Cold Feet Before the Wedding?

A Lost Love Perspective

Posted Feb 02, 2013

A January 22, 2013 article in The New York Times, written by Benedict Carey, discusses a series of studies on a not uncommon phenomenon: doubts right before getting married. Carey discusses research that found men and women who think they might be making a mistake are more likely to divorce later than those without doubts.

Although that may sound like common sense, with a divorce rate of 40% for first marriages, surely most of these couples started life together happily and did not anticipate an ending; they all believed they would be part of the successful 60%. Without some degree of faith, and a leap, who would want to get married (or at least, who would marry without a prenup)?

Older research shows that with major decisions -- like buying a house or car, getting married, or even taking a long trip -- the farther you are from the goal, the more you focus on the positives; but as the goal gets nearer, negative thoughts loom large. Knowing this, it makes sense that people would feel jittery about the fast approaching marriage but discount those feelings.

Even when doubts become overwhelming, if the wedding process is far along, it feels harder to back out: are the invitations ordered, or worse, mailed? Has the band or DJ been hired, the venue reserved, the dress chosen and altered, the out-of-town guests ticketed, the major nonrefundable deposits paid?

 And what does it mean to have cold feet, anyway? Is it a small, nagging feeling that a mistake is being made, or an internal scream that yells, "Stop!" How serious is "serious enough" to listen to the doubts, weigh them as more important than the embarrassment and financial losses, and cancel the wedding?

It's one thing to have last minute doubts about the person you are going to marry; it's something else altogether to have doubts because you really love someone else:

My research on lost loves has given me a perspective on how extreme these doubts can be and yet be ignored. My research participants (men and women alike) have described being in hotel rooms, the night before the wedding, with former sweethearts -- making love, crying and saying "goodbye forever" -- then walking down the aisle the next day to marry a person who has no idea their beloved is really in love with someone from the past!

The first time I heard this, from a man, it seemed shocking that he had such deep love for a former sweetheart, having sex and tremendous feelings of loss right before his wedding, but went through with the marriage to someone else the next day, thinking he could (should?) leave his old flame behind. But then more stories arrived in my research box written by people who did the same thing.

Fortunately, that extreme behavior wasn't common, but it was common for people who years later reunited with their lost loves to confess that when they walked down the aisle, they not only felt they were making a mistake but deeply wished they were marrying their lost loves instead. And yet, they married. What is not surprising is that, when the lost love contacted them years later, they put their marriages aside and renewed this loves for their old flames.

I started my research in 1994. At that time, the idea of reuniting with a high school sweetheart in midlife or late life seemed like a fantasy to most people, something that was extremely rare and unobtainable. Indeed, I thought I was researching a rare phenomenon and would have trouble finding enough participants for a meaningful study. Now, the average person is aware that many couples do reunite (or try) years after their adolescent breakups.

It is my hope that when love for an old flame reignites, or when even interest and curiosity return during an engagement, these doubts about an upcoming marriage will be taken seriously and not buried. When you bury feelings in sand, the tides are likely to shift someday and expose the painful, underlying reality.

Copyright 2013 by Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.

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