Does Everyone Freak Out When They’re Engaged?
08.22.17

When Erin’s partner proposed in 2013, she was thrilled, but she had no idea the moment would kick off a months-long slog through intermittent anxiety and doubt over her decision. They’d been together for five years, the possibility of getting married had been on the horizon for months. She thought she was ready.

“I didn’t expect the nervous pit in my stomach to stick around so long,” she told me over the phone. “But suddenly, it felt like our relationship was under a microscope, and I was holding it.” She also explained that, after the initial excitement wore off, she and her partner were fighting more than usual. “I couldn’t figure out why, at the moment we should have been closest, we seemed to be drifting apart.”

In our culture, we have this over-idealized idea about what love is, and about what relationships are.

Erin, whose name I’ve changed for her privacy, is not alone in this experience. I’ve watched friends go through something eerily similar. The more I hear about it, the more I’ve started to wonder: Is freaking out while engaged a common experience no one talks about?

Dr. Linda Carroll is a long-time therapist and relationship coach, a seminar speaker and the author of Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting LoveI asked her if this is something she comes across often.

“In our culture, we have this over-idealized idea about what love is, and about what relationships are,” Dr. Carroll says. “And nowhere does this come out more dramatically than in the wedding industry.”

I’ll take that as a yes. She explains that love is a feeling that will come and go over the course of a relationship, and that the expectation for it to stay static can cripple couples. “If our idealistic society is focused around relationships, and being happy forever, there’s this tendency we have to deny the inevitable problems.”

Engagement marks a shift in the context of a relationship, she says, and that shift can manifest in different ways, by either magnifying problems that seemed inconsequential or bringing out differences a couple didn’t know existed.

“When you actually say, ‘Yes, we’re going to get married,’ the other side of the polarity comes rushing in,” Dr. Carroll explains, “and suddenly you’re freaked out about all the things you haven’t paid attention to, or you’ve put away, and all of a sudden you think, ‘Oh my god, I can’t stand her family,’ or, ‘Oh my god, this is his third marriage,’ or, ‘Oh my god, we don’t even like the same things!'” The hard parts of the relationship, which Dr. Carroll calls “the other truths,” will be spotlit.

Monica, whose name I’ve also changed, was 26 when her husband proposed. She was one of the first among her friends to get married, so when she went through subsequent bouts of doubt and anxiety, those feelings alarmed her.

At first I tried to hide it because I didn’t think this was normal.

“I think that this secret [freak-out] phenomenon happens with a lot of things, including becoming a mother, which I went through last year,” Monica tells me. “People don’t want to talk about how difficult things are. Like, everything looks really perfect on social media, and people think, ‘Oh look, she got a huge engagement ring and she looks so happy,’ but that person’s not going to post about her argument with her fiancé that morning about what types of flowers they want at their wedding.”

Monica and her husband have now been married for five years and are doing great, but she remembers the urgency with which she felt her unrest. “At first I tried to hide it because I didn’t think this was normal. I really thought all this arguing and the problems around wedding planning meant he and I weren’t meant to be together.”

In hindsight, she chalks a lot of it up to a mismatch in expectations. “You look forward to this event that’s supposed to define a new chapter in your life, and then [the engagement] happens and there are all these new differences that come up.” She and her husband had different ideas about how the planning should go, what the wedding should be like and even what they thought marriage would look like. They were financing the wedding themselves, which caused tension. She also says they were “young and dumb,” and said regrettable things during fights — like a time he said he only proposed to keep her around. She says it felt like a slap in the face.

“I ended up going to a therapist by myself, because I thought, ‘Crap. I think I’m getting myself into the wrong situation.’ And for me, in my ideal world, I think getting married happens one time, so I just freaked out that maybe I was making a huge mistake.” Monica and her husband are both children of divorce, and didn’t want their marriage to meet the same fate.

Dr. Carroll says it’s appropriate to be anxious, to some extent. It’s true that 50% of marriages end in divorce, she says, and that it is, indeed, one of life’s biggest decisions, but some of the unrest could be fixed by reframing.

So how do you know if your anxiety is just a result of making a big change, or something more serious — like making a big mistake?

