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Can Cold Feet Predict Marital Breakdown?

A new research study suggests that premarital doubts should not be ignored

When Jennifer Carol Wilbanks disappeared from her Duluth, Georgia home in 2005, shortly before her planned marriage to fiancé John Mason, it triggered a nation-wide search along with media speculation that her fiancé was responsible for her disappearance.   The case took an even more bizarre turn when Wilbanks phoned John Mason from Albuquerque, New Mexico claiming that she had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted.    Despite insisting that her story was true, the lack of evidence and the growing skepticism by police investigators eventually made Wilbanks confess that she had made up the story to conceal her running away from home due to a massive attack of “cold feet".   She was eventually prosecuted for giving a false statement and forced to reimburse the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s department for the costs involved in the search.    Her fiancé later married another woman.

Although the “cold feet” phenomenon is commonly experienced by most couples engaged to be married, extreme cases such as that of Jennifer Wilbanks remain rare.  Still, premarital doubts have become ingrained in popular culture with movies like Runaway Bride starring Julia Roberts and bridal magazines providing counseling for handling doubts.

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But are premarital doubts a natural part of the wedding process or can they be a sign of potential problems in later marriage?    A study recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology examined the “cold feet” phenomenon in a longitudinal study to see whether premarital doubts could predict later marriage failure.   Conducted by a team of researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles, 464 married couples living in Los Angeles County were recruited to fill out questionnaires on marriage satisfaction as well as face-to-face interviews.   They were then re-assessed at six-month intervals for the next four years.   

Overall, 47 percent of husbands and 38 percent of wives admitted to some form of premarital doubt immediately prior to the wedding.   While “cold feet” was more common in men, the incidence of premarital doubt was higher in women when their partners had doubts as well.    Statistical comparison of partners with and without doubts showed that premarital doubts can predict poorer marital outcome after four years.   Women with premarital doubts were 2.5 times more likely to be divorced than women without doubts.  Even for couples that stayed married, marital satisfaction was lower for women with premarital doubts.    These results remained significant even after other factors were ruled out (whether their parents were divorced or whether or not couples had lived together before marriage).    For men, premarital doubt was not a significant predictor of later marriage failure or marital unhappiness when other factors such as personality issues were ruled out. 

Although the study authors were careful to point out that these results were preliminary and only covered marriage over the first four years, they do suggest that further research is needed to see whether premarital doubt is an important predictor of marital success.   They also caution that the presence of marital doubts does not automatically mean that couples are in danger of marital unhappiness.  As the institution of marriage continues to grow and evolve,  the presence of premarital doubt can often be an important diagnostic clue of problems that may exist and should not be dismissed as simply being a “normal” part of marriage or something that will “go away” with time.   The role of premarital counseling can be especially important for women with strong premarital doubts to prevent the often devastating consequences of marital breakdown. 

Would “runaway bride” cases like Jennifer Carol Wilbanks be prevented with better premarital counseling to address the very real fears associated with “cold feet”?  Perhaps not, but the presence of premarital doubts, especially in women, could be important clue that potential problems exist and should be taken seriously by family and friends preparing for the big wedding day.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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