My name is Brian. I’m 35, never been married, have a solid career, and own my own home. On June 21, the first day of summer, I’m getting married. Until I met Samantha (I call her Sam), I wasn’t sure if I would ever get married. But Sam is truly an amazing woman, one that I respect and admire and love being with. I know she’ll be a fabulous mother and for the first time in my life, I’m looking forward to having a family.
However, as we get closer to the wedding, I’m starting to have serious doubts. I get these sudden bursts of panic and feel like running far away. While I love Sam and can’t imagine my life without her, I get concerned that I might not feel this way forever. People change, and the idea of making a commitment to one person for an entire lifetime feels overwhelming. My parents got divorced when I was just a little kid and my whole life I swore I’d never end up like them. I love the life Sam and I have created together, and I miss her terribly when we’re apart. But can I really guarantee that I’ll feel that way forever?
I’ve thought about postponing the wedding but it’s already coming up so fast. All our families and friends are flying in; we’ve spent a bunch of money on the venue and flowers. If I cancel now it would hurt Sam terribly. I’m worried that she would feel so betrayed that she’d never want to speak to me again. Is this kind of panic just normal cold feet before getting married or am I on to something, that maybe I’m afraid because this is the wrong path for me?
I certainly can’t tell you what choice to make concerning one of the most important decisions of your life, but I do have some thoughts I’d like you to consider.
You’re clearly expressing fear and doubt but you’re not offering any specifics (e.g., mistrust, dissatisfaction, irreconcilable differences) as to why these feelings exist. Instead, your anxiety is focusing on (1) the idea of a lifetime commitment of love, (2) panic attacks, and (3) your parents’ divorce. Let’s look at each of these individually.
Lifetime commitment: Have you ever worried you’d suddenly stop loving your favorite grandparent or that you’d stop loving your own child after a few years? Feelings of true love and deep attachment can shift and change with the passage of time, but they very rarely stop altogether. In my opinion, what causes love to die in a relationship is trauma, neglect, or abuse. You’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of loving someone for a lifetime, but what about the concept of being loved for a lifetime? You need to decide whether your trepidations are truly because you’re choosing the wrong person or the wrong lifestyle (marriage), or if your feelings are based on prior hurt, fear and trauma. If it’s the latter, those feelings must be dealt with or else you’re likely to continue repeating them in future relationships.
Panic attacks: A panic attack is an anxiety disorder that is dealt with by experiencing one’s underlying feelings. If you allow yourself to face and experience your buildup of emotions, you will be able to make better life decisions. I highly recommend you attend psychotherapy in order to better understand your fears and negative feelings, possibly multiple times before the wedding. Explore the possibility that you are, in fact, just temporarily panicking. Many high functioning individuals who live successful lives attend therapy in order to better understand themselves increase their ability to love themselves, have meaningful relationships with others and embrace an even more satisfying life.
Parents’ Divorce: Do you think you’d have such strong doubts about marrying Sam if your parents hadn’t split up when you were young? If the answer is no, then you have more work to do in therapy. I don’t believe in dredging up the past unless the trauma of that history is affecting the quality of life today. When you’re in a state of anxiety, your thoughts are fearful. While that’s understandable and needs to be addressed, also think about the positive. You’ll have the chance to love another, a chance to do what your parents were unable to do. But if you don’t try, you will have broken up like your parents did, just at an earlier stage. n
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com