Engagement Anxiety Exposed: What Women Really Feel on the Way to the Altar

10/08/2011 05:17 am ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011

It's one of our culture's last taboos. We can discuss sex; we can talk about money; we can divulge the darkest secrets about our family history in blog posts and on forums. But when it comes to the fear, doubts, anxiety, and ambivalence that characterize thousands of women's engagement experience every year, we hush up.

So the challenge is, how do we deal with the cultural injunction against feeling anything less than pure joy from "yes" to "I do"?

Based on images a young girl begins to internalize from the time she's old enough to process information, she forms a fantasy about what she's "supposed" to think and feel after her guy proposes. Doused in the Disney-turned-Hollywood images of finding "the One" who will carry her off on a white horse into the sunset where she'll live happily ever after, her unconscious pictures and beliefs about love, romance and marriage rear their head the moment her beloved boyfriend proposes.

"I was practically begging for him to propose, and then, from almost the moment he did, I panicked," my clients tell me over and over again.

When someone initially contacts me, she inevitably thinks she's the only one to wonder if she loves her fiancé enough to marry him. She is certain that she's the only one to have panicked hours after the proposal. She's convinced she's the only one to believe that the doubt, uncertainty, and ambivalence mean that she shouldn't be getting married. Feeling guilt and shame, she thinks she's the only one who feels irritated by her partner at times, the only one to say to me (in almost a whisper) "If I don't have butterflies anymore every time he walks through the door, do we have enough chemistry for a successful marriage?"

The wondering, shame and questions speak to our cultural dysfunction about engagements, love and marriage. Society often says: If you really love your partner, your heart would do a back flip every time he comes home, and anything less indicates that you're with the wrong guy. You look for perfection and when you receive the proposal, you find yourself putting your partner under a microscope, which is, to a point, a healthy action when you're considering making a lifetime commitment to someone.

And then you suddenly realize, with a hard thump down to reality, that you're marrying a fallible, imperfect, sometimes-irritating human being. He's not a god and he's not a prince. Perhaps he's not as tall as you had envisioned. Perhaps he has a big nose or a gap between his two front teeth. Perhaps he's not as "masculine" as your dad and exes were, even if he is infinitely more emotionally available. Perhaps he's less social or not as funny as you had dreamed. "I just don't feel the way I thought I was supposed to feel," I hear every day.

There's always going to be a trade-off. And there's always going to be an ex that infiltrates your day and nighttime dreams for whom you felt 'that feeling.' But you have to ask yourself, 'Why didn't I marry him if I supposedly loved him so much?' Oh, right, because he was a jerk. Because he couldn't fully commit. Because he didn't really get me and support me. And it's precisely because the ex was unavailable that you felt such longing for him, which you then misinterpreted as love.

It takes a long time to replace our false beliefs and misconceptions about love and marriage with the truth. It takes a devoted commitment to listen to the fear voices, so that you can expose their lies, open your heart to love and not lose the best thing that ever happened to you. My clients invariably describe their fiancés as "the most honest, reliable, kind, hard-working, loving, supportive man I've ever known; he's everything I've ever wanted in a marriage partner." And yet, when they dare to share their doubts with others, they're met with, "Well, if you're having doubts, you probably shouldn't be getting married." This is, quite frankly, the worse advice I can imagine doling out, and yet it comes from the ignorance of a mentality that simply doesn't know otherwise. It's time to replace this damaging message with something grounded in reality. It's time to break the taboo that equates engagement anxiety with making a mistake.

It's one of my deepest passions to overturn these toxic messages and help people understand that having doubts on the precipice of one of the biggest decisions they'll ever make is not only normal, it's necessary. My goal is to help women (and men) not walk away from a loving, healthy relationship because it doesn't match the fantasy of perfection that our culture upholds. And when, after months of battling the fear voices and shattering the fantasies, I have a post-wedding session with a client and she shares the details of a glorious day that surpasses any Hollywood movie, a day where she felt present, joyous and in love in the truest sense of that phrase, my heart soars. In the battle between fear's lies and the truth of real love, love has won again.