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The Fear of Relationships

David Whitehouse looks into the fear that dare not speak its name

The Fear of Relationships
07 November 2011

At the entrance to the British Library hang the words of Marie Curie — “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.” It was this fearlessness that saw her overturn long-established theories on physics and chemistry to win two Nobel prizes in a world of academia dominated by men. This same fearlessness, however, also saw Marie Curie carry test tubes of radioactive isotopes — the true power of which she was yet to fully comprehend — around in her pocket.

It’s an oft-feted irony that Marie Curie died of an illness contracted from exposure to radiation. Perhaps what we can learn from this is that we should fear things until we understand them. If that’s the case, we can know there is one thing men will always be scared of. The one thing no amount of learning will let us fully understand: women.

But let’s be realists; most of us being slightly scared of women is entirely acceptable. Namely because they can break your heart, and there is no pain worse. Every man is afraid of handing over their number and being rejected, or looking like an idiot on a first date by turning up in an ill-advised waistcoat/top-hat combo that the shop assistant said looked terrific. Fear affects how we act around women, how we dress around them, even how we eat around them. I once ate sushi on a date as I was too afraid to refute the restaurant choice. And I’m allergic to seafood.

But it doesn’t mean that women want to be scary, or that they don’t harbour similar fears about men. Relationships consist of two complex beings trying not to drive each other insane while attempting alien, high-risk tasks together, such as getting married and having children. Expecting it to work out seamlessly is akin to putting a couple of lobsters in a shoebox and hoping they’ll emerge with a well-choreographed Bolero. But to manage negative emotions such as fear, we have to try to understand where these feelings stem from. And, as Sigmund Freud suggested more than 100 years ago, the answer points to our infancy.


“Mother love, also known as ‘smother love’, can sometimes leave young men feeling as though they have little freedom,” explains Paula Hall, a sexual and relationship psychotherapist. “Some may find themselves emotionally responsible for a mother who relies on her son to give her affirmation and belief in herself as a good mother. This can then leave men with an assumption that women will be overly demanding and needy. Men are more likely to fear being suffocated.”

Said aloud, this just makes men sound like eternally moody teenagers. But it is ingrained in us. Psychologically, it exists. And we will suffer it, even though timidity and fear of commitment are traits that we know rank fairly high up in the big list of things that women find unattractive in the opposite sex, lining up somewhere just behind ‘being in prison’.

But society has its part to play too. Growing up, the central idea of being scared of women is all around us. It is in the behaviour of the role models we sought to emulate, from our fathers who joked of “ball and chains” to the media we consumed. We’re a generation that can still remember when mother-in-law jokes were the pinnacle of stand-up comedy — gags in which the lead was invariably cast as an evil dragon whose raison d’être was to ruin the lives of whoever married their daughter. I remember telling a mother-in-law joke I’d picked up from my dad to my class at school, aged seven, unaware that I was calling my own nan a cow. In (albeit crap) TV sitcoms, hen-pecked husbands were portrayed as being at the mercy of tyrannical wives. Even Lion-O and Panthro would visibly buck-up their behaviour when Cheetara walked in during the joke sequence they used to have at the end of Thundercats. And they were cat-like humanoid aliens from the planet Thundera.

“Like any behaviour or emotional reaction, the fear of women has been learned from somewhere,” says Dr Gian Gonzaga, senior director of research at “It could have been directly, such as if a female role model was abusive, or it could have been indirectly, such as watching a male role model fear women. Men are unlikely to start to fear women because of a TV programme they watch. However, if they already have a fear of women they may use it as evidence to prove that women really are bossy and cruel. So while these images don’t create fear, they could help perpetuate it.”

Perhaps the most uncomfortable outcome of this ingrained apprehension is the newly-spawned industry that preys on men who are petrified of talking to women. The ‘seduction community’, exemplified best by the runaway success of Neil Strauss’s 2005 book The Game, claims to be able to teach foolproof techniques for meeting women by feigning charisma. It’s a hideous turn of events that makes you hanker for the days when people replied to lonely hearts ads on Teletext. Anyone who actually peddles these techniques, or believes they exist, has all the charisma of David Miliband staring at a door.


