Alongside questions like, “Do we have enough chemistry?” and “What if I’m making a mistake?“, my engaged clients and e-course members are plagued by the question, “Am I settling?” Chemistrymistake, andsettling are powerful buzzwords in our wedding/marriage culture and can easily lead even the most level-headed bride or groom down a dangerous path of possibly leaving a healthy, loving partnership because they think it doesn’t measure up to the impossible standard that our culture upholds.

Yet when I ask my clients to describe their relationship, they invariably say, “I’m with a fantastic partner. He (or she) is everything I’ve ever wanted: loving, kind, trustworthy, responsible, accountable. We have shared values and goals and he completely gets me. He’s by best friend. I was sick and tired of dating men who weren’t marriage material, and as soon as I started dating my partner I knew he was exactly what I had been looking for.”

Sounds great, right? And then the reality of the commitment sets in — either at the moment of the proposal or as soon as she knows that “forever” is on the table — and with the enormity of the commitment comes the enormity of her fear. Love is scary. That’s just the nature of the beast. And we come to real love relationships with a host of scripts — some healthy, some dysfunctional — that attempt to interfere with the natural forward progression of the relationship. Instead of understanding that this fear is normal, we equate the fear with doubt and fall prey to pervasive message that “doubt means don’t.”

But for most of my clients, doubt didn’t begin as doubt: it began as fear and grief. All transitions constellate fear and grief: we fear the unknown, we grieve letting go of the identity that we’ve embodied our entire life, we fear failure, we grieve separating from family of origin, we fear growing up and we grieve the end of childhood, we fear the risk of loss that accompanies opening your heart fully to another human being, we grieve the fantasy of marrying a perfect, flawless partner.

Because we’re poorly educated about transitions in our culture, we mistake the fear for doubt and thus begins a scary domino effect of believing that we’re in the wrong relationship. The message is: If you’re doubting, you must be settling. Cut your losses now and move on. This is dangerous advice, and only entrenches the doubt further as it doesn’t allow room for the normal fear to surface, air out, and find resolution.

Let me ask you simply: How could marrying a loving, kind, trustworthy, responsible, accountable partner with whom you share values, goals, and a special connection be considered settling? Settling is staying with an emotionally abusive partner while knowing that you deserve better. Settling is staying with someone whose core values are grossly out of alignment with your own because you’re scared to be alone. Settling is not working your tail off to boot fear out of the driver’s seat of your psyche so that you don’t walk away from a great partner with whom you could build a happy marriage.

The next time someone confides in you that she’s feeling doubtful about her upcoming nuptials, instead of spouting off the rote line of, “Well, maybe you’re making a mistake,” try offering, “Maybe underneath that doubt is fear and grief. Of course you’re scared! Marriage is one of the biggest commitments you’ll ever make and there are no guarantees that it will work. And of course you’re sad! You’re leaving the identity and lifestyle that you’ve always known and trying to figure out what it means to be a wife or husband today. It’s okay! I know you’re with a great partner and it’s going to be okay.”

What a different engagement culture we would have if we encouraged women and men to validate their normal yet uncomfortable feelings instead of judging them. What a different wedding culture it would be if we allowed brides and grooms room to express their true feelings instead of nearly forcing them to put on a happy face at the risk of being met with, “If you’re not glowing with ecstasy from proposal to I do, you must be making a mistake.” What a different marriage culture it would be if we presented a realistic view of partnership, which includes marrying a fallible human being that might not meet your every need. Given the dismal success rate of American marriages, don’t you think it’s time we examine the messages we’re sending about love, romance, and marriage? Let’s redefine those messages right here.

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