In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

'The Invitations Were Already Out'

A reason for not canceling a compromising wedding

“An invitation to a wedding invokes more trouble than a summons to a police court.” William Feather

There are some people who realize on their wedding day (or shortly before) that they regard their partner as a compromise. They are overwhelmed by sadness, confusion and distress. In the words of one young divorcee, “I wanted to jump out of the window and run to someone else. I do not know why I did not do so. We divorced after three years.” When these people are asked why they did not cancel the wedding, some say that they hoped that they would nevertheless be happy with their partner or that the partner would change once they were married and had children. Several explain their behavior by saying that they did not want to cancel the wedding as the invitations had already been sent and they could not bear to embarrass their partner and family. This is the true story of Alice (and of many other people).

The story of Alice

Alice is a highly intelligent and beautiful woman. After high school she had a wild and passionate relationship with a man to whom she was greatly attracted but many of whose characteristics she did not admire. Then in her early twenties, she met Andrew. They were together for a while, grew closer, and finally drifted into marriage. In the days before the wedding, she began to realize that marrying Andrew, who was nice but rather boring and unattractive, was a decision that constituted a huge romantic compromise for her. She wanted to cancel the wedding, but the invitations were already out and she could not bear the shame and embarrassment that a cancelation would cause him and their families. And she was also scared to death of her mother. During her wedding ceremony, she felt a strong desire to run away and have sex with her former boyfriend. She got divorced seven months later. Later in her life, she gave up passionate, wild love and settled for a good companionate love with an older man.

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The story of Alice (and that of many others) raises two interesting issues: (a) What happened to Alice from the time she decided to get married to the time she wanted to cancel the wedding; and (b) Why was the fact that the invitations had been sent such a powerful reason for not cancelling a wedding? The answer to the first question is typically related to the process of drifting and the realization of the significant implications of the wedding, and the answer to the second question typically involves a reference to the emotions of shame and embarrassment.

Why did Alice get married in the first place and what changed her mind?

When Alice decided to marry Andrew she was not fully aware of two major aspects: her real attitude toward him and the profound implications of her decision. This is because her decision to get married was the result of a slow process of romantic drifting.

Drifting is typically a slow and gradual shift from one situation to another with the agent not having complete control over the process or a full awareness of it. When, in retrospect, people realize that they have drifted into something, they may become aware of the compromise they have been making. Slow romantic drifting occurs in cases where people have been together for a while and although their love is not intense, they feel comfortable with each other, so without thinking too deeply they find themselves agreeing to take the next natural step and get married. Similarly, slow drifting takes place when a married couple becomes increasingly less passionate toward each other and has less interest in the life of the other, and so takes the next natural step of getting a divorce.

Romantic drifting often leads to romantic compromises. Such a compromise can occur when, after a relatively lengthy relationship, a couple regards their decision to marry as just another small step along the road and therefore they drift into marriage without feeling the need for any profound deliberation. Only when the wedding approaches, and especially on the wedding day, one of them may realize that she actually has made a very significant decision with far-reaching and irrevocable consequences for her life, and she may begin to feel that she has inadvertently made a profound romantic compromise. In some extreme cases, she might cancel the wedding and even run away on the wedding day. If you drifted into marriage by making small incremental steps in your togetherness, then the decision to marry is just another such small step. In the days before the wedding, when people realize that their decision is a significant step, a decision that will crucially shape their future, they may only then recognize the depth of their romantic compromise and want to withdraw from the situation into which they have drifted.

Similar considerations apply to the phenomenon of runway brides. Such brides have probably suppressed their hesitations and their feeling that they are making a compromise for a long time until these begin to bubble, or rather to explode, to the surface. They might also have thought that the compromise they are making is not profound enough to warrant canceling the wedding and hurting their partner and other people. However, as the wedding day draws closer and closer, their hesitations become greater and more urgent. Finally, at the very last moment, the decision not to compromise on love is taken.

In some cases, the bride-to-be's decision is made some time before the wedding. In the case of Doris it began a few weeks before she was due to marry her boyfriend of three years. Her father was discussing her upcoming marriage with her and indicated that he considered her boyfriend unsuitable as a husband for her. She suddenly realized what she had been unaware of for the previous three years—her father was right: her boyfriend was too much dependent on her and not sufficiently assertive. She also realized that this problematic behavior should be given a significant weight. Although the invitations were out, she cancelled the wedding.

Sometimes a momentary experience, such as meeting and speaking with someone, can shed light on something essential for us but of which we were not aware, or can help us to recognize something that we have avoided facing. Men also sometimes get cold feet near to or on their wedding day, for many of the same reasons that women do. There are cases in which the jilted bride has been left "standing at the altar", with all the guests seated and waiting, and the bridegroom never turns up for the wedding.

Why are wedding invitations so important?

Even if we understand how a drifting process can cause people to take decisions they do not really want to take and the consequences of which they have not really considered, there is still the puzzling question of why the fact that the wedding invitations have been sent is so powerful, to the extent that they do not cancel their unwanted wedding. When these people are asked to explain their reference to the invitations when explaining why they did not cancel the wedding, almost all of them mention their wish to avoid shame and embarrassment, which would be indeed a natural reaction to cancelling the wedding at the last moment.

Shame and embarrassment are two emotions that have considerable impact upon our behavior. In shame, one thinks of oneself as a bad person who has violated profound norms, whereas in embarrassment one considers oneself as someone who did a bad thing, but not necessarily as someone who is evil. More than other emotions, shame expresses our deepest values and commitments; freeing ourselves from shame implies unloading these values and commitments. Shame is a constitutive element in normative life but it can be an intensely painful experience; there are those who take the extreme measure of committing suicide in order to avoid shame. Embarrassment is more related to a certain measure of social discrepancy.

Shame, and more so embarrassment, requires an audience—typically, an actual audience but sometimes an imaginary one. This audience is perceived to impose on us certain social requirements that we wish to fulfill, but that we fail to do so. The fact that the wedding invitations have been sent to -- and received by -- the would-be guests amplifies the issue of audience, which consists not merely of people who might expect the couple to get married one day, but people who received actual invitations for the wedding.

To sum up, as the wedding day approaches, some people become more acutely aware of their partner’s flaws and the grave ramifications of marrying such a person. Many are still able to cancel the wedding. Others do not have the courage to do so and choose the cowardly solution of continuing with the wedding plans. These people may hope that the partner will change after the wedding or after their children are born. They may also convince themselves that the process is psychologically irreversible because once the invitations have been sent profound shame and embarrassment are likely to be unavoidable. To continue with the wedding under such circumstances is to give the invitations, or more precisely future shame and embarrassment, too much weight. Similarly, to commit suicide because of shame is to give too much weight to shame. Invitations and preventing short-term shame and embarrassment are important, but embarking on the long-term painful experience of romantic compromise is in most cases even more significant.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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