“I think if you can’t figure out the answer — if you don’t recognize the difference — that’s a really good time to see a coach or a therapist,” Dr. Carroll tells me. She suggests that you don’t rely on your friends alone (or worse, your partner) in this scenario. “There’s too much subjectivity.”

Even though our wedding was so much fun, I don’t look back on our engagement fondly.

Monica says therapy during her period of engagement was a huge help. “My only regret is that we didn’t have sessions together as a couple to talk about what our expectations would be once we were married, and that’s something we’ve had to push through afterwards. But going to a therapist by myself helped me realize what was fueling some of my anxiety.” Monica thinks every couple should go through a year of counseling prior to deciding to get engaged. “I think it’s smart, just having someone to talk to on a regular basis, either individually or together. Because none of us are completely unbiased, right?”

Erin didn’t seek out therapy, but wishes she had. “Even though our wedding was so much fun, I don’t look back on our engagement fondly. It brought out some of our worst sides. It still kind of haunts me.” But she says that she never doubted whether she wanted to marry her partner — of that she was always sure — it was more a fear that they were doing it wrong, and lacking the tools to do it right. That’s where she thinks a counselor could have helped, and still probably could.

Monica says it’s been interesting watching her friends go through similar experiences. “I don’t bring up ‘how exciting’ the wedding planning must be. Instead I say, ‘This is a really stressful time. I went through the exact same thing. I was super stressed all the time and we argued; it’s very normal.'” She believes at the heart of the problem is everyone’s romanticization of the process.

Dr. Carroll thinks couples need to go into relationships and marriages more realistically — it’s not a fairytale — but also be careful to look inward and really listen to themselves when deciding to make a commitment. “I’ve had people tell me they knew when we they getting married that it was a huge mistake, but that they didn’t know how to stop it.”

She urges people to seek out help right away if they’re feeling stuck, or at the very least, take care to ask themselves some hard questions, such as: Is the anxiety a consequence of societal pressure? Of divorce statistics? Denial about a mismatch? “Is there something within you that’s saying, ‘I’m really in love with this person, but there is something in me that says this could turn into real trouble down the road’?”

Your answers to the hard questions may be telling.

Collages by Emily Zirimis.

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  • Abbie

    I felt the same way when we got engaged–so much pressure and scrutiny. After 5 years of marriage, two things that helped:

    1. Remember that 50% divorce statistic is across all demographics. Find YOUR demographic and you’ll likely be comforted. Are you over 25? College educated? Your cohort has an 8-in-10 chance of being married for >20 years.
    http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/04/education-and-marriage/

    2. Premarital counseling from anyone you trust. We got married in the Presbyterian church my mom was a member of (neither of us are religious at all) and our counseling was extremely good. The pastor broke it up into three sessions which he said cause the majority of marital strife: families of origin, money, and sex. You could discuss those topics with any one you trusted, including a long-married couple you respect. Going back to what we learned in counseling has been a huge help to us.

    I still wish we’d eloped and saved the money and the stress of wedding planning, but that’s water under the bridge now.

    • Bee

      Your Pew Research link was really interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  • I found getting engaged in the first place to be the most stressful part! Maybe because my partner and I opted for the more traditional model – he proposed to me and it was *supposed* to be a surprise.

    Even though we talked about it before the actual proposal and it wasn’t a one-sided decision, I felt like he had all the control and power, and it really threw me for a loop. In the end he planned an “engagement week” and told me we’d be engaged by the end of the week so I could relax and enjoy the process, which was perfect, but all my friends who are engaged or married have said the same thing about pre-engagement anxiety!

    • Emily Legges

      I completely understand the pre-engagement jitters. My husband and I had been together for 5 years and had bought a house together, there wasn’t any question about whether it was going to happen it was only the “when” question.

      My husband doesn’t like to talk about things until they’re actually happening whereas I like to disect, so he didn’t want to talk about getting engaged, he was just going to ask me to traditionally propose at some point, even though he knew what the answer would be. Even though I knew it was coming there was a voice in the back of my mind suggesting that he wasn’t going to marry me and because he didn’t want to talk about it I would just never know and it would be a vicious cycle – obvs this didn’t happen, but I do think the pre-engagement anxiety was worse than any pre-wedding.

  • I have to admit I think a long, honest, thorough conversation about getting married is absolutely necessary – whether without or with a counselor. I would go for counselling the moment the conversation turns into an argument and would suggest taking all the time necessary for both parts to think and talk things through.

