For the Anxiously Engaged: A Media Diet

Transitions render us more vulnerable emotionally and psychologically than during other times in our lives. Being in a transition means that we are between stages and identities: no longer single but not quite married; no longer a non-mother but not quite a mother. These in-between zones are typically scary places when the familiar realm is out of reach and we’re left feeling disoriented and uncertain. Like the caterpillar who sheds its skin multiple times before weaving its chrysalis and transforming into a butterfly, when we’re in transition we, too, shed multiple metaphoric skins as we let go of ways of being, thought processes, habits, and possibly even friends that are no longer serving our highest potential.

When we’re in a process of shedding and letting go, the consequent disorientation and vulnerability causes many of us to seek reassurance wherever we can find it. This tendency isn’t a problem in and of itself; its natural and healthy to gravitate toward guidance during turbulent times. The problem arises when we find ourselves looking for reassurance in places that only entrench the anxiety further. One of the most common statements my clients say to me in our first session is: “I watched a movie last night that really spiked my anxiety. It was a romantic comedy and afterwards I was left wondering if I love my fiancé enough to marry him.” Variations on this statement are: “Every time I flip through a bridal magazine I feel anxious. I don’t feel as happy as those brides look and then I wonder, ‘What’s wrong me with? Aren’t I supposed to feel happy during my engagement? Aren’t I supposed to be looking forward to my wedding with excitement?’”

My quick answer? Go on a media diet! Avoid bridal magazines, popular movies (especially romantic comedies), and wedding websites – especially those that insist that if you feel any doubt or anxiety it means you’re making a mistake. During this vulnerable time, you’re highly susceptible to images and messages that reinforce the false mythologies our culture is bred on: that during your engagement you’re supposed to be happier than you’ve ever been in your life, that you should feel gleefully and unilaterally excited about your wedding, and that if you’re having doubts there’s something wrong with you, your relationship, or your decision to marry. The more you fill your head with the false images, the harder it will be to replace the pernicious messages they contain with the truth.

Replacing the pervasive messages with the truth is not an easy task when it comes to the engagement and wedding. Remember, from the time you were young you’ve been raised on the belief that the wedding and all that surrounds it is supposed to be an only happy time. You’ve been inundated with the belief that if you’re not joyously over-the-moon ecstatically happy about getting married than you shouldn’t get married. There is nothing in our popular culture that supports the basic human truth – not theory, but truth – that with any transition or any major decision you will experience a panoply of contradictory emotions.

When you go on a media diet you commit to protecting your inner space by filtering what enters it. By extension, it’s also essential that you wisely choose who you talk to about your vulnerable thoughts and emotions. When you tell most people – even your closest friends and family members – that you’re having doubts about getting married, the common response is, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t go through with it.” Given that we were all raised in the same culture, this response is understandable: your friends and family are just as indoctrinated as you are regarding the myths surrounding romantic love and weddings.

Very few people understand that you can want to go through with something and still feel uncertain, scared, and doubtful about the decision. We live in a black and white, either/or culture which transmits the message that you either feel happy or sad, excited or anxious. We generally fail to understand that any major decision, while initially eliciting one emotional response, will eventually activate the polar opposite response. In other words, you simply cannot be a thinking person and make an informed decision without spanning the polarities of excitement and dread, certainty and doubt, happiness and sadness, gain and loss, love and fear.  So just like you have to avoid most popular media and wedding sources, you also need to be extremely selective about who you talk to about your less-then-blissful feelings.

It takes courage, patience, and commitment to be a conscious bride. The vast majority of engaged women (and men) succumb to the cultural expectation of putting on the face of bliss and excitement, successfully distracting themselves from their uncomfortable and socially unacceptable emotions through planning a “perfect” wedding (and often turning into bridezilla), then crashing after the wedding with a bad case of post-wedding depression. A very small minority of people – generally those who make decisions easily and glide through transitions without much anxiety – truly do feel excited about their wedding and enjoy being engaged. But for the rest of you who find yourselves anxious, depressed, confused, and disoriented, you need to orient yourselves away from places that imply that there’s something wrong with you for feeling this way and toward places that help you make sense of these feelings and view them as positive and necessary stepping stones toward your transformation into this next stage of your life.

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Sheryl Paul, M.A., is regarded as an international expert in transitions. In 1998 she pioneered the field of bridal counseling and  has since counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, “The Conscious Bride” and “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” and her websites, www.consciousweddings.com and www.consciousmotherhood.com. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Phone and Skype sessions available internationally for all types of transitions.

10 comments to For the Anxiously Engaged: A Media Diet

  • Belinda

    I wish I had read this post when I was engaged!! It would have been so good for me to avoid all romantic comedies – even though they are the movies I love the most!!
    I find that, even now after being married, I need to go into a romantic comedy movie with a very strong mind and having told myself before “This is only a movie, it’s not a reality”, otherwise I end up feeling bad about my relationship and it’s less than perfect parts. TV shows and books are the same too.
    In my anxious state, I tend to find it extremely difficult to separate reality from fantasy – and this puts an enormous strain on the relationship – not to mention the level of expectation my husband sometimes feels is placed upon him.
    Sheryl, it would be wonderful if you could write a blog/video blog on distinguishing between reality and fantasy – because sometimes I feel completely lost as to what is a normal expectation and what is just a complete fantasy.
    Belinda

