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March 14, 2018

Worrying is Not a Love Language

You don't worry about your spouse's health, mental health, physical safety, career, and friendships because you love your spouse so much. It's definitely not a measure of how much you love. And it's certainly not a way to show your love.

Think about this. When you show your husband or wife your love with a kindness, a kind word, a gift, your full attention, or an orgasm, you feel great: floating on air joyful or deep down life-is-good satisfied.

That's not how worrying about whether your guy's eating enough fiber or your gal's putting up with too much from her boss makes you feel. Worrying makes you feel crappy.

Worrying is not a love language.

It's a protective trait gone seriously awry in our current environment. When we humans developed this trait, staying hyperalert after any hint of danger was life-preserving and, more importantly, reproductive-ability-preserving. And more worriers than non-worriers survived to produce your ancestors.

So you worry. You worry not because you love someone, but because you have worrier genes, a great imagination, and way too many hints of danger, almost none of which will require urgent action in the next few minutes.

So you (and I) stay hyperalert way too long. We focus in on the threat and search constantly for signs of increasing threat. And while we're hyperalert, we're less creative, less able to pursue our goals, and (uh oh) less able to be loving.

Moods are contagious in any relationship, and especially in a marriage. Your anxiety ramps up your in-danger spouse's anxiety. It keeps you from noticing and responding to positive news from your spouse in a way that amplifies his or her good feelings, something called Active-Constructive Responding, far more important than your sympathy for the health of your marriage. It keeps you from remembering that a healthy marriage needs five times as many upbeat interactions daily as the negative interactions, including your nagging about the threat that worries you. It keeps you from showing the trust and respect that for most men is the very foundation of any relationship.

Worrying comes naturally. Stopping it is not so natural, but it's necessary in a world where the things that threaten us aren't typically a wild animal or avalanche that will or won't kill us in the next 90 seconds or a disease that already killed 25% of our community in a month or a lunatic willing to murder us to take our spouse or child. Staying hyperalert too long damages your relationship and your health.

And because I do a lot of worrying, I've collected evidence-based ways to cut it out. Here are a few.

  • The first step in stopping worrying lies in letting go of any feeling that worrying about a spouse is responsible or loving. It's not. Acting to stop a threat is both responsible and loving. Worrying about it is not. It's counterproductive: normal, natural, but harmful to you and to your relationship.
  • An easy way to stop worrying is to take action to prevent the threat. Get your husband a heating pad to stop the pain he's trying to endure without drugs. Praise your wife's abilities more often while she's dealing with a psycho boss. Make a concrete plan for surviving whatever you fear might happen.
  • If you're catastrophizing about a threat (imagining the awful consequences of the consequences of something that might possibly happen to your spouse, like losing your home because of a heart attack that might follow from the clogged arteries that might happen as a result of your husband eating too much salt), here's a trick from Learned Optimism, Authentic Happiness, and Flourish author and researcher Marty Seligman. Consider the probability of each of these steps happening. Now, just as vividly imagine the results of an equally improbable string of good luck. It's magic! And scientifically proven to work.
  • Let go and let God. If you're religious, stop praying to prevent what you fear and instead trust God will handle it for the two of you. Also scientifically proven to work.

And if none of these work, please ask a psychologist or psychiatrist for help selecting an approach that works for you. They have a bagful of tricks that work.

One thing I learned when my first husband dropped dead at age 35, the day after his doctor said his health was finally out of the woods, is that we are all helpless to control death. When my second husband was very abruptly encouraged by vicious new managers to take an early retirement the year after we married (only to learn two months later that this was not a punishment but a reward, as everyone else in his department was let go without a retirement package), I learned we are helpless to control our careers. Friends who have suffered fires learned we are helpless to control our possessions. But none of us have been helpless to control what happens next.

If you want to truly protect your marriage from death, career disasters, or loss, do it by focusing on enjoying every moment of your marriage, by being loving every chance you get and rolling around like a blissful puppy in the love you're shown. And keep the worry at bay by remembering all the hard times you've come through. You'll come through them again. Make sure you'll have some great memories of the good times to savor when you do.

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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