When and How Couples Decide to Call Off a Wedding

Research examines the process of ending an engagement.

Posted Feb 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch

DomAlberts/Pixabay
Source: DomAlberts/Pixabay

Though marriage to the right person can be good for health and well-being, sometimes people realize they are not choosing to get married so much as “sliding” toward it and unable to stop—despite having major doubts about the future of their relationship.

So, how does one stop the slide?

A paper by Monk et al., published in the December 2020 issue of Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, examines the decision-making process of individuals who had to call off an engagement and cancel the wedding.

Relationship transitions (from the engagement to the wedding)

How difficult would it be to call things off—for instance, after moving in with one’s romantic partner or becoming engaged? And why?

The Inertia Theory suggests certain “relationship transitions [e.g., moving in together, marriage] increase constraints and favor relationship continuance regardless of fit, knowledge of possible relationship problems, or mutual clarity about commitment to the future of a relationship.”

This means certain relationship transitions make it harder to leave the relationship. So, despite doubts and accumulating evidence of incompatibility, an individual might find herself or himself “sliding” toward marriage, rather than actually deciding to get married.

Of course, sometimes doubts go away after people get married.  

But not always.

Indeed, the enduring dynamics model suggests issues during courtship and premarital relationships foreshadow what will happen during the marriage. Simply put, many issues (e.g., jealousy and trust issues) may not go away after marriage.

But how do people go from having doubts about getting married to actually calling off a wedding?

To answer this question, Monk and coauthors conducted a study on people who had called off their weddings.

Studying individuals who canceled their weddings

The study recruited 30 individuals living in the US who had individually or mutually called off their engagements to a partner of another sex.

Average age was 31 years (range of 18-48 years); 83% female; 90% White; average relationship length of 4.5 years (9 months to 12 years range).

Participants’ interviews were analyzed using a grounded theory methodology, which uses specific procedures and coding to build a theory from gathered data. Data collection ended when the analysis concluded new interviews no longer produced new patterns and insights, and the aim of theory construction was accomplished.

The results showed the following:

A powerful factor that helped stop the slide into marriage was visualization. Specifically, it was helpful to imagine different futures, such as going through with the marriage, getting married to a different person, or staying single. 

The distress caused by fully visualizing a future with one’s romantic partner seemed to have motivated these individuals to set aside the time needed to ponder major relationship issues (red flags) and the barriers to ending the slide into marriage.

To understand why visualization is necessary, we need to think about the many forces that compel people to stay in unhappy relationships.

In general, people may feel forced to stay in a relationship due to a variety of factors, like the relationship’s comfort and familiarity, the time and emotional energy already invested in the relationship, shared resources (e.g., a house bought together), and the stressful consequences of breaking up (in this case, canceling the wedding).

Women, compared to men, face additional pressures: They are often more strongly affected by the cultural expectations regarding engagement and wedding. And they are more likely to consider how their decision to end things will affect other people’s feelings, especially their romantic partner’s.

So, women who are engaged to be married, but have doubts, need to find a way to buy time—be it through spending time apart, postponing the wedding, or slowing things down in other ways. The goal is to have time to visualize their future and make an informed decision about whether to go ahead with the wedding or cancel.

It is important to remember the present study recruited only people who had canceled their weddings, so the strategies they reported using never led to marriage. Then again, the participants’ relationships seemed to be quite unhealthy. Indeed, during the engagement, a variety of red flags had become salient for many of them: A sense of growing apart, lying, conflict, infidelity, manipulation, abuse, etc.

One participant said, “[He] called me names, didn’t like the relationship that I had with my mother....I found out he had been married...and so those red flags just continued to go up.”

Sometimes destructive behaviors were less obvious. For instance, one participant reported noticing a pattern in which her romantic partner was always playing computer games when she needed help with finances, shopping, or work around the house.

So these issues had been there all along.

StockSnap/Pixabay
Source: StockSnap/Pixabay

How to think more deliberately before getting married

In summary, the results showed people who had doubts about getting married felt that buying time to think clearly and visualize married life (e.g., compared to the single life) was helpful.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to distinguish the nervousness of getting married (i.e. having cold feet) from the concerns of marriage to a specific person and for specific reasons (i.e. red flags).

How? By collecting and evaluating relationship information regularly, long before major transitions. This would make it easier to distinguish pre-wedding jitters from accumulated evidence of incompatibility or red flags.

Note that paying attention is not equivalent to noticing only negative things or to judging things harshly. After all, no person or relationship is perfect. Indeed, communication problems and annoying little habits are common. But consciously noting these behaviors allows you to discern patterns early—whether neutral, harmful (e.g., abuse, lying), or beneficial (e.g., commitment, kindness).

Lastly, before calling things off, it is a good idea to have a plan for dealing with the consequences of the decision—from the logistics of how to inform wedding guests and cancel the venue to coming to terms with the emotional pain of it all (e.g., therapy).

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