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Sheryl Paul Headshot

'Tis The Season To Get Engaged... And Panic!

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From Thanksgiving through Valentine's Day I receive a surge of emails that express some version of the following:

"My boyfriend just proposed and at first I was happy but within a few hours I started to panic. We've been together for a few years and have a great relationship: he's honest, loving, supportive, and I've been happier with him than I've ever been. I was even pushing for the proposal and I have no idea why I've become so anxious. I've started questioning everything about him and have become especially focused on the fear that I'm making a mistake or that I don't love him enough. If I loved him enough, why would I be having these doubts? My stomach is in knots, I'm having a hard time sleeping and eating, and I'm falling into a depression. Please help me! The thought of leaving him makes me sick but I can't continue living this way and putting both of us through this misery."

What's happening here? The mainstream model of relationships disseminates the message that "doubt means don't" and nowhere is this phrase more prominent than during an engagement. Culturally, we may allow for some doubt during the dating stage of a relationship, but most people carry the erroneous belief that once you say "yes" and are headed down the aisle, all doubts should be left in the dust. And yet the reality is that, for many people, it's only when the commitment becomes concretized with a ring on the finger that the reality of the depth of the commitment hits them full force.

So she says yes, and then she panics and wonders, "What if it doesn't work? What if I'm making a terrible mistake?" Or he proposes, and then a few hours or days later thinks, "Wait a minute. Do I love her enough? What if we end up miserable (like my parents)?" These are valid questions that anyone on the precipice of a major, lifetime commitment should ask. The problem is not the questions themselves. The problem is that, in a culture that fervently believes that any conscious questioning indicates a fault line in the relationship, the only assumption the newly engaged woman or man can make is, "Because I'm questioning I must be in the wrong relationship." Nothing could be further from the truth.

We need a cultural overhaul when it comes to the topic of engagements, fear, and doubt. It's time we understand that getting married is a significant life transition, and transitions -- even positive ones like a new job or having a baby -- are accompanied by a host of uncomfortable emotions as we leave behind the familiar lifestyle and identity and step into something new and unfamiliar. It's normal to grieve the end of being single. It's normal to be scared of the unknown of marriage. It's normal to place your relationship under a microscope to make sure you have what it takes to begin marriage on the best possible footing. What I've seen thousands of times over the 14 years that I've been doing this work is that the more someone is willing to explore the "darker" feelings of grief, fear, anxiety, confusion, vulnerability, and feeling of control -- in other words, the feelings that we don't typically associate with being engaged -- the more peaceful, clear, and joyous they feel on their wedding day and during their first months of marriage.

If you're anxiously engaged, you're one of the lucky ones. I know you might be in the trenches of misery right now, but if you take the conscious approach and address your fears, grief and anxiety now, you'll arrive on your wedding day feeling present and ready to begin your marriage on a healthy foundation. If, on the other hand, you distract from the uncomfortable feelings by running full force into planning a "perfect" wedding and thereby turning into the dreaded bridezilla, you'll feel like a zombie on your wedding day and will likely fall into post-bridal depression. It's a cardinal rule of transitions: what isn't addressed on the front end will make itself known in unpleasant ways on the other side. Take heart and find your courage to attend to the uncomfortable feelings now. It's not easy, but the gifts of clarity and serenity will be worth it.