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Dating Advice #154 - Engagement Freak-Out!

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

She just said "yes" and already she's a nervous wreck.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I am in need of advice. I just got engaged two weeks ago and since then I have a very nervous feeling inside my stomach. My fiance and I are both in our 20s and we dated for close to a year.

At first, I was not very attracted to him or felt like he was right. But I continued dating him because I felt like we had a very similar life goals and he had other good qualities that I felt were important; for example, he is considerate of others, and I know he will make a wonderful husband and father. I met his family and they were very nice.

I continued with the courtship, enjoyed being with him, and felt like there was really nothing wrong with him, but I was never positively sure that this was absolutely right. In terms of getting engaged, I felt like it was too soon, so he gave me space. We had a 4-week vacation from graduate school and I felt like I was ready then, so we looked for a ring and now we got engaged two weeks ago. We spent every day of vacation together. Now today is the last day and I feel like I need a break!

I accept him for who he is, and I would rather he be himself than someone else. I thought it was good that we spent so much time together in order to become closer emotionally, but maybe it was too stifling. Also, I don't know if I ever really was so obsessed with him, even though I chose him because I thought he was great for life. (But what if that is a mistake and he really is not for me?)

Right now plans are very much under way, and I am feeling very nervous and I don't know what to do with these feelings! I cannot tell him, because then he'll get scared that I will do something to stop our relationship. How do I know if I'm making a mistake? And what can I do to alleviate these feelings?


Dear Ruth,

Even though you are troubled by what you are feeling, you are experiencing a very normal range of emotions and doubts, and they do not have anything to do with the quality of the relationship between you and your fiance or the likelihood that you will have a happy and successful marriage. We're going to explain why this is so in a moment. Right now, however, we want to wish you mazel tov!

It seems to us that you were exactly right when you said, "I feel like I need a break from him." In reality, what you need is time for yourself, by yourself. The reason you are feeling so ambivalent right now is that you haven't had enough “alone” time over the past four weeks. Spending every single day with each other for four weeks is enough to make any engaged person ambivalent about the person they plan to marry, even though they care for each other and ordinarily enjoy spending time together. This is a period of intense emotional involvement, and during this time most women (and some men) need some personal space to process what they are feeling. The two of you have seen each other every day, and you have not been able to allow your emotions to settle down, and it is very natural for you to experience doubt and feelings of uneasiness.

When we have made similar observations to other people, they have reasoned, "Well, if we are going to spend every day together during our marriage, shouldn't we feel okay about spending every day together now?" The fact is, there is a big difference between working through a decision to accept a marriage proposal and dealing with the flurry of excitement and pressure that follow an engagement announcement, and settling into a life together after the wedding. In addition, most people overlook the fact that after the post-wedding week ends, a married couple does not spend all of their time together. They balance their school, jobs, friends, personal interests, and need for personal time with their lives as a married couple.

There's another reason why you are feeling the way you do. After finishing an academic semester and the pressure of final exams, you were due for some down time -- to veg out, let your mind relax, and have some fun. Instead, you spent two weeks experiencing some pretty intense emotions and finalizing a decision-making process that led to your becoming engaged. Then, you put yourself in third gear to plan a wedding. Even though your fiance may very well be the right man for you, because you haven't given yourself the personal time you needed, it is natural for you to feel overwhelmed and unsure right now.

Your letter describes a relationship that seems to be very promising. You admire and respect your fiance, your attraction to him has developed as you got to know him, you have taken the time to develop a close emotional connection, you care for him, and you accept him for who he is. The two of you have all of the qualities needed to form the foundation of a happy, healthy, loving marriage. And that is what you can focus on right now -- the fact that you choose someone with whom you can build a great life. Really, that is the criteria that everyone should use when they make the decision to marry -- they need a partner with whom they will be able to build a good life.

We understand that at times you think that you may be missing something because you never felt "so obsessed" about your fiance. This is a fictitious ideal foisted upon us by popular culture that makes us think that every relationship has to have "sparks." The reason this is fictitious is that many of the best marriages result from feelings that develop gradually, as a courtship progresses. In addition, most courtships that begin with a rush of emotions usually do not endure -- the "sparks" die out over a period of months.

We won't deny there are some married couples who experience very strong chemistry for each other early in their relationship, but even for them, the "sparks" don't last. Instead, they are replaced by an emotional connection that develops over time, just as you and your fiance have developed your own emotional intimacy.

Frankly, we don't believe that it matters how two people get to the point that they want to spend their lives together. And it doesn't matter if one of them decides they have met the right person earlier than the other. What matters is that they acquire all the qualities they need to build a wonderful life together, and agree to get married.

As we said, it is natural for you to have some doubts right now, and this is true even though you and your fiance seem to us to be very right together. Believe us, most people ask themselves, "Is s/he really the right one for me?" at some point during their engagement, and since you are in a very vulnerable state right now because you haven't had enough personal time, we would be surprised if you didn't ask yourself this question under these circumstances.

Many of our readers ask if there is a "test" to see if the person they are dating is really right for them. We're not going to suggest that you take this "test." One reason is that you're too anxious right now, and it will not do you any good at this point. We happen to think that you will "pass" with flying colors, based on what you have described in your letter. There will be time for you to reassure yourself later. Right now, we'd like to make a few recommendations that can help you become less anxious about your situation.

Are we correct that you will be returning to college today? If that's the case, then you and your fiance will have some time apart, and that will make it easier for you to have some time for yourselves. In fact, we encourage all engaged couples not to overdose on each other during the engagement. We recommend that they only spend time with each other once or twice a week, that they talk to each other on the telephone no more than once a day (every couple of days is okay, too), and that they not have lengthy telephone calls.

Because of the fact that the past few weeks have been very full for you, we'd like to make an additional recommendation. Give yourself some down time to relax. You need it. We know that a new semester is starting, but you've got to take some time to go for coffee with your girlfriends, listen to some music you enjoy, and give your mind a break.

It might be a good idea to agree with your fiance that you need several days off this first week back at school. You can reassure him that this has absolutely nothing to do with the relationship between you. Tell him that you were feeling overwhelmed, and that you were advised that this was because so much has happened so fast and you just need a little time for yourself. We suggest that you hold off on the phone calls for a few days and not see each other until next weekend -- this will give you both something to look forward to. Most people who follow this advice tell us that they begin to miss their fiance and as the week progresses they really look forward to seeing each other again.

We have two more suggestions for you. Even though you have told us that wedding plans are underway, we recommend that you take a break of a week or two before getting any further involved in wedding preparations. Remember, you haven't used your semester break to relax, and you need some down time. If you've already chosen a wedding date and your engagement will be a short one, you can either delegate some of the work to your parents or select a date a few weeks later.

Our last piece of advice is to read the book we wrote especially for engaged and newly married couples, “In the Beginning.” It is intended to help you navigate through engagement and the adjustments to married life. We believe that you will find it very helpful in the event you feel anxious at any other time during your engagement. It's got that "test" we spoke about, too. Once you have taken some time off, you may not even feel the need to take it, but if you choose to do so the results will be more accurate than if you take it right now.

We hope this helps set your mind at ease. And mazel tov on your great news!

Rosie & Sherry

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