Has your search for the perfect partner turned you into a total mess? If so, it’s time to chill out — for the sake of both your mental and physical health. According to Martin Rossman, M.D., author of The Worry Solution, letting go of dating-related stress is simple when you understand the difference between “good” and “bad” worrying and learn how to redirect “bad” worrying into a productive, useful process for finding The One. In our Q&A session below, he fills us in on why we worry so much about finding love, how stress can (sometimes) be helpful during the dating process — and the way to banish dating-related stress and anxiety permanently.
Q: Why is the process of searching for The One particularly stressful or worrisome for so many people?
A: Because it’s such an important life event. Deciding whom we spend our lives with may be the single most important decision we ever make in terms of our daily happiness, the direction of our lives, the kinds of children we have and even our future health. Young people today see that half of all marriages end in divorce — almost always a painful experience and, sometimes, a very ugly one. They see the emotional and financial toll that divorce takes because they have frequently experienced it in their own family or have close friends and relatives who have gone through it. If nothing else, they see the “musical chairs” approach to marriage in Hollywood and with musical celebrities, and the multiple infidelities and betrayals by prominent politicians. It makes it seem almost impossible to find a mate who will be committed and true to you through thick and thin. It makes it difficult to give your heart away.
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Q: In your book, you explain how humans’ brains are actually “wired” to worry about finding a romantic partner. How so?
A: The brain is an organ whose chief evolutionary function is to keep us alive so we can procreate and continue the survival of our species, which generally requires finding a mate or sexual partner. The search for love takes place in three different parts of our brain. One part simply asks, “Can I mate with this thing?” while another part, the emotional brain, concerns itself with our relationships and our place in the social order. This is the part of the brain that makes it so important to us to be liked and accepted, and it has a lot to do with our chemical and emotional reactions to people, including who we find sexually attractive. Lastly, there’s a part that gives us our ability to analyze, think, imagine and anticipate the future. It is what makes humans different from all other creatures, and it offers both an advantage and disadvantage in forming our relationships. In other animals, it is strictly sexual attraction to the strongest, most powerful male or the prettiest, sweetest female that drives mating behaviors. But with humans, there are other factors that we start thinking about — does this guy have a future? Does he have a job? Will he make a good father? Or, does she really love me or is she looking for a sugar daddy? Will she be a good mother? Often, the attraction and the analysis are at odds with each other, and that creates internal conflict and makes it hard to commit to a relationship. Ideally, we find someone to whom we are madly attracted who also passes the good husband/good wife test. However, these traits are frequently not necessarily tied together in people.
Q: So if we’re biologically conditioned to worry about finding a good mate, does that mean that, in some ways, worrying about meeting The One is a good thing?
A: What I call “good worry” solves problems and helps us avoid preventable dangers, so it can be helpful to “worry” about finding the right partner — just as long as you do so in a way that does not stress you out to the point that it affects your health. “Good worry” when dating consists of using your imagination to think and daydream about what you would ideally want in a lover or mate. Focus on thinking about everything your mate would be: What would this person look like, act like, sound like, even smell like? What would his/her interests be? What kind of family would this person come from? How would he or she look at you, talk to you, touch you? So, instead of stressing about “Will I ever meet someone who isn’t a jerk?” or “Will I ever meet someone who is drama-free?” imagine how he or she would be in your ideal scenario.
Q: Can you offer some tips on how to do this?
A: Tune into your body and see if you can tell how you would know this is the right person for you. Where do you imagine you might meet this kind of person? At a place of work? Through a friend? A foreign country? A rehab center? In doing this, you should also think about what is unacceptable in someone you’d have a relationship with. What characteristics are you definitely not interested in? Identifying these can save you time that you don’t need to waste when you are looking for your soul mate. By cultivating and observing your daydreams about your ideal partner, you’ll get a clearer idea of what your emotional brain is looking for, and you can be on the lookout for that. Of course, this is a normal part of getting ready for love — we do it constantly as teenagers and young men and women. It’s when the clock starts ticking that we become more worried and less imaginative about what The One would look like.
Q: What is “bad” worrying when it comes to dating and how does that negatively affect people?
A: Bad worrying when you date generally happens as a result of having a runaway imagination and circular thinking — endless pondering on things like, “What if he leaves me?” or “I’ll never fall in love!” These kinds of thoughts end up stimulating anxiety and stress responses in the body that are not only very uncomfortable, they are draining and exhausting as well. When you worry, the thinking brain sends “alarm” messages through you, stimulating the well-known “fight-or-flight” response which prepares the body to protect itself with a surge of intense physical activity to fight off a predator or enemy. The trouble is, with so many of our worries — especially the ones that are habitual — there is nothing to fight or run away from, and we end up stewing in these powerful chemical juices, like adrenaline. The heart beats faster, blood pressure goes up, blood clots faster, we may need to go to the bathroom more, we have trouble sleeping and we become more vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses — including serious ones in middle age, like heart disease and even cancer. Unrelieved worry and stress also leads many people to toxic coping behaviors like overeating, drinking too much, smoking, or other drug use that further heightens the risk of illness, so it’s critically important to learn how to release unnecessary stress and deal only with what really needs your attention.
Q: Is it possible to rewire ourselves to be worry-free (or stress-reduced) when looking for love?
A: I’m not sure people want to be worry-free because, again, worrying helps identify what we want and don’t want, helps us avoid danger, and helps us solve problems when used properly. However, we can certainly free ourselves from “bad,” futile, unproductive worry. Mark Twain said, “I have known many troubles in my life, most of which never happened.” Studies show that 85% of the time the things we worry about do not happen, and even when they do, 79% of people say they handled them better than they thought they would. A bad worrying habit comes from letting your imagination run away with fearful thoughts. It’s like owning a powerful car without really knowing how to drive — it’s dangerous! The good news is that you can (and should) use your imagination for solving problems rather than creating them. Doing those types of imagination exercises I mentioned previously can eliminate a huge percentage of your everyday worry and stress while looking for love. By imagining what you could have instead of what you think you won’t, you’ll take control of — and hopefully eliminate — your stress.
When DC-based journalist Chelsea Kaplan isn’t helping you solve your relationship problems, she’s making jewelry. Check it out atwww.chelseabellejewelry.com.