They usually speak in low tones, as if they’re violating some unwritten law of an engaged person. I can hear the fear, doubt, confusion, and anxiety wrapped in each word, as well as the relief that they’ve finally found a safe place where they can discuss their real feelings. The story and subsequent questions are some version of the following (written as a woman but could just as easily be spoken by a man about his wife-to-be):
“My fiance is a great guy. He’s honest, responsible, loyal, good-looking, funny. My parents and friends love him. I’ve never felt so safe with anyone. We have the same values about kids, family, money, religion. I know I love him and he’s my best friend but… I’m not sure that I’m in love with him. Do I love him enough to marry him? How do I know that I’m not making a mistake?”
I usually know within the first fifteen minutes of a counseling session whether or not the person is making a mistake. But it often takes much longer than that for my clients to assimilate the information I offer them, work through the exercises I prescribe, and begin to dismantle their engagement anxiety so that they can transform what we think of as “cold feet” and begin to feel excited about their wedding and marriage. We typically address three key areas to facilitate this process:
1. We distinguish between red-flag relationship issues and normal engagement anxiety:
There are two kinds of fear that arise during engagements: the first is a signal that there’s a serious red-flag issue in the relationship and the second is a signal that you’re about to make the biggest commitment of your life and, yes, it’s scary. What are the red-flag issues I’m referring to? Some are very obvious: your partner has an addiction issue (alcohol, drugs, work, gambling), there are betrayal or trust issues that haven’t been healed, there are incompatibilities regarding core values like having children or religion. Other red-flag issues might be less blatant: your partner has serious control issues that he’s not willing to address, you’re young (early twenties) and aren’t ready to commit to one person, you have the feeling that your partner doesn’t really love you but is more in love with the fantasy or idea of you. There are certainly other red-flag issues, but these are the most common I encounter in my practice.
The second kind of fear is what we commonly think of as “cold feet”. Personally, I don’t like the expression cold feet because it doesn’t accurately describe what people experience during their engagement, which is a real fear. I’m not one to mince words; I call a spade a spade and when people are in transition, they’re scared. They’re scared of the unknown. They’re scared of jumping off the cliff of the familiar life and landing in new and unfamiliar territory. They’re scared of committing to one person forever. Getting married is enormously scary and to say otherwise is to avoid a basic truth about this significant life transition. So once we determine that there are no serious red-flag issues in the relationship, we work to normalize the fear and learn how to make room for it during the engagement without letting it running the show.
2. We redefine love:
Our culture has a lot of misconceptions about love, and no where do they appear more prominently than around engagements and weddings. Prior to getting engaged, my clients share that they felt positive about their partner and excited about the prospect of marrying him. But once he popped the question, suddenly she puts him, and their relationship, under a microscope and wonders: Do I love him enough? I know I love him, but am I really in love with him? And then the waterfall of buzzwords around love and marriage cascade down her brain night and day: Is he my soul mate? What if I’m settling? Do we have enough passion? Is he (my all-time favorite and the one that gets most women) the one?
Oh, dear one, if these words and phrases are causing you to question, you’re not alone! It only means it’s time to redefine what it means to love someone, to choose to marry someone, to make the conscious, daily choice to love and commit. As one of my clients astutely said: “I had to fall out of love with my fiance so I could learn about what love is and then fall in love with him all over again — this time from a healthy place. I learned that love is not a feeling but a choice.” During our bridal counseling sessions, we spend a lot of time discussing the truth about love, romance, and marriage until the fantasy is cracked open and my client is grounded in real love.
3. We explore the underlying causes of the anxiety:
The word anxiety is somewhat of a catch-all phrase that encompasses a wide spectrum of emotions from fear and terror to depression, grief and uncertainty. The crux of the Conscious Weddings Counseling Sessions – and the impetus for pioneering bridal counseling over a decade ago – is to shed light on the thoughts and feelings that typically create what we think of as wedding cold feet and engagement anxiety. These include:
o Grief about letting go of the single identity and lifestyle
o Fears about making the commitment of marrying one person
o Confusion about how to separate from family of origin
o Uncertainty about walking toward the unknown of marriage
o A recurring sense of loss about: deceased relatives, past relationships, previous transitions
In other words, oftentimes the anxiety that arises during an engagement has nothing to do with one’s partner. Once we make sure there are no red-flag issue and redefine what real love is, I help my client to remove the projection from her fiance then guide her through the underlying causes until the anxiety dissipates and she’s able to have the joyous wedding and healthy marriage of her dreams.