Do Spouses Worry Too Much?

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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:

About the Author

Jacey Eckhart
Jacey Eckhart is the former Director of Spouse and Family Programs for Military.com. Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan?? Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times. Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom. Find her at JaceyEckhart.net.
  • mel

    All this time I thought it weird that I needed to plan for all types of results, good and bad, and now I read that it’s a normal coping skill and it even has a name. Yay!! for defensive pessimism.

  • I think it’s good to plan, but I don’t think it’s healthy to worry all the time. I used to worry a TON when my husband was deployed the first time and it costed me a lot of sleep! As I matured I realized that there was no sense in worrying so much because he’d more than likely come home. If he does get hurt or dies I’ll cross that bridge when I get there (after I’ve prepared for it financially and such ;))

  • Syven914

    I served as the Casualty Manager’s Assistant for 2 years in Germany while my husband was deployed. I received more 3 am phone calls then anyone needs in a lifetime and I don’t recall worrying about my husband until that phone rang. It was a coping mechanism. My job was to assist but it ended up encompassing so much more – comforting unit members, comforting widows, comforting children, etc. Hubby has deployed twice since that first deployment and it gets harder with each deployment – I do worry more each time. When he’s home, I don’t worry but when he’s deployed, I’m definitely a Defensive Pessimist.

  • Amber

    I suffered from anticipatory grief as a military spouse while my husband was deployed for 16 months in Iraq. I have been collecting data for my dissertation over the past year, on the topic of anticipatory grief among spouses of deployed service members. I have had a hard time finding a group of women or men who report similar experiences to mine or endorse what is described as defensive pessimism here – but I see many articles and responses all over the place supporting my hypotheses. I continually read books and articles that support that this is a phenomenon and my hope was to support it empirically. Even if I am not able to do that, I am glad that the military is recognizing that spouses experience numerous responses to deployment and the potential life-threat to their loved ones. Knowledge can only increase effective approaches and help.

  • SemperSteen

    I try not to think about it, honestly. My guy’s been in Afghanistan for several months now and I make a point to not watch the news and steer clear of any movies, documentaries or tv shows having to do with war or the military. I keep busy, communicate with him as often as possible and hope for the best. The worry is there- it’s always there – but I make sure to not let it consume my life.

  • Claudia Menke

    I have been trying to locate Christain Ritz from New York for several months with no response. He is with either the Army or the Marines. I am a Grandma of an Army friend and have tried to keep track of his friends. Can anyone help? Thank you and blessings!