As I listened to the women I interviewed for the Conscious Weddings E-Course talk about the symptoms of their engagement anxiety, something sounded familiar. They talked about feeling physically sick, not being able to eat or sleep, being so filled with fear that it affected every aspect of their life, praying for a way out. I thought about my clients who question their very foundation of life, from their identity to their relationships with friends and family. At the end of one of the interviews I said, “You know, it sounds like you’re describing pregnancy and labor,” to which Erin (from the MP3 interview in Lesson 1) who happened to be pregnant at the time of the interview responded, “Yes, that’s exactly how it felt. Except so much worse because there was no room to be scared. At least with labor people expect you to be scared.”
And there’s the critical difference between engagement/wedding anxiety and labor: when you express fears about childbirth no one says, “Oh, come on. Don’t be scared. It’s going to be the best day of your life! Maybe your fear means you don’t really want to become a mother.” Everyone understands that childbirth is terrifying and becoming a mother is the biggest transition of your life. But with an engagement and impending marriage, any expression of fear or doubt is met with, “Oh, come on. Don’t be scared. It’s going to be the best day of your life! Maybe your fear means you don’t really want to get married.” It’s the default response and it’s one that sends an already anxious bride or groom into doubt-overload. Our expectations determine our perceptions; when you’re expecting to be happier than you’ve ever been, there’s no room for the normal and necessary fear that often makes an appearance.
You might be asking right now (especially if you’re in the throes of engagement anxiety): But why is the fear necessary? The fear is necessary because you’re being initiated into an enormous archetype called marriage. Nature provides the rite of passage – or tests – for becoming a mother through pregnancy and childbirth, but when you’re on the threshold of becoming a wife or husband, psyche often creates its own initiations.
There seems to be something in our psyches that longs to be tested. My husband is reading a book right now called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” in which the author describes six harrowing days when he was trapped between a boulder and a canyon wall and ultimately ends up self-amputating his arm to set himself free. What’s especially fascinating to me about the story is that (according to my husband, I haven’t read it yet) the author talks about how there was a force in him that was pulling him toward the tragedy, as if he knew he needed to be tested and challenged in a way that only a life-threatening experience could provide. Of course, given my passion for initiation rites, I immediately flashed on the ancient traditions of indigenous people for testing their initiates – primarily adolescent boys – that involve life-threatening tests in nature. In order to become men, the boys have to prove themselves and push beyond their own comfort zones.
When I was pregnant and suffering through nearly unbearable nausea in the first trimester, fear for the baby’s well-being in the second trimester, debilitating back pain the third trimester (accompanied by a 50 pound weight gain), and a 42 hour labor, the only word that brought me comfort and context was initiation. Every time I suffered, I reminded myself that I was being tested. Once I understood the resource that was being called up (endurance, self-trust, faith), the suffering became bearable and gratitude replaced the negative mindset.
Could it be that the anxiety-induced physical symptoms of engagement are, at least partially, a self-imposed initiation rite? Could is be a test that, once endured, offers the woman or man resources that will aid her or him in the marriage? After fourteen years of doing this work I can safely say that the answers are YES: When the anxiety, fear, doubts, and grief are consciously addressed, they always diminish and the initiate can breathe a full breath once again. Fear finally recedes and makes room for love to flourish. The battle is over. The tests have been passed. And at the end, your identity as wife or husband is born.