  • Janelle

    I have noticed that things I watch or things that people say about other people’s relationships spike my anxiety. Yesterday, I watched the true hollywood story about jennifer lopez, and it was about how she was married for 9 months then divorced, then got engaged to ben affleck and broke if off a few days before the wedding, and now she’s happily married to that other guy. But those stories have always scared me. For example, when I first got engaged I thought “Oh no, what if I’m one of those people that call my wedding off a few months/weeks before the wedding”. Now my wedding is in a few weeks and I know that I would never call it off, that was the fear talking. Now, my fear is saying “what if I’m one of those people that calls the marriage off within the first year”. HOW SCARY!!! I love my fiance and I’m starting to think that it is the anticipation of everything that is scaring me. I know that I have a great guy and our relationship is wonderful. I’m 100% sure about my relationship and I just feel so comfortable in the relationship. I think the reason why I’m not 100% sure about the marriage is because I don’t know what “marriage” is really like. For me, it is hard to be 100% sure about anything without even knowing what it is like. Will the marriage just be like our relationship was before all of this anxiety? Does anyone else feel this way?

    • I don’t think it’s possible to be 100% sure about anything in this life, let alone making a lifetime commitment to one person! Stay tuned to hear more about this in my next video blog.

  • Lisa

    I find myself looking at celebrity couples and characters in films and shows and comparing my relationship to theirs. I always wonder, “well if they got divorced, wouldn’t I?” It’s particularly scary because I’m not even engaged yet. I know that my boyfriend wants to marry me one day, he’s just not ready. I thought I was ready but the past few months I’ve been really freaking out and wondering if he’s the one/if our differences will be the end to us. It’s never been incredibly easy for us, but the things that bother me about him now never did before. My friends are all getting married and I look at their husbands/fiances and wonder if the qualities they have (that my boyfriend doesn’t) are what makes a good husband. It’s really awful and confusing. I know I love him and I know he loves me and I know that he’s good and honest and supportive, but I just wonder what needs are supposed to be met in a “good relationship” and a “good marriage” and if he’ll be able to meet those needs. I feel like they aren’t being met now, but I also feel like that’s because I’m so anxious and afraid. When I finally calm down and relax, things are fine, but the anxiety comes back up again.

    I’ve been hoping this whole time that I’m just supposed to be going through this now, learning to deal with my fears now, so that when we do get engaged, I can hopefully enjoy the process a little bit more. This blog is one of the only things that keeps me sane!

    • You can address a certain amount of fear during the pre-engagement period but it will probably come rearing up again once you actually get engaged. There are two key areas to addressing the fear: 1. address the fear that is specific to this engagement 2. address the core issues that are being activated because of the transition (your self-doubt, your relationship to your fear voices and how you work with them responsibly or project them onto your partner). And it sounds like following a media diet might serve you well!

  • James

    I just got engaged with my longtime gf and I am freaking out! I cant sleep and I have hardly been eating. I have been reading a bunch of posts online to help try and make sense of all these feelings. I thought this article makes a lot of sense and thought I would give a male perspective.

    It is 2011 and I wanted to shake up many things in my life. I felt that taking the next step to engagement would force me/us to deal with what ever it is we need to deal with and hopefully allow our relationship to grow because it needs to to stay healthy. So far this has been completely true, everything has come rearing up as Sheryl had mentioned. As freaked out as I am this is a transitional period that needs to be confronted.

    At the same time I entered this with my focus entirely on us, but as soon as the news hit our families it started getting out of hand. Engagement parties and all the questions about dates and that put me over the edge. I really had to man up to take this step, but I am not ready to set a date and I have talked to her about that. There are a lot of hard questions we still need to ask. All our expectations and wants need to be explored.
    I am not rushing into this process even though we have been dating for a while. I love her too much to compromise her/our happiness.

    The media has been prepping and selling you girls for the ideal wedding experience for a long time. After seeing what my Brother went through with his wedding, I was amazed by the industry of it all. To be honest that gets in the way of everything it should represent and it gets passed off as a right of passage in our current society.

    Good luck everyone finding there way through this life of ours,
    stay true to your heart…

    • Thank you very much for sharing your experience. It’s always great when a man has the courage to speak up and share the difficult side as I know it’s culturally much more challenging to admit to difficult feelings (even though around the wedding it’s more expected for me). It sounds like you have a solid head on your shoulders and I’m sure you’ll find your way through the fears.

  • James

    Hi Sheryl,
    Thanks for responding to my comment. To be honest I was not prepared for all that I am feeling right now. I am not sure what to do about it? My world just turned upside down and I need to figure out why soon or my fiance will probably start worrying about me. It’s as if my life is flashing in front of me. I am so lost…

  • I would strongly encourage you to consider purchasing The Conscious Weddings E-Course. You can read more about it here:

    http://conscious-transitions.com/conscious-weddings-e-course/

    While some of the language is geared toward women, it’s equally applicable to men. Let me know if you have any other questions about it – or anything else. I know the feelings can be quite strong and scary and it’s important to receive the right information and guidance as quickly as possible.

    Warmly,
    Sheryl

  • Havah

    I have been engaged for about seven months now, and I have already had to call off one wedding date. For several months I have had this bad feeling inside. Often it manifests like a burning feeling in my stomach. There is a big part of me that believes that my body knows best and it is giving me a signal that the marriage is a bad idea. However, I am not willing to give it up because I have never had a man treat me this well. I have been so head over heels with so many men, without having any red flags or anxiety about it, and then I have been utterly crushed when they ended the relationship suddenly. I finally have a wonderful, trusting relationship, built on mutual respect and love and understanding…and now I have this bad feeling to contend with. I do not want to call off this wedding, but I dread having this feeling in my belly for ever.