My fiancÃ©, Noel, and I recently went to the mall to register for wedding gifts. I set my eyes on a fancy new blender, and he asked, "What's wrong with our blender?"
He also questioned me about the new dishes, the new towels, and the new pillows. Why did we need all this stuff when we already had it?
Then Noel grew quiet and sullen. I repeatedly asked him what was wrong, but he kept saying it wasn't the appropriate time to talk, that we'd discuss when we got home. Finally, after repeated questioning, he emphatically said, "We'll talk later. For now, I'll just tell you when I don't want something for the registry."
It's funny how concerns become magnified once one decides to get married. All of a sudden, the little things a person does or say mean so much more. If he leaves dishes in the sink now, does that mean he won't help me with the housework down the line? If I don't get along with some of his family and friends, does that mean we'll have trouble at future get-togethers?
Some people may call these types of thoughts premarital jitters. Many brides- and grooms-to-be have them. So to a certain extent, the engaged couple and society accepts them, and the wedding goes on as planned. Sometimes, however, the jitters may lead to postponement or cancellation of nuptials.
WebMD asked several relationship and mental health experts to determine the value of pre-wedding jitters. Are they healthy, purposeful fears, or anxieties gone awry? How much attention should be paid to them? And when do normal jitters turn into unhealthy ones?
The experts answered these questions and gave some advice on how to sort out the issues before the wedding day.
Good vs. Bad Anxiety
A little anxiety is normal and healthy, says Jerilyn Ross, MA, LICSW, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America and author of Triumph Over Fear: A Book of Help and Hope for People with Anxiety, Panic Attacks, and Phobias.
"Some anxiety helps us get out of harm's way," says Ross. "It helps us prepare, it helps us focus on doing something, to try harder. It forces us to take action."
For instance, a little worry about getting the wedding invitations out on time can motivate a person to choose the invitations, order them, and send them out in a timely manner.
"The kind of worry that gets you to plan, organize, and take concrete steps is great," says Ross.
Anxiety becomes extreme when a person begins to obsess about whether or not they are making the right decision about something or loses sleep over apprehension that the dress or wedding site may not be quite right. This type of fretting could affect family, social, and work life.
Yet extreme anxiety isn't totally abnormal when it comes to wedding planning. "We see those extremes all the time, because getting married is an extreme situation," says Ross. "It's something most people do, hopefully, once in their lifetime. It is a major decision and commitment."
If the worry becomes so overwhelming that it paralyzes a person, it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. For example, a person may obsess about hand printing every single invitation and throw it out if a letter is imperfect.
Other signs of the disorder include avoiding or manipulating situations to avoid the anxiety. For instance, a person may be so worried about tripping while walking down the aisle that he or she refuses to go through with the ceremony. Or a person may suggest a honeymoon nearby because he or she is afraid of riding an airplane.
"When people become frightened by the anxiety itself and can't function in a normal healthy way, at that point, we would then look if the person has an anxiety disorder," says Ross, noting that anxiety disorders are real and treatable. If you suspect that you or a loved on has the disorder, it is best to consult with an anxiety specialist or a mental health professional.
Working as a Team
Outside of anxiety disorders, Susan Heitler, PhD, a clinical psychologist and a marriage and family therapist in Denver, prefers not to look at pre-wedding jitters in terms of healthy or unhealthy. Jitters deserve consideration, she says. They don't just come out of the blue.
"Jitters, which are basically anxieties, come up because there is something going on that merits attention," says Heitler, who doesn't believe everyone experiences such anxiety. Couples with strong collaborative skills tend to do fine, she says. Those who lack such skills, however, may experience jitters -- even if the couple really loves each other.
Planning a wedding involves making joint decisions, Heitler explains. To resolve disagreements, some people may bully their partner, while others may cave in and feel resentful. Patterns such as these can lead to fights and can trigger anxious feelings before the wedding day.
To make matters worse, the high stress involved in wedding planning can make people slip into their worst habits. Instead of working as a team, one or both parties may become demanding. Instead of listening, people can become defensive.
To ease high-pressure times and decision making, Heitler recommends learning effective collaboration skills. She explains the necessary communication skills in her book, The Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong and Loving Marriage. They include:
- Focus on what you would like instead of what you don't like. The words "don't like" invite defensiveness, whereas the words "would like" invite cooperation. For example, instead of saying "I don't want your family staying at our house during the wedding weekend," you could say "I would like it if all out-of-town friends, including your family, would stay at a hotel for the wedding weekend."
- Use I instead of You. This invites a less defensive response from your partner. For instance, instead of saying "You left a mess in the kitchen," say "I was distraught when I came home and saw the mess in the kitchen."
- Change your shoulds to coulds. The word "should" tends to bring pressure to both parties, while the word "could" promotes more constructive dialogue. In the examples, "We should invite all of our friends," and "We could invite all of our friends," the latter sentence encourages more of a two-way discussion.
- Listen to learn instead of listening dismissively. Whatever your partner says, take note of what makes sense in what he or she is saying. If you say "Yes, but..." you are listening for what's wrong in what they are saying. If what they say does not make sense, ask for more information until what they are saying makes sense to you.
- To find out more information from your partner, start out questions with How or What instead of Do you, Have you, or Are you. The words "how" or "what" tend to invite more dialogue, whereas the words "do you", "have you" or "are you" tend to elicit "yes" or "no" responses.
These communication skills can promote good flow of information, which is the stuff of good marriages, says Heitler. "If you're going to be a team, you need to understand each others' concerns in a respectful way and learn to make decisions together," she says. "Otherwise, one pulls left, one pulls right, or you crash into each other."
Sorting Through Doubts
If you're still not sure you want to go through the wedding, it's best to talk to someone.
Kate Wachs, PhD, a Chicago psychologist and author of Relationships for Dummies, recommends talking to a trusted family member, preferably someone who is married. It helps if that person is not normally critical of you or your partner. Be sure that person is rational and isn't the type to make situations worse.
You may also want to discuss premarital misgivings with a trusted friend, priest, minister, rabbi, or a therapist. Talking to your partner is another option, but do so with caution, says Wachs. Make sure your partner understands that your doubts do not necessarily mean you want to call off the wedding.
If canceling or postponing nuptials is in your mind, try to be as honest as possible with your partner. "Many times, if it's meant to be, (the wedding) will go forward anyway but a little bit farther down the line. If the other person can't tolerate that, then maybe it's not meant to be," says Carol Kleinman, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical School in Washington.
Meant to Be
Fortunately for Noel and me, calling off the wedding did not become a real option. We were able to talk about our disagreement with the registry. I found out he was tired of what he saw as my complaints - our old blender wasn't good enough, our old food processor wasn't good enough, and the plates weren't good enough. He wondered why I wasn't happy with our stuff. He wondered what he was doing wrong that I was so unhappy with our life together.
I, of course, explained that my wanting certain things for the registry did not mean I did not like our stuff or that I was unhappy with our life together. I saw the registry as an opportunity to get nice things.
Since we discovered each other's viewpoints, we were able to understand why we acted the way we did during our shopping trip. The understanding eased the frustration and confusion. We were able to save our relationship, and in the process, felt stronger as a couple.