We live in a culture of illusions.
From the time we’re old enough to absorb images, we’re fed the fantasy that love and marriage should occur effortlessly and easily, that when we meet “The One” we’ll just “know”, and that this One will be nothing short of a perfect prince or princess.
So what happens when your beloved finally proposes, and hours or days within saying “yes” you’re filled with dread, anxiety, and an unnamable grief and fear?
Surely this means you’ve made a terrible mistake, right?
Because if you really loved him (or her), you would feel unilaterally joyous … at least that’s what our culture tells you.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sure, there are plenty of people who feel happy throughout their engagement, but there at least as many – if not more – that struggle with the common emotions that arise during any transition: grief, uncertainty, doubt, fear of the unknown, a sense of being out of control, loneliness, and vulnerability.
The major difference between the transition of getting married and buying a house, for example, is that when you buy a house and express doubt about the purchase, no one says to you, “Oh, you must be making a mistake.”
We culturally understand that there’s a phenomenon called “buyer’s remorse” that often accompanies a significant purchase, which allows you to expect that doubt will arise.
The same cannot be said around engagement anxiety.
So why do we cut people slack around doubting their house purchase but not their decision to marry?
The answer lies in our cultural fantasy about love and marriage coupled with the rampant images of engaged bliss promoted by our wedding industry.
Beginning with Disney films, little girls are conditioned to believe that once she meets her prince, “she’ll just know.” As she enters her teen years, every pop song and romantic comedy reinforces the highly dysfunctional fantasy that one day she’ll meet “the One” or her “soulmate.”
And then the story goes something like this:
After dating a series of unavailable jerks, she meets a great guy. (By the way, this story just as easily applies to guys, but for the sake of this article I’m writing from the female perspective.) Perhaps she falls in love with him right away and perhaps she doesn’t; it might a slow-growing love that evolves over several months. He’s everything she’s ever wanted in a man: loving, kind, responsible, honest and they have shared values and a common vision for their life. They enjoy spending time together and their families are mutually supportive of their relationship. Early on, she can envision spending her life with him. She knows the relationship isn’t perfect but she’s happier than she’s ever been and can’t wait for him to propose.
And then he does.
She says yes.
And before she knows it, she’s spinning into a tizzy of anxiety.
It’s as if the proposal unleashed every fear she’s ever had about love and marriage: Will it last? Will we grow bored of each other? Will we emulate my parents’ wonderful marriage or end up just as dysfunctional as they are? And what about the sex? I’m not as hot for him as I was for that last guy (the one who never fully committed to me); does that mean I don’t really love him?
Oh my goodness … what if I don’t really love him? If I really loved him, I wouldn’t be having all of these doubts, right?
She’s not sure who to turn to with these concerns: her friends, her parents, her fiancee.
Our culture has come a long way in breaking taboos about discussing sex, money, religion, and postpartum depression. But when it comes to the wedding and the topic of love, we still have a long way to go. Even Oprah, who invited me to her show several times to discuss this very topic, said, “Doubt means don’t, right?”
No, Oprah, doubt does not mean don’t.
Doubt means that you’re a rational, introspective person weighing every aspect of your relationship before committing yourself to the rest of your life.
Doesn’t that actually sound like a smart thing to do?
If there wasn’t so much taboo around this topic, this healthy questioning wouldn’t mutate into anxiety and depression, but would exist as an expected, necessary step in the engagement process.
Anxiety surrounds every transition and change in life … but remember, doubt doesn’t necessarily mean don’t.
Doubt means doubt. Doubt means ask some more questions. Doubt means have some honest conversations. Doubt means grow. Doubt means faith. Doubt means … what do you think it means?
Sheryl Paul, M.A., is an international expert in transitions. Her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” are available on her website, Conscious Transitions, as well as two Home Study Programs: Conscious Weddings E-Course: From Anxiety to Serenity and Birthing a New Mother: A Roadmap to Calm Your Anxiety, Prevent Postpartum Depression, and Babyproof Your Marriage (available September 2011). She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe.