Do Spouses Worry Too Much?


Do these women seem too worried about their soldiers to you? Or is it normal in military life to have the specter of death lingering on your doorstep?

  • A National Guard wife says she keeps her kitchen cleaner just in case she gets the knock on the door.
  • An Army major’s mom is practical about her son’s service — until she heard Taps played at a funeral.  "It's the idea that my son is in the service," she said. "I hope I never hear this for him."
  • A 22-year old soldier’s mom carries a doll with his face on it in her purse.  "I thought, I need to start preparing myself for either him coming home without any legs or arms or him dying," she said, "or him coming home and becoming an alcoholic because he can't handle what he saw. It's just such a big worry."
These women were featured in an article as part of the Akron Beacon Journal's America Today project, which is designed to explore the issues dividing Americans. The idea that only one percent of Americans serve in the military is one of those issues.

The thing that struck me in the article was how military life was described as “an existence marked by worry and sacrifice, patriotism and pride.”  Is it?  While I am all about the pride and I can cite you chapter and verse on the sacrifices offered up today alone, I really was struck by the notion that our lives are “marked by worry.”

Set apart by worry.

Ruined by worry.

Certainly the worry described by these women is not far from what many of us feel about our own deployed service members.  We usually call it "anticipatory grief."  And while some may think of these women as too dramatic and too overwrought, I don’t know if I do.

I think of this more as a kind of defensive pessimism that actually may be quite healthy.

A while ago I did an interview with Julie K. Norem, professor of psychology at Wellesley College and author of “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.”  Norem identified two of the ways that people deal with stressful situations. Strategic optimists are that 30 -40 percent of the population who don’t feel much anxiety. They set high expectations for a situation then actively avoid thinking much about what might happen.  This is how many military family members deal with the anxiety of having a military loved one at war.  They assume nothing is going to happen and they don’t let themselves think about it any further

Defensive pessimists like the women featured in the article do feel the anxiety — usually by the metric ton. Defensive pessimists prepare for the worst. They mentally play through all the bad things that might happen and then plan accordingly.  (Take this quiz to see if you are a defensive pessimist.)

Norem says that the key finding in her research is that if either type is pressured to go against their natural inclination, they fare poorly. Strategic optimists feel more anxiety if they are forced to plan for the worst. Defensive pessimists get nutsy if they are pressured to be cheerful or accused of worrying too much.

As long as a person can get through the normal requirements of their day, whichever strategy they adopt is good.

“Worrying is not a pathology,” says Norem. “Some people are more anxious. If you feel anxious, the more you need to have a plan.”

That seems about right to me.  We all handle military life differently.  We worry or we don’t.  The key is to do what you have to do so you can get to the other side of a long deployment.

How do you deal with it? Take our poll to the right of screen. When  you're done, view the results below:


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