On the Engagement Roller Coaster
Lindsay A. Reed
Special to The Washington Post
January 30, 2001
After years of constant neglect in favor of its more useful counterpart, my left hand has come into its own. Sure, the right does the writing and dials the phone, but lately, as it performs these mundane tasks, my left hand has been basking in my admiring gaze. The left hand is wearing THE RING. You know, the one every girl dreams about — or at least I did. My boyfriend of three years, the man whom I love, proposed on New Year’s Day. And I said yes. I was elated, excited, and as the gravity of the situation began to sink in, more than a little confused. I had wanted this — I knew it was right — why did I feel so weird?
That is how I found myself bawling in a Borders parking lot on a Thursday night, the evening after my engagement began. I felt joyful, but in a kind of dream, that whole day. We shared our news with family and friends, and my now-fianc went back to his house. The commotion at my house died down, and I was alone for the first time since I stopped being a girlfriend.
I decided since this wedding is only two years away, I had better get cracking. I went in search of planning books the kind that could tell me about flowers, bridesmaid dresses, bands, deejays, cakes, invitations, thank-you notes, and showers. All things reasonably foreign to me.
I pulled into a parking space, picked up my backpack, saw my ring and started crying. Even as I cried, I was bewildered. I wasn’t THAT overwhelmed by the planning, I was happy, what the heck was going on? So I cried for a while, and went inside. Clearly, I needed some resources.
Amid the many books about how to plan my dream wedding day, I found some information that surprised and greatly reassured me. “The Conscious Bride,” by Sheryl Paul, in fact, has become my engagement companion. Paul is a bridal counselor based in California who specializes in “helping women understand the emotions that arise during engagement, wedding, and the first year of marriage.” I plucked “The Conscious Bride” from among the decorative keepsake planners, and sat down on the floor to investigate.
I first tried to decide what an unconscious bride was. Maybe the older sister in “Sixteen Candles,” who took too many muscle relaxants and slurred her way through her vows. But as I read, it all became clear. For some reason, I had always pictured being engaged as a really happy, euphoric time. And it is, but it’s hard to sustain euphoria for long. Extreme ups usually have extreme — well, reactions. Hence my sudden, unexpected meltdown in the parking lot.
Of the expectation of only pure happiness following a decision to wed, Paul Nissinen says, “In our culture we can talk about sex, money, divorce — anything except what we really feel from the moment of engagement through the first year of marriage. People think it means there’s something wrong with their relationship.”
The loss that I was feeling, although I coudn’t really put my finger on it, was the beginning of the end of the person I had been . . . single.
After marriage, I still will be myself, but also part of a union, for better or for worse. That’s really exciting, but it’s also kind of intimidating. I was relieved to find that confusion and sadness are a natural, healthy part of change, and not a sign that I am not ready to marry.
When facing a huge life transition, such as the figurative death of your childhood self in order to merge with another human being for as long as you both shall live, it’s essential to freak out. According to Paul, “If a rite of passage is to be complete, it must involve a letting-go, a shedding, a separation, indeed, the death of the old identity before the new life and the new identity can take hold.” This does not mean that if you sail through your engagement, something is wrong. Every person has a unique set of reactions to such change.
But tuning in to those feelings as they arise is akin to letting steam out of a pressure cooker. If you bleed the steam frequently, you avoid the likelihood of a full-scale explosion. Many brides speak of “post-wedding letdown.” We look forward so much to one event — the thing that will tie it all together. We put all of our energy into making the day perfect. When it’s done, if our engagement feelings are brought unresolved to the marriage, it makes for a more challenging start.
“The more we allow ourselves to feel sadness, loneliness, and fear during our engagement,” says Paul, “the more beautiful our wedding day will be. More importantly, we are laying down a healthy foundation for our marriage.”
Not only the bride has adjusting to do. The family dynamics are shifting in ways that would register on the Richter scale. Families are unsure where they fit in their child’s new union, and the parents of the bride and groom may not be instant best friends. And, of course, there can be as many as four sets of parents to integrate into the festivities, if anyone has divorced and/or remarried. Throw the average $15,000-$30,000 cost of a wedding into the mix, and no wonder fuses can be short. It’s important to help your family understand that even though their role is shifting in your life, they still have one.
In the flurry of activity that follows an engagement, it’s easy not to deal with emotions. There are a number of tasks to be accomplished before the actual walk up the aisle takes place. If a bride feels out of control, she can call a caterer. A florist. Get a jump-start on her thank-you cards. These are things that help us feel in control of the process.
Although such tasks are needed to help orchestrate the details of the big day, they also can serve as a handy distraction from the magnitude of the impending marriage. I experience this firsthand every day. I am not a woman who uses phrases like “princess-cut, square-neck, short-sleeved Duppioni silk” in everyday conversation, but this, as well as other unfamiliar phrases, are easily rolling off my tongue.
Unbeknown to me, I’ve had an inner bride lurking for years. She knows EXACTLY what she wants, and she’s not afraid to spend 12 to 14 consecutive hours looking for it on the Internet. She scares me, but my loved ones are the true victims. After a “wedding talk” the other day, a dear friend said dubiously, “I just want you to know — I think you’re an alien.”
Planning is a necessary part of engagement, but there are other, emotional kinds of work that will pay off long past the wedding day. Paul recommends a three-step approach for brides to employ as feelings arise during their engagement:
“Be aware. Engagement includes sadness, fear, confusion and loneliness as well as happiness, beauty and joy.” One second you may feel so grateful to have found the love of your life, the next furious to be asked to change your name. Just take it as it comes.
“Let your feelings in. Understand and explore them. When you talk about your wedding, try to go beyond the planning talk.” This is a toughie. It’s almost a secret code, all this talk of caterers, china, sites . . . wedding favors. It can feel scary to delve beyond that in conversation. On the other hand, I’ve been richly rewarded with insights from my friends — married, engaged, and single.
“Let people know . . . what you’re going through. This includes family, friends, and MOST of all, your fianc.” You and your fianc have shared so much up to this point. Discussing emotions that are not glowing during the engagement doesn’t mean you have doubts or that your relationship is shaky. Quite the opposite: You’re laying a foundation of communication that will serve you throughout your marriage.
Another good way for brides to connect with the emotions surrounding their engagement is to — are you ready? This is revolutionary — SIT STILL. That’s right. Don’t do anything. Don’t pick up the cell phone. Don’t look on theknot.com. No bridal magazines. Just sit, breathe, and feel whatever comes.
As your mind races up different catering avenues, let your focus keep returning to your breath. Five to 10 minutes a day of this connecting can provide a well of serenity, and consciousness from which to attack your transitioning and planning.
As I walked out of Borders that Thursday night, loaded with a heavy bag full of bridal magazines as well as my transition book, I felt infinitely better then I did walking in. I’m not the only one! I have a road map for the upcoming events. Because two weeks into this, things just keep on changing. I can only imagine that I will continue on my roller coaster, long after the wedding and into the marriage, because love, although constant, sure does evolve.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go call the florist.