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.”
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 Love. I 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.
“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.”
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.