    The reason is simple: when you reach an agreement with your partner, you also have the terms for what is actually a contract between two human beings, a contract entailing many emotional aspects and therefore quite necessary. A point from which both can grow – together and also each of them as a separate person.

    (I did have it easy … no official engagement, just an elopment and pictures afterwards. I still worried beforehand and so did my husband – we talked about it and have been trying to be good partners ever since, nothing else. If you know the other person is worried, too, you both have the same problem and may as well solve it together, no?)

  • Hayley

    My husband and I didn’t have a traditional engagement period either. He and I had been discussing it openly for a while, and after we successfully discussed the matter, we worked on designing our rings. Once the rings came, and were fitted, we were then engaged; there was no pomp and circumstance about that part. I think having open conversations about long-term goals related to marriage should actually be discussed prior to getting engaged and really committing to it. Once he and I were engaged I didn’t really worry about it, and he didn’t either.

    • wafflesfriendswork

      That sounds like my partner and I–we’re not engaged “officially,” but we’ve discussed what we want our future to look like, how we want to deal with finances, etc. From the beginning of our relationship we tried to be open books about everything, and we’ve pretty much maintained that throughout. That alone is enough to erase any doubts for me!

    • liz

      Similar story here. We talked about getting married, decided it was right for us, and he took me to pick out a ring. We’ll get married at City Hall at some point. This narrative is majorly disappointing to anyone who asks, but I think it suits us quite well 🙂

      • Hayley

        I love it! Congrats!

      • Paula Rodio

        Congratulations! Same here…he proposed, then we went to buy the ring together…and one day a few months later, we marched on over to the courthouse and got married. And you’re right, I can see the disappointment in the face of anyone who asks…but it worked for us. I love my ring and it’s been 10 years.

    • Xaolynn Lee

      Agree and us too! Discussed, decided and have our rings customized with diamonds from his grandma. We are happy.

  • Jeanie

    I wasn’t nervous at all about marrying my husband. I wasn’t sure about marriage for a long time, but then suddenly I felt sure and we started hinting at getting married. Though I was unhappy about how my husband proposed. I wasn’t expecting much, but he proposed at the worst time! And the ring didn’t even fit. Getting married made me realize he’s bad at planning. I had to plan the wedding and honeymoon mostly by myself. It’s not that he doesn’t care, but just never thinks of things that need to be figured out. My point is problems do reveal itself after engagement. I still feel super confident about our marriage, but I’m not very sure about having kids, and it’s not unrelated to my fear that I would have to take most of the responsibility.

    • gracesface

      oof, girl I hear you on this.

    • june2

      ahh, yes, The Mental Load women carry in a relationship. The article below addresses it in an illuminating way, and also offers a link to a great-for-perspective rebuttal article from a man’s point of view at the end:

      http://time.com/money/4561314/women-work-home-gender-gap/

  • Shevaun

    My partner and I have felt like the wedding shouldn’t be a big deal because ideally the marriage shouldn’t change anything. We are just as committed to each other outside of then marriage as we will be inside, whenever that happens.

    I think a lot of couples go into weddings and marriage thinking “This is the most important day! This will change everything!” When hopefully, it shouldn’t, at least as far as commitment goes (I guess living situations might change).

    Then again, my partner and I have lived together for 90% of our relationship, and marriage doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to us anymore so idk ¯_(ツ)_/¯

    • Hayley

      Agreed. The marriage itself shouldn’t change anything in your relationship (minus the legal aspects of marriage), and ideally, nothing will really change after you get married.*

      *Unless you get your name changed, then a lot of documentation will change, but you know what I mean.

      • Shevaun

        Yeah the legality stuff for sure! but emotional or stability, no.

        And I mean, it took us a while to get to that point! Two years in, neither of us wanted to get married. Three years in, he didn’t but I did. Four years neither of us again. But at about 6 years in, we got to that point where we realized that if we ever did, it wouldn’t change anything. We’d be together forever even if we didn’t do all that paperwork.

        Sort of personal question (which you don’t have to answer): did you change your name, and how do you feel about that? I’m still uncertain.

        • Hayley

          Hi! Yes, I did. I preferred his last name to mine for multiple reasons. He didn’t mind whichever way I went and didn’t pressure me to change it, which made the decision even easier for me.

