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Breaking Your Engagement Requires Bravery!

by Johanna Nauraine


If you are thinking about breaking your engagement – be prepared for a chorus of confusion and disapproval from the important people in your life. One of my readers asked, “Why is a broken engagement seen as worse than a divorce?” Good question!

Unfortunately, friends and family typically respond to the person who’s not sure about following through with their marriage -- as “just having cold feet.” This perspective minimizes the importance or legitimacy of that person’s feelings.

It’s not uncommon for friends and relatives to try to shush or suppress the doubting person’s fears. Often they fail to explore this person’s reservations. They mistakenly assume the person’s “second thoughts” or last minute “jitters” are normal and temporary.

I believe there are social taboos against breaking an engagement.  We admire engaged couples. They symbolize our romantic hopes, dreams and expectations. There is something in all of us that hopes, “these two will make it.” We project our own unmet hopes and expectations on the newly engaged person. If that person begins to experience serious reservations about getting married, their fears stir up our own feelings and hopes about marriage coupled with the disappointing awareness that many marriages don’t work

In addition, social status accrues from being engaged. Friends and family admire the prospective bride’s ring. They get involved and excited about planning showers. They anticipate looking for dresses, shopping for flowers, etc. It’s not uncommon for the wedding to become more important than the marriage!

The engaged person who begins to have reservations about moving ahead with the wedding usually worries that they will disappoint not just their romantic partner but their friends and family. Sadly and often accurately, they anticipate a lack of support or anger from these people regarding the money and time spent preparing for the wedding.

Many brides and grooms know, prior to their wedding that their relationship is in trouble. Some seek premarital therapy hoping to improve their relationship. However, many of these couples enter therapy after they’ve begun planning their wedding. Not often but occasionally I’ve recommended that couples in troubled relationships wait to marry until they are on firmer ground. These couples usually ignore my suggestion – mostly because their wedding plans are already in the works.

Weddings tend to take on a life of their own. Couples typically feel once the “train has left the station” there’s no going back. Unfortunately, I often see these couples for therapy shortly after their wedding or a year later when their relationship is in even deeper trouble.

Every relationship has challenges but two people who are thinking about getting married should be able to make major decisions in a manner which both feel good about. They should both feel comfortable and happy with their physical relationship. Each should be able to count on the other emotionally, especially during illness or crisis. There should be a good capacity for resolving problems and communicating openly. If any of these elements are missing, they need to be worked on prior to getting married.

The most common causes for breaking an engagement are:

  1. One or both have been ambivalent about the relationship for a long time but felt pressured into getting engaged by their partner’s expectations, coercion or ultimatums, by the norms in their peer group or by their families.
  2. One of both realize they got engaged for the wrong reason, .e.g it seemed like the right time in life to get married, the woman got pregnant, one partner was facing visa problems which could be solved by getting married, someone needed health insurance which the other had through work, it was an impulsive decision fueled by alcohol.
  3. The relationship has been problematic for some time but one or both realize getting married won’t magically make the relationship better.
  4. There’s a big fight and one breaks off the engagement and walks out.
  5. One partner meets someone they love more.
  6. Neither feels their needs for closeness, affection, intimacy or understanding are being met.
  7. One partner experiences the other as unreliable when it comes to money, emotional availability or support.
  8. The engaged person observes behavior in their partner that seriously concerns them. This might include drinking, partying, spending money, or engaging in infidelity.
  9. One partner feels the other is too involved with their family of origin.
  10. A couple who has gotten engaged during a long distance relationship, move to the same city and begin to experience difficulties.
  11. One of the partner’s realizes they don’t love the other enough to want to marry them.

This list is by no means comprehensive but it’s a pretty good starting point.

It’s my belief that couples should feel married before they get married. Ideally, there should be sufficient closeness and satisfaction with the relationship that getting married feels more like an afterthought – the period at the end of the sentence, the icing on the cake. Too many couples mistakenly think getting married will take their relationship to a new level of closeness. In a good relationship this is certainly true. But in a troubled relationship, marriage often amplifies the problems that already exist.

Marriage is complex. There are many opportunities for a relationship to veer off course. If either one or both of you have any reservations about getting married, sort them out ahead of time. If you’ve made efforts to work out the problems in your relationship and this has not been successful – think again. If you’re meant to be together – you will be. Take time to develop your relationship to a point where getting married feels natural and right.

If you are seriously considering ending your engagement, get support from friends and family. Tell them why you are feeling the way you are. Don’t compromise on what’s best for you. Be brave. Your friends and family are not going to live in your marriage – you are. Marriage more than any other relationship has the capacity to impact your day-to-day happiness. Make sure your relationship is one you believe in for the long haul.