07/12/2012 01:17 am ET Updated Sep 10, 2012

Letters to a Runaway Bride: Part 1

Dear Bride,

I know you're scared. I know that everything inside of you is telling you to run, that you're with the wrong guy, that you don't love him enough or in the right way or as much as you loved some other guy. I know that everything in our culture is corroborating with your belief that these feelings of fear and anxiety are a clear sign that something is terribly wrong, that if you were with the right guy you wouldn't experience any doubt, that "doubt means don't" and that the only responsible action is to leave. I know that you might be waking up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding and starting each day with your stomach in knots. I know you're miserable, which obviously isn't how you expected to feel just months before getting married. You're having visions of running away on your wedding day, just like Julia Roberts. This can't be good. All of the signs are there. It's time to go.

And yet... and yet... you haven't left. You haven't left because underneath all of these horrible anxious feelings, you know that you love him. You know that you love him like you've never loved anyone, maybe not with butterflies and fireworks, but with the kind of love that your grandmother would have approved of: a steady, solid love based on trust, respect, shared values, connection, support, companionship, and commitment. When anxiety isn't stealing the show, he's the person you like best in the world. He's the one who holds you when you cry and cheers you on when you're striving for your next goal. You hold on to the memory of your early days together when you woke up each day feeling so lucky to have met such a wonderful, loving, kind man, everything you had ever wanted.

But is this enough? Our culture says it's not. Our culture says that you're settling, that you don't have enough chemistry, that if he's not your exact physical type then you should move on so that you can "have it all." Our culture says that you're just trying to convince yourself and love shouldn't be this hard. Our culture says that you're holding on to a memory, that you're lying to yourself, and that you will regret marrying him.

I have news for you: our culture is lying to you. Our culture has been lying to you your entire life. Every movie, every magazine, every sit-com, every novel has propagated these lies. Why? Because our cultural message about romantic love is dysfunctional and predicated on a fantasy that there's one person out there that will make you feel alive, fulfilled, and complete, that when you meet this person you'll just know, and you'll feel ecstatically certain as you plan your wedding and ride off into the mythical sunset. This is a lie and a fantasy.

The truth is that, for many people, real love is scary. Real love means the possibility of real loss. Real love means that the person standing before you is asking you to show up with your whole heart, which means being vulnerable in a way you've never been before. The moment you knew that he wasn't going anywhere, the relationship became real and the risks of love jutted in the foreground. Real love means grieving the fantasy that when you meet Mr. Perfect (aka Prince Charming), you'll live happily ever after in that delicious stage of infatuation where life feels exciting, raw, and adventurous.

I'm going to tell you the truth: It's okay to feel scared. It's okay to have doubts. It's okay to question. It's okay to grieve for the life and the fantasies that are over. In fact, if you're going to transition into marriage without the baggage of your old identity weighing you down, you must let yourself feel this fear and grief. I know that's the diametrical opposite of everything you've been told, but I'm here to offer you another perspective, a lifeline where you will learn, over time, to trust yourself and to trust this choice. And given that our culture clearly doesn't do a good job at preparing people for marriage, perhaps you'll be willing to consider another perspective.

Hang on, dear bride, hang on. I've watched thousands of people traverse this tricky terrain of engagement anxiety. I've held their hands as they sank into the depths of depression and despair and eventually emerged on the other side, wiser, clearer, softer, and more committed to their loving partner than ever before -- and with infinite gratitude that they didn't jump ship when the waves turned rough. Stay the course, feel your difficult feelings, challenge the false thoughts, and you, too, will land on the sandy shores with your sweet beloved by your side.

Note: I'm writing these letters to a bride in a heterosexual relationship, but they could just as easily be written to a scared groom or to a same-sex couple. Relationship anxiety is a great equalizer and seems to cross all boundaries of sex, geography, age, religion, and many cultures.


Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her Home Study Programs and her websites. 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 dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of the Conscious Weddings E-Course: From Anxiety to Serenity.