          • Shevaun

            Ah yeah that’s sort of the situation I’m in too! My partner doesn’t mind either way. I want to hyphenate but then I would have the most fantasy-ass name EVER [Ruby-Forest].

            Hopefully I’ll make a decision at some point 😂

          • Hayley

            Ruby-Forest is amazing. I love it.

            But also, from a shallow standpoint, determine which name sounds best phonetically to you, which set of initials you prefer, etc. etc. My maiden name was such a pain (always mispronounced and misspelled) and I really hated it, but either option for you is straight forward.

          • Shevaun

            That’s good advice! Thanks for talking at me! 👋🏾

          • Hayley

            Anytime. Glad to provide advice!

          • Jessyca Taef

            Hope you don’t mind if I jump in real quick to note that it’s conversation like these that make me fall in love with MR over & over.

            Also, Ruby-Forest sounds straight out of LOTR & could not be cooler!

          • Kate

            Um definitely become Ruby-Forest!!! (also do what you want but that is badassed)

    • Kiks

      Yeah, husband and I bought a house together after six months of dating. When we did get married two years later, it was just fun — because we had already ironed out the majority of our “is this the real deal” concerns and disagreements.

      Not to say that planning the wedding wasn’t stressful, it was. But I didn’t really have any anxiety about whether I should marry him.

      Now, a few months after we got married when his mum got really sick and moved in with us for several months…that was a test of our relationship that I would not wish on anyone. He is my favourite person in the world, my best friend, and the best person I know. But the stress of that still felt, at the time, like it might break us — because life and love are difficult to navigate no matter how perfect you are for each other!

      • Shevaun

        I’m glad you both were able to work through the tough times! Now hopefully smoother sailing through out 🙂

  • Natalia

    If we all just realized d that no relationship is “meant to be” but instead is a choice, the engagement period would be a lot less traumatic and probably even more of a romantic and happy time since it would be rooted in truth and not in some imposition from destiny

  • Abby

    I didn’t get a proposal – we just decided to get married – and I wore my Grandmother’s engagement ring, which had been in my jewelry box since I was 16, so there wasn’t a lot of excitement around that initial part.

    My engagement was pretty tough, though: we were what many people thought was too young, my husband quit his job to go back to school, my husband was diagnosed with a mental illness that really consumed our lives for awhile, and I didn’t appreciate how much of the planning I had to do alone.

    I never felt like it was the wrong choice for us to get married, interestingly, or worried about making a mistake. I think all the difficult stuff made me appreciate our relationship more and now, a few years on the other side of our engagement/marriage, I’m almost glad that period was less traditional.

  • Now I’m freaked out that I will freak out and freak out more about not being able to overcome my freak out.

    Can you telI overthink things? Good thing my boyfriend has the patience of a nanny with 12 children at a carnival with real unicorns.

    • Lucinda Bayly

      “Good thing my boyfriend has the patience of a nanny with 12 children at a carnival with real unicorns.” – omg

  • Pterodactyl111

    Nope, not everyone! I will get back to you after the wedding, but I’m four months in freak-out free and don’t expect my feelings to change. It probably helps that we made it through grad school together before getting engaged and THAT shit was actually hard. Planning a wedding is nbd compared to writing a dissertation.

  • Danielle Cardona Graff

    This was a fabulous read! (And highly relateable)… You’re my favorite MR writer btw 🙂

  • Elif Öz

    Hi Haley, this is completely off topic but I just wanted to ask where your big gold circle ring is from? I saw it on an Instagram story and I kinda fell in love 🙂 Love all of your work!

  • Spanky

    There’s good advice in here 🙂 Listen to your gut and get objective advice on those feelings popping-up. I experienced: “denial about a mismatch” and eventually, the un-coupling portion of that relationship was traumatic for both of us.
    Does your partner LISTEN to you? Do they really get you? Do you your arguments.. end? Or do they pop-up over and over because the root hasn’t been acknowledged and addressed by both parties?
    Shared experience can lay a foundation that seems to often lead to an… inevitable… matrimony. It may seem really romantic in the moment, even, to seal the deal with your long-time mate, but just because you’ve invested a lot of time already doesn’t mean it’s not okay to re-assess now.

