05/07/2013 12:00 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Engagement Anxiety: When Friendships Fall Apart

About four to six weeks before the big day, I inevitably have a session with my engaged clients that begins like this:

"I need to talk about my friendships. One friend isn't showing up for the wedding, another one didn't help at all with my shower, and another one has been distant ever since I got engaged. What's going on?"

Of course there are variations on this theme: the friend who has picked a fight about every detail of the planning which finally culminated in the end of the friendship; the older, unmarried sister who's giving the cold shoulder; the younger sister who suddenly seems more aligned with the parents than the bride. I could go on and on, but you get the point.

So what is going on?

Weddings, like all transitions, are a weeding out process. At these breaking and renewal points where we're asked to shed what no longer serves us so that we can make room for the new identity and stage of life, we're given the opportunity to see ourselves and everyone we're close to under a microscopic lens. We might not always like what we see. Said another way, wedding tend to invite people's true colors to the surface, which means that people either rise to their highest selves or descend into their lowest selves. There doesn't often to seem to be a middle road. A friend's self-centeredness leads to her wanting to be at the center of your wedding, and when this doesn't fly, she ends the friendship. It's critical to recognize that the friendship stood on a crumbly foundation all along and it was just waiting for the vulnerable realm of a transition - a wedding, a move, a baby - to fall apart.

What this also means is that the underlying issues that have been conveniently swept under the rug rise to the surface; shadow elements are revealed and, when they're not addressed consciously, they come out in toxic ways. For example, your best friend whom you've known since you were twelve is still single. She's your Maid of Honor but the role is a sting to her, especially since she's not in a relationship and marriage is nowhere in sight. Instead of talking about her envy and sadness directly, she passive-aggressively forgets to plan your shower or makes a big stink about the color of her dress. She may not even know that she's feeling envious, but what I've seen again and again is that when the shadow is made conscious and both people find the courage to have a difficult conversation, the tension about inane details immediately dissipates and the possibility of becoming closer, instead of estranged, presents itself.

Another very common situation is a married friend who strangely withdraws as the wedding nears. It's not that she's envious as she's already married; so what's the cause of the withdrawal? It's likely caused by her sadness that she's "losing" you which, again, she's probably not aware of. Or even if she is aware of it there's so little discussion about sadness surrounding weddings that she feels guilty for feeling this way and tries to push it away. Unfortunately, uncomfortable feelings don't vanish because we push them underground; they emerge in mutated ways, like withdrawal, irritation, or rudeness.

If only someone would explain to her that it's normal to feel sad when someone you're close to gets married! Why? Because your single friend will no longer be available in the same way. She's growing into a new stage of her life and, as a result, is leaving behind her single identity and availability. There's nothing wrong with this sadness; the only problem is when friends don't understand how normal it is and they try to ignore it, which only results in tension.

Like all aspects of weddings (and life), it's the unrealistic expectations that create most of the problems. And the expectation around a wedding? That the engaged woman and everyone around her be blissfully, unilaterally happy. There's simply no room in this culture to acknowledge and discuss the very real and present sadness that other cultures not only understand but artfully weave into the very fabric of their rituals, from the pre-wedding ceremonies to the day itself. They understand that where there is a gain, there is a loss, and that loss affects everyone who is close to the engaged couple. And they understand that the more space you make for the family and friends to grieve the loss, the more space opens up to experience the joy of the union.

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 And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether single, dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of her popular E-Course.