can be frightening to someone because it is so extreme, so their reaction is to try to limit situations in which they might be triggered. This can lead to a gradual expansion of the number and scope of situations they try to avoid as they try to insure their safety.

It can be helpful to have your partner talk to you about what it is like for them. There is often a huge component of shame in a phobia, so not only are they dealing with overwhelming fear, they are trying to manage shame. It can affect their self worth and how they handle their life and relationships, including with you. For instance they may avoid old friends or making new ones, because they do not want people to know about their fears.

Being the partner of someone who has a phobia is difficult for a number of reasons. Not only is their life limited, sometimes it may seem like yours is too. If your partner cannot go out, touch something, go somewhere, travel, eat something, then that makes it difficult for you to do it also. If you do, you may feel guilty, so it may seem like you cannot win. It is important that you continue to allow your own life to be full, so that you do not get trapped.

First of all, remember that it is permissible to have the frustration and annoyance. That is just your reaction. It does not mean that you also do not feel compassion or want to help. Acknowledging it is not acting on it. It is important for you to be able to talk about what your partner's phobia is like for you. The way you do it is what matters. The situation is no different from how it would be if your partner had an illness—you do not want to blame them for the phobia. Remember they probably feel trapped by it also—more trapped than you.

Some things that may help:

  1. Talk quietly to your partner, reminding them that although they feel frightened there is no danger. If the fear is high, it may help to talk loudly, but not in a threatening way, so that they can hear you over the fear
  2. Touch them in a way that will help them feel calmer, such as holding their hand, or shoulder
  3. Let them know that they can get away if they really need to.
  4. Remind them that the fear will dissipate and that they will be all right.
  5. Learn as much as you can about phobias.
  6. Talk to other people who are the partners of someone with a phobia, either in person or online.
  7. Encourage them to find some counselling.

Remember, if your partner is extremely frightened, then words may not really help. They may need to get away. Touch may help.

The very best thing to do is to ask your partner what they would like you to do for them while they are in fear.


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