  • Anne Dyer

    My engagement was awesome. My first year of marriage, not so awesome. I was overly sensitive to his Larry David sarcastic one liners and bugged him about it SO much he finally shouted, “Fine! I’ll never be funny ever again!” So I ran up the stairs, dramatically threw myself against the wall under where a cross hung and was like, “Whyyyyy God?!!” It makes me laugh to think of it, 8 years and 2 kids later and the one liners are now what keeps me sane.

    • Pterodactyl111

      What do you think it was about marriage that made it different from being engagement for you?

      • Anne Dyer

        Living together for sure. I went the traditional route and we didn’t live together until marriage. That put some extra stress on us but ultimately I’m glad we chose that path.

        • Pterodactyl111

          Thanks for sharing your experience!

        • amcrni

          We’re most likely doing this too, not living together before we’re getting married. It’s for practical reasons right now, not religious or anything. But I am curious to see what’s going to change when we DO live together. I really like my personal space so this will be a challenge 🙂

          • Anne Dyer

            Though I am religious, the choice wasn’t for those reasons either 🙂 It was mainly because I love being alone and I figured if I was going to be married for a few decades I should hang out with myself as much as possible before. It was awesome wedding planning on my couch in sweats alone! And I enjoyed the first year even with the challenges. It all felt worth it because we were married and it’s important to stand your ground to establish your dynamic.

          • Anne Dyer

            Oh! Also – it’s really nice to have a major shift after marriage i.e. living together. I think it’s hard when the party is over and everything remains exactly the same.

  • Isabella

    I have been married for 16 years know and the only time we had difficultties was in ours early days of marriage. It was the first time I have ever lived with someone other then my parents. And I can say that I was super happy when he ask my hand in marriage to my father. YES It was like that. very conservative … My engament was smooth until we started to plan our wedding. Presents lists, who to invite , who NOT to invite … flowers … But I say I would not chage a single thing.

  • amcrni

    Been engaged for about 6 months. Our wedding isn’t until late 2018 but I feel the pressure already. Getting engaged didn’t make our financial situation magically better. We’re still struggling to figure out how our marriage will look when our lives blend 100% and I think that’s okay. I’m not blissfully happy or wildly disappointed. I’m just… good. Worried a bit about our jobs and all that but it’s gonna be fine. He’s the one for me, I’m the one for him. And right now, that’s how it is. It won’t be a fairytale, certainly, but we love each other and we’re going to get through whatever struggles we start out with TOGETHER. We talk openly. We know where things stand. Wedding planning is exhausting and such a money-suck, amirite?

  • Magdalen Trela

    Thank you for bringing this subject into the light! I felt so many things after getting engaged, and many of my emotions weren’t uplifting (I even had an anxiety attack one night during our honeymoon). I think it’s important for a couple to be truly open about their feelings and anxieties. Hiding in the dark, keeps your partner in the dark. Bring it out! Let it shine! It’s not really ever easy but you most always more forward and grow closer together. The idea of marriage as a partnership has always helped me – it’s like having a 2-person team where you’re both aiming for the same goals and always have each other’s back.

  • Alice

    We became engaged after discussing that we were getting married for sure. We were buying a house together and kept talking about future things like kids, so we were just sitting around talking and just decided we might as well pick a date and get married. From that moment we were engaged. I designed my own engagement ring like 5 months later (ring =/= engagement). I don’t think we freaked out about getting married, but I definitely was stressed by throwing a wedding. A party that big is hard to throw, even if you are trying to scale everything back and your wedding isn’t OTT. So yeah, throwing an expensive party aka wedding was super stressful, being engaged was not at all.

  • Engels_Beard

    This is probably going to out me as an Old but you should talk about what marriage is going to be like and what a wedding will be like before getting engaged. Can things work out if one or the both of your is “freaking out” during the engagement? I guess. I’m sure there are examples. But, no, it’s not a necessary part of getting engaged. Also, if you argue often or badly, marriage isn’t going to change that.

