By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
March 6, 2012
During the four years they were dating, Anne Milford wasn't sure she wanted to marry her boyfriend, but she certainly wanted to want to. He was a nice, responsible, successful professional. She was watching many of her friends take the plunge.
So when, over dinner on her 28th birthday, Mr. Great-On-Paper proposed, Milford accepted. They set a date, booked the church and reserved the reception venue — but Milford couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right.
"I remember thinking, 'I wish he would do something really rotten so I would have a great reason to call this off,'" Milford said.
Could it be jitters? A fear of leaving behind the single life? For many people, perhaps. Having reservations as marriage looms is common and not always a bellwether of doom. The tough part is distinguishing between standard anxiety and serious doubts — and, if it's the latter, mustering the courage to walk away.
Red flags vs. typical jitters
Being nervous about settling down, the possibility of divorce, and the likelihood of never again sleeping with someone else are normal and, though worth reconciling personally, not reasons to pull the plug, said Mira Kirshenbaum, co-founder and clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute, a therapy practice in Boston.
But if you have a history of being unhappy in the relationship or you have concerns about whether your partner is basically smart, sane or kind, the wedding train should be stopped in its tracks until you've sorted things out, Kirshenbaum said.
"With doubts like these, the mistake is to think that the good things cancel out the bad things," said Kirshenbaum, author of the new book "I Love You But I Don't Trust You: The Complete Guide to Restoring Trust in Your Relationship" (Berkeley Trade). "But in reality, over time these bad things will destroy the good things."
For Milford, a gnawing dissatisfaction had persisted throughout the courtship. Worried that they lacked chemistry, had different values about spending time with family and that her social nature clashed with his homebody habits, she was pushed over the edge by the prospect of the pre-marriage counseling classes required by the Catholic Church. She didn't think the relationship could withstand the scrutiny.
Despite protests from her fiance that she had unrealistic Cinderella expectations of marriage, Milford canceled the engagement five months before their wedding date.
"I really felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders," recalls Milford, who swallowed the $1,500 deposit for the reception venue and moved back in with her parents in St. Louis before relaunching her life. Friends and family were universally supportive, she said.
Ignore outside pressure
Milford parlayed her experience into last year's book "How Not To Marry The Wrong Guy: Is He 'The One' Or Should You Run?" (Three Rivers). She said the pressure to marry — compounded with fears of not finding someone better and not wanting to "waste" the years already put in — pushes many people to stay in unhappy relationships, especially around the milestone of turning 30. Based on several thousand interviews, she and her co-author, social worker Jennifer Gauvain, estimate that 3 in 10 divorcees knew they were making a mistake on their wedding day.
Now 47 and married with three children, Milford exhorts people to listen to their gut, even if it means pulling the brakes "as the organist's fingers are poised over the keyboard."
"I think you should have a sense of peace that you are making the right decision," she said.
But your gut can be misleading, warns Sheryl Paul, a Boulder, Colo.-based counselor who specializes in wedding transitions (conscious-transitions.com). Sometimes the sinking feeling comes not from intuition that this isn't the right person, but from fear of taking the marriage risk or grief that fantasies of the perfect partner may never be fulfilled.
Confronted with forever, many people start to view their partner's imperfections as glaring deal-breakers, and they wonder whether they have yet to meet their best match — someone more attractive, more social, better at consoling them when they're sad.
"What I say to my clients is that you could leave and find someone taller, but I guarantee there will also be something you don't like about them," Paul said.
To help "regret-proof" the decision to stay or go, partners should be explicit about their needs from each other and work together to make their relationship as good as it can be, bringing in outside help if possible, Kirshenbaum said. If those efforts don't succeed, they will be in a good position to make a final call on the relationship, she said.
Friends and family with concerns about the relationship also should speak up long before they're asked to forever hold their peace at the ceremony, Gauvain said, because their outsider's perspective is often a clearer one.
It's important to set aside the question of the party while sorting through the relationship issues because any trauma from canceling won't hold a candle to a failed marriage, Gauvain said.
Derailing the party plans
But once the wedding wheels are set in motion, it's difficult to veer off course.
With the invitations sent and flights booked for out-of-town guests, Emma Wilhelm and her fiance plowed ahead toward their wedding despite her mounting concerns that they'd been fighting a lot. Reasoning that the stress of wedding planning was making them testy, she hoped it would get better once they married.
Wilhelm's anxiety grew as the wedding date approached — during that time, the priest who administered their pre-marriage counseling informed them they had set a record low score for financial compatibility — but she dismissed it as typical jitters. As she walked with her parents down the aisle on her wedding day, Wilhelm, 27 at the time, remembers sobbing inconsolably.
"It was not normal sentimentality," the Minneapolis writer, now 34, recalls. "I couldn't recognize it at the time, that maybe I should turn around and walk out."
Fourteen months later, with their fighting grown dysfunctional and several months of couples counseling unable to help, Wilhelm and her new husband divorced. If she could change anything, Wilhelm said, she would have insisted on a longer engagement so that they could have cultivated a healthier relationship (they got engaged after six months of dating and married six months after that).
"It was totally humiliating, absolutely horrible for my self-esteem," said Wilhelm, who runs the blog divorcedbefore30.com. "There's a lot more judgment (in divorce) than if you just said, 'My fiance is not for me.' "
Those who do decide to walk away owe it to the other person to do so kindly: in person, firmly, leaving no room for negotiation, said therapist Mira Kirshenbaum.
It should not happen the way it did to Josh Opperman.
Three months after he proposed to his girlfriend of four years, Opperman returned to their New York home after a weekend away to find that she had moved out. There was no note, just the engagement ring sitting on the dining table, he said.
"At least have a discussion instead of leaving me blindsided," said Opperman, who was 26 at the time and is now 34. After ignoring his frantic calls for a day, his fiancee finally answered her phone and told him she was seeing someone else.
Opperman also discovered that selling back the engagement ring would get him just a third of what he paid. That led Opperman to found Idonowidont.com, a marketplace for secondhand engagement rings where jilted brides and grooms can recoup 50 to 80 percent of their ring's original cost and buyers can get authenticated jewelry at steep discounts.
"Looking back," said Opperman, now married with a new baby and a booming business, "it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."