San Francisco Chronicle Column about Conscious Weddings…

Bride and Prejudice: Modern women, surprised by their own anxiety at tying the knot, seek counseling for help

Carolyne Zinko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2003
2003 San Francisco Chronicle

URL: sfgate.com/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2003/10/05/LV85316.DTL

It was supposed to be one of the happiest — if not the happiest — day of her life, and yet, as her wedding day approached, the bride-to-be was anxious.

Not about the color of the orchids, the string quartet or other trivial details. Ann (not her real name), a 27-year-old magazine editor from San Francisco, was confused, scared and oddly enough, almost angry about the idea of getting married.

She had dated her boyfriend for seven years, and lived with him for four. The idea of marriage hovered in the background, but they rarely spoke about it.

So when he proposed on a trip to Yosemite last year, it was exciting, and a surprise, but not an entirely welcome development.

“Why now? What had changed?” she wanted to know. “In my mind, I always thought we’d come to a point where we’d discuss it and say, ‘Let’s make it legal.’ Now I was thinking, ‘How could I be living with you, you’ve been going through this change, you’re ready for marriage, and I didn’t know anything about it?’ ”

It was not the kind of reaction she had expected from herself, but – as she was soon to learn – not entirely unusual, either.

Enter counselor Sheryl Paul, author of “The Conscious Bride,” a guide to helping women deal with the less-than-joyous aspects of the life transition called marriage.

Fear of commitment, the loss of singlehood and detachment from family of origin can induce feelings of depression and anxiety in the prospective bride.

It’s not a problem to have those feelings, says Paul. The real problem is that few people actually talk about them. Instead, many women distract themselves with the task of planning the event rather than deal with their uncomfortable feelings. “Post-bridal depression” is the term Paul has coined to describe the pent-up and unresolved grief, anxiety and loss that overwhelms some brides days or weeks after the ceremony.

“In our culture, we expect men to be freaking out and having cold feet about letting go of being a bachelor — we even have a word for bachelor, and there’s no equivalent for women,” she said. “For women, our culture focuses on the gain to be had by marriage.”

Paul, whose new workbook, “The Conscious Bride’s Wedding Planner,” is due out in November, also counsels brides-to-be and even their family members. It’s done in person if they live in Los Angeles, where her practice is located, or over the telephone (she can be contacted through her Web site, www.consciousweddings.com).

Paul has been at this since 1998. Her work stemmed from her master’s thesis in counseling psychology. She says many prospective brides find it “terrifying” to commit to someone for life because their parents are divorced and they lack role models for long-lived unions. Older brides are set in their ways and fear sharing their lives with someone else. And others fear letting go of their families — and the influence of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters — when they get married and start new families of their own.

Of course, not every bride feels this way. Those who do tend to have trouble sleeping or are on the verge of taking anti-anxiety medication, and it is serious business.

“This is not about what shade of pink the tablecloth should be,” she said. ‘It’s real, a monumental transition that hits with great force.”

Jessica Hartwell Peterson, 31, a marketing director at a Sacramento nonprofit agency, sought Paul’s help after sharing her anxieties with a girlfriend. The friend had just read Paul’s book during a cross-country flight.

Peterson’s mother and sister had died, separately, in the decade before her wedding. She was left with only her father, from whom she is estranged.

She felt lonely buying a wedding gown on her own. Her fianc wanted to elope; she wanted a big wedding with friends; and her father didn’t approve of her decision to marry. Altogether, “It made the whole experience of getting married very sad,” Peterson said. ‘It was a struggle to find the happiness in the experience.”

Paul helped Peterson to view a wedding as the end of one kind of a life and the beginning of a new one. Using that perspective, Peterson said, she was able to grieve about her losses. “It was not just mourning the loss of people who aren’t there to share your wedding with you but the end of life as a single person,” she said.

Parents also experience uncomfortable and unexpected feelings when their children get married.

Ann Matranga, 59, of Berkeley, beamed when her daughter, Kaela, announced she was engaged. She launched into the details of the ceremony, taking on the role of wedding planner and trying to help shape the event.

But as the days went by, she got angry about the plans and had trouble concentrating at work. Things came to a head with the guest list, which was limited for budgetary reasons.

A friend of hers from Massachusetts told her he couldn’t attend because he was in a sailing race on the wedding day. “I was offended beyond belief and it surprised me how hurt I felt,” she said. Matranga wanted to invite a peripheral family member and was told she couldn’t. Her daughter and her son wanted to invite someone else.

“I told them they’d better not ask me for another favor; this was the last straw,” Matranga said. “I was having a temper tantrum as if they were spoiling my own party. And then I think I cried for half an hour. At that point, I realized that there was something about loss of control over this event, over who was in our close circle of friends and who wasn’t, and that this was about defining things and I wasn’t getting to define them. That was when I thought, ‘I need some help with this.’ ”

In her counseling, Matranga learned that she was having trouble giving up her role as a parent and protector, and that she was having trouble — years later — coming to grips with her sad wedding memories, which were related to her mother’s disapproval of her choice in a husband.

To confront her fears, Matranga sat on her back porch, away from the distractions of wedding plans, and let herself think, feel, write in a journal and cry.

She is still working out her feelings, even though the wedding is long since over. Although some might consider exploring unhappy feelings surrounding a wedding to be a negative experience, Matranga sees only the positive. “Without the counseling,” she said, “I might have missed the depth, understanding and growth that I experienced in the wedding, which brought me joy.”

E-mail Carolyne Zinko at czinko@sfchronicle.com.

2003 San Francisco Chronicle

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