During the four years they were dating, Anne Milford wasn't sure she wanted to marry her boyfriend, but she certainly wanted to want to. He was a nice, responsible, successful professional. She was watching many of her friends take the plunge.
So when, over dinner on her 28th birthday, Mr. Great-On-Paper proposed, Milford accepted. They set a date, booked the church and reserved the reception venue — but Milford couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right.
"I remember thinking, 'I wish he would do something really rotten so I would have a great reason to call this off,'" Milford said.
Could it be jitters? A fear of leaving behind the single life? For many people, perhaps. Having reservations as marriage looms is common and not always a bellwether of doom. The tough part is distinguishing between standard anxiety and serious doubts — and, if it's the latter, mustering the courage to walk away.
Red flags vs. typical jitters
Being nervous about settling down, the possibility of divorce, and the likelihood of never again sleeping with someone else are normal and, though worth reconciling personally, not reasons to pull the plug, said Mira Kirshenbaum, co-founder and clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute, a therapy practice in Boston.
But if you have a history of being unhappy in the relationship or you have concerns about whether your partner is basically smart, sane or kind, the wedding train should be stopped in its tracks until you've sorted things out, Kirshenbaum said.
"With doubts like these, the mistake is to think that the good things cancel out the bad things," said Kirshenbaum, author of the new book "I Love You But I Don't Trust You: The Complete Guide to Restoring Trust in Your Relationship" (Berkeley Trade). "But in reality, over time these bad things will destroy the good things."
For Milford, a gnawing dissatisfaction had persisted throughout the courtship. Worried that they lacked chemistry, had different values about spending time with family and that her social nature clashed with his homebody habits, she was pushed over the edge by the prospect of the pre-marriage counseling classes required by the Catholic Church. She didn't think the relationship could withstand the scrutiny.
Despite protests from her fiance that she had unrealistic Cinderella expectations of marriage, Milford canceled the engagement five months before their wedding date.
"I really felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders," recalls Milford, who swallowed the $1,500 deposit for the reception venue and moved back in with her parents in St. Louis before relaunching her life. Friends and family were universally supportive, she said.
Ignore outside pressure
Milford parlayed her experience into last year's book "How Not To Marry The Wrong Guy: Is He 'The One' Or Should You Run?" (Three Rivers). She said the pressure to marry — compounded with fears of not finding someone better and not wanting to "waste" the years already put in — pushes many people to stay in unhappy relationships, especially around the milestone of turning 30. Based on several thousand interviews, she and her co-author, social worker Jennifer Gauvain, estimate that 3 in 10 divorcees knew they were making a mistake on their wedding day.
Now 47 and married with three children, Milford exhorts people to listen to their gut, even if it means pulling the brakes "as the organist's fingers are poised over the keyboard."
"I think you should have a sense of peace that you are making the right decision," she said.
But your gut can be misleading, warns Sheryl Paul, a Boulder, Colo.-based counselor who specializes in wedding transitions (conscious-transitions.com). Sometimes the sinking feeling comes not from intuition that this isn't the right person, but from fear of taking the marriage risk or grief that fantasies of the perfect partner may never be fulfilled.
Confronted with forever, many people start to view their partner's imperfections as glaring deal-breakers, and they wonder whether they have yet to meet their best match — someone more attractive, more social, better at consoling them when they're sad.
"What I say to my clients is that you could leave and find someone taller, but I guarantee there will also be something you don't like about them," Paul said.
To help "regret-proof" the decision to stay or go, partners should be explicit about their needs from each other and work together to make their relationship as good as it can be, bringing in outside help if possible, Kirshenbaum said. If those efforts don't succeed, they will be in a good position to make a final call on the relationship, she said.
Let's call the whole thing off
Sometimes, saying 'I can't' is better than saying 'I do'
Calling it off (Mike Kemp, Getty Images/Rubberball / February 21, 2012)