  • JennyWren

    We were only engaged for about three months, so I didn’t really have time to freak out. And really, I was just relieved we’d made a decision, because my husband (who is the absolute worst at dealing with any kind of change) had been dithering for about a year up to the actual engagement. THAT was really rough, because I felt like my life was on hold while he made up his mind.
    But I do think the engagement period can be rough, because you’re in no-man’s-land from many perspectives. I remember finding it weird to say “my fiance” because it sounded like I was fishing for congratulations and making a big deal out of it, but he wasn’t my boyfriend any more and he wasn’t my husband either. And I gave up saying “partner” because people always wanted to know what THAT meant…so I would say that freaking out could mean you just need to talk it out a bit more, or it could mean you’re making a dad decision, or it could just mean you’re processing a temporarily rootless and scriptless condition in a less than ideal way.

  • GRA

    Well, my 7 year relationship actually ended after we got engaged. So yes, these engagement freak outs are very real. I became overwhelmed by the stress of planning (and house hunting at the same time which was not a smart idea for us) and I think he started looking at all our flaws under a microscope like this article mentions. Neither of us were our best selves during our engagement and it ultimately broke us. It was so nice to see that these relationships mentioned here worked through the engagement stress!

  • I’m an ordained minister – wait, wait – don’t stop reading! My daughter sent this to me today and said “Dad, you gotta read this!” She’s whip smart that one, lives on a prominent street in the capital but I’m sorry to say her house isn’t white…yet…but I digress. So, as soon as I read the title I bellowed a hearty Yes! and knew I was going to agree with wherever this piece took me. Why? Because in this overtly air-brushed wedding industry where I ply my trade the anxiety that is created during engagement is the proverbial elephant in the punchbowl – mixed metaphors I know – but it’s that egregious. The pressure to invest in a monogrammed reception napkin, which I have nothing against per se, while avoiding authentic dialogue about normal and natural stressors when making major life changes like saying “yes” to doing life with another human being is huge and ill fitting when so many couples feel the disparagement of the supposed blissful engagement intersecting with the most stressful time in their relationship. Great article, important topic. My clients hear this often in my office and I will conclude with it here: A wedding is one day. A marriage is all the days after. Plan accordingly.

    • Grace Ann Roberts

      I have the coolest dad.

  • B

    I’ve actually been engaged for 2 and a half years or so. In February next year it will be 3 years. Unfortunately, I found out early that he was going to propose, about 6 months into our relationship, and me being 23 at the time (him 35) – I freaked the fuck out! I had no idea what to do with myself. Finally 3 or 4 months go by after finding out, thinking he’d propose any time he bent down to tie his shoe, yada yada…he proposed the day after Valentines day. And from there it just went….bizarre. I feel like we were cursed w/ anything regarding marriage! He never really wanted to discuss getting married in the first year or so w/ a lot of excuses like money, and interfering work obligations. So much so that I ended up completely getting over the idea of marriage. Now fast forward to now, and we’ve been engaged this long, and the idea of marriage makes my stomach flop. He brings it up now a lot more recently and I honestly don’t know what to do and I don’t think anyone has experienced this before 🙁 please speak up if you have!! I fucking love this guy and he’s super lovely and the nicest guy I’ve ever met in my life and I still see forever with him….but being engaged this long makes me not want to get married – has anyone ever experienced anything like this? I sometimes wonder if I’m just afraid of commitment, or if there’s something deeper wrong with our relationship that is making me not want to actually go through with it. I feel as though my idea of marriage or my thoughts on marriage have drastically changed since when I first got engaged…lol, confused

  • Kamolika

    My husband and I talked about it for years and then finally one day I asked if I should bring home the papers and schedule a courthouse wedding 2 months later. Not having a real engagement period was great – so much less pressure! No pictures of rings on social media or announcements or stressful engagement parties. We’re having a larger reception after 7 months of marriage so I feel like we got the best of both worlds.

  • SChase

    What a timely piece! I am getting married in 2 weeks, and the past 9 months of planning have been…something.
    I didn’t have the engagement freak out, but after going to pre-marital counseling together, I trust I/we won’t have the “post-wedding, first big fight, what have i done” freak out.

    While it’s definitely ONE MORE THING that adds to the weight of wedding planning, and on nights when you just want to mentally check out, you know you need to dig into some un-fun topics with your person, you do it. And it feels good to go before there’s something “to fix”. It’ll help get you to the big day feeling like your eyes are open and you are equipped to take it all on together. And maybe when you go to counseling another time down the road, it’s less scary.