If men are signing up to The Game workshops in droves, then just how commonplace is this fear of womenfolk? I took it upon myself to conduct a piece of ‘scientific’ research. I asked two friends for their views on the subject. The first, Olly, is 29 and single.“I’m scared of any woman I don’t already know,” he says. “I know that I am too scared to ever go up to a woman I like and start talking to her. And if I did, I’d be afraid of messing it up if we started going out. And then I’ll end up getting scared again if it looks like it’s getting serious.”

Glen is 35 and has been married for four years. Surely he cannot still be wary of his wife after proposing to her?“Yes. I’m scared because if I p*ss her off she’ll get upset, which I don’t like,” he says. “Or she’ll get angry, which I don’t like. I’m scared of any fall-outs because they’re always really horrible.”

I remark that maybe it’s a reasonable request for him to just stop annoying her.

“Yes,” he agrees, “but I can’t. I guess it’s what keeps you on your toes. If you’re not scared or nervous, you stop trying, don’t you? And that’s when it all goes wrong. I’m mainly scared because I don’t want it to go wrong. I like her.”

From this I draw three conclusions. Firstly, if you’re scared of women and you get married, you’re still scared of women, just fewer women than before. Secondly, if the fear of upsetting the women in our lives was a harvestable resource we could use as currency, then good people would be very rich. And thirdly, in most instances, we would genuinely sooner fight a rabid dog than walk over and say hello to a woman we find attractive.

It sounds immature and self-defeating and makes us look ridiculous, but men’s fear of women is a shapeless, intangible shadow that will always exist and, in some darker moments, beat us. Thankfully, Dr Gonzaga believes that there are ways we can overcome it. “The best thing you can do is continue to try to create positive interactions with the women in your life,” he says. “Just like fear is learned, it can be unlearned. It may take time, but as you have more relationships with honest and trusting women, you will find that your fear of them decreases.”

With this in mind I ask Dr Gonzaga for his sage, worldly advice on the single most consuming issue that men face in potentially romantic situations: rejection.

“Fear of rejection stops a lot of men even trying to approach women, but this fear can also be unlearned,” he explains. “In most cases women are flattered to be chatted up, and if they decide they’re not interested, will usually politely decline a man’s advances if they’ve been approached in a pleasant-enough way. If your goal is just to learn about the woman, you will be less worried about being rejected, and more likely to be successful. It also helps to copy the behaviour of men who are confident with women.”

What all this specialist advice has in common is that it is rational and obvious, when relationships tend to be anything but. In fact, if you tried hard enough you could again distil it down into the simple maxim: ‘Why don’t we just grow up a bit?’ But this isn’t about rhyme, reason or common sense. This is about love, and women, and the kind of undeterminable dreads that nest within you and wake you up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Some people may say that fear is all in the mind. It’s not. Real men know fear is in the heart.

Ten tips for approaching women… by a woman: Kate Taylor,’s relationship expert, tells all

1 “Women are more open to conversation when they’re in the ‘social areas’ of a room at a party, like the centre, or near where drinks and food are being served.”

2 “Don’t try too hard to be funny. The simplest lines are often the most effective because they sound genuine. Just a ‘Hi, how are you?’ can be the best opening gambit.”

3 “Stick to low-key compliments as they sound honest. We’re more likely believe you if you call us ‘pretty’ rather than ‘beautiful’.”

4 “Be charming. We will judge you on how you treat everyone — whether you’re speaking to the bartender or our friends.”

5 “Yes, you want to impress, but please don’t boast. It is more impressive if you appear genuinely interested in us and our day.”

6 “If you like a woman, talk to her first. If she sees you chatting up nine other women before her, she’ll assume you’re just looking for a bed for the night, and aren’t fussy about whose it is.”

7 “If you’ve noticed a girl around, tell her — it’s flattering. Just don’t come across too ‘stalkery’.”

8 “Don’t talk about other women. Even if it’s in an uncomplimentary way — it still rankles.”

9“Don’t hand over your business card and say you’d love us to ring you. Be the man. You call us.”

10 “Approach from the front and smile — body language research says women can get spooked if you sidle up from the side.”