"I love my fiancé but ever since we got engaged I've been so anxious," Emily shares with me. "We have a loving, healthy relationship but the anxiety is making me wonder if I'm making a mistake."
"Do you remember when the anxiety started?"
"Yes. We were sitting in our pastor's office and it hit me that marriage is forever. Obviously I knew that before, but it's one thing to know it and another thing to know it. I felt a drop of fear in my belly. And my next thought was, 'Wait a minute. I'm not supposed to be scared. This is supposed to be the happiest time in my life. There must be something wrong.'"
Emily is far from alone. Her dialogue and line of thinking is what sends most people to my virtual doorstep. The details can change, of course, but the essence of the message is that what begins as normal fear quickly descends into anxiety. Let's first examine the top five marriage fears and then discuss how these healthy fears transform into anxiety.
The Top Five Fears of Marriage
- The fear of divorce
- The fear of cheating on each other
- The fear of emulating your parents' marriage (distance, fighting, loveless marriage)
- The fear of falling out of love
- The fear of the unknown (What will marriage be like? Will everything change after we get married?)
If we lived in a culture that encouraged engaged couples to explore their premarital fears instead of funneling every free moment and dollar into planning (the illusion of) the perfect wedding, we would say to these couples, "Of course you're scared! Marriage is the biggest commitment you've ever made, and with our culture's dismal success rate and most people growing up witnessing a conflictual or loveless marriage, of course you're terrified to jump off the cliff and take this leap of faith!" But instead we say, "Doubt means don't. If you're scared it means there's something wrong. You're engaged and you should be happier than you've ever been in your life!"
At that point, the normal fear is squashed down where it collides with our culture's dysfunctional messages about love, romance, and marriage then morphs into anxiety and re-emerges as a battery of intrusive thoughts like:
- What if I don't love him/her enough?
- What if I'm making a mistake?
- What if I'm settling?
- What if there really is something wrong with my relationship and this isn't anxiety but my instinct telling me to get out?
Let me re-iterate: the people who find me are in exceptionally healthy relationships with loving, honest, responsible partners with whom they share values and a special connection. This isn't gut instinct; this is fear gone awry. How do I know? Because of the thousands of people that I've helped traverse the tricky terrain of relationship anxiety through my counseling practice and e-courses. Every single one who has taken the time to address their core fears eventually says some version of the following: "I'm so grateful that I didn't run from my partner and did the real emotional work during my engagement that allowed me to get married. We have a wonderful marriage and I can't believe I almost threw that all away!"
If you take a look at the list of the top five marriage fears you'll see that they actually simmer down to one fear: the fear of loss. We've all been hurt in our lives and we all know that committed relationships require risking our hearts and opening to the possibility of loss. Most people harbor an unconscious message that says love equals loss, and unless this belief is brought to the surface and worked with consciously, it will determine your actions.
And if your response is, "Don't get married," save your breath; that's fear in the driver's seat and if you listened to that voice you would be denying yourself the possibility of a lifetime of immense richness that can arise when you take the risk of committing to a shared life. As Kate Kerrigan writes in Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, "You can make a commitment to love, but you cannot truly love without commitment."
Note: I'm writing here for engaged couples but these same fears can hit at any point in a relationship and usually arrive when your realize that your loving, solid relationship can lead to marriage.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at http://conscious-transitions.com. And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether single, dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of her popular E-Course.