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Dr. Peggy Drexler Headshot

Do You Need an 'Engagement Counselor'?

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For Caroline, the wedding invitation was the first sign of trouble. On it, she and her fiancé had chosen to use a "simple, elegant, but certainly not traditional" black and white image of his native Holland. Her parents, however, who ran with a well-to-do crowd in Northern Virginia, "had very Emily Post ways of how things should be done," she recalled. "There were rules."

Such as: Proper invitations were printed on Crane & Co. cardstock and used her fiancé's full name, whether he liked it or not. (He did not.) The wording would be ultra-formal (even though the couple was in their 30s and had lived together for years). And no, there would be no windmills. (Had she lost her mind?)

From there, "negotiations" moved on to her parents' fight for a band over a DJ; a 5 or 6 p.m. start time over the couple's choice of 5:30 ("we thought it would be nice to get married as the sun set," Caroline told me, resignedly); and a different dress than the one she had picked out. She remembered for months feeling perpetually caught between her old family and her new one, leading to what she calls a "pretty severe depression" that lasted long after the cake was cut. In fact, she said, "We've really only just gotten over it."

The wedding in question was in 2001.

The billion dollar wedding industry sells engagement as a time of sweep trains, fondants, and last hurrahs in Vegas. But engagement is just as likely to be remembered for stress-induced meltdowns, battles over money and control, and family dynamics gone horribly wrong. Which is why many couples are seeking out help -- "engagement counselors" of sorts -- to deal with what is supposed to be the happiest day of their lives.

A 2003 study published in the journal Guidance & Counseling found that wedding preparation was immensely stressful for both men and women -- though more for women -- and that talking about it helps. What makes being engaged so fraught? For one thing, part of engagement is making your relationship really official, much more than 'Facebook official,' and that makes everything more intense.

With the permanence of marriage looming, small issues take on a greater meaning as couples work to align on such trademark marital issues as money, work, household tasks, and, yes, each other's parents.

At the same time, engagement is an important teacher because it's a transition from what makes a dating relationship work into what makes a marriage work. For many couples, planning a wedding is the first time they're called on to problem solve in any major way. And on top of the logistics of planning a big, important event, what often underlies the stress of a wedding is doubt and fear. Marriage is a symbol of change, and change is scary. Women, I have found, tend to act out their fear by overthinking wedding details. Men go the opposite way, and avoid getting involved.

The biggest challenge for a couple can be learning that it's okay to fight, and to have differences that may never be reconciled. Jessica and her fiancé Jeremy purposefully opted for a short engagement. Still: "I hated -- hated -- being engaged," she said. "I had this overwhelming sense that I was doing everything for other people, even though my in-laws, my mother, everyone was great. There was just this intensity to every decision. I was baffled that I was as stressed out as I was about choosing tablecloths."

In sessions with her therapist, Jessica discussed her anxiety, and realized she had a long history of working herself up in the name of pleasing others. "We talked about how to prioritize myself and find a balance," she said. "And how it was okay not to make everyone happy." She also realized that she was not alone in her distress. "People want to give the impression that everything's great and your relationship is wonderful and your wedding will be, too," she said. "So a lot of women don't talk about what this period of time is really like."

Two years ago, Laura and her fiancé enlisted Laura's therapist as sort of psychological wedding planner. "Because she knew my personal history, I think she was more qualified than anyone else to help us prioritize," Laura told me. But therapy also helped her identify the root cause of her stress, namely what she now saw as an expectation for everyone else to experience the wedding as she did. "A close friend had to be chased down for her RSVP to my shower, and then didn't come although she lived closer to the venue than almost anyone else," Laura said. "That's still hurtful two years later, but therapy helped me sort through my emotions and expectations."

Of course, wedding-related anxiety isn't limited to the betrothed. Marriage can be the first time a child truly separates from his or her parents, who in turn, often experience this separation as a loss. In turn, the parents may become controlling -- or overly sensitive, feeling hurt when their choice of photographer, flower, or invitation goes ignored.

Caroline said it took her many years to wonder if her mother's inflexibility was a result of pressure she had been feeling from her own mother, Caroline's grandmother, an exceedingly proper woman who had recently had a stroke. Caroline's mom, for the record, has since apologized. "She's the first to tell you she was a crazy person," said Caroline. "And I will say that the wedding day itself was actually pretty lovely. I did my own hair and makeup in my parents' hotel room with my sister helping out, and that's a really nice memory." All the same, more than a decade later, they've yet to get their wedding photos developed.