It is a big step in someone’s life and their relationship to make the decision to get engaged. It is an even bigger step to take step back during that engagement and be honest with yourself and your partner about whether or not your relationship is ready for marriage. If you are having lingering doubts, how can you tell if the problem is simply cold feet or if it is the fact that you should not be getting married?
There are a few situations in relationships that are tantamount to flashing neon signs that you and your partner should not be getting married. These are issues that either cannot be resolved, or that are a signal that you definitely should not commit to a person until concrete steps have been taken to resolve them.
The first is physical or mental abuse. If you or your partner are physically or mentally abusive toward the other (or if you are both abusive toward each other), this might make for fireworks in the relationship, but it will lead to a demoralizing and degrading marriage that will at best, end in divorce at worst, in jail time and counselling.
Physical and emotional abuse are not issues of love; they are issues of power and control. Abuse will not stop if you are able to love someone enough, or if you are able to show them that you are committed enough to the relationship. They require admission that a problem exists, facing that problem and heavy counselling. Abuse cannot be resolved on its own, and it will not get better with a wedding, it will get worse. Once an insecure abuser is in a marriage, there is even less chance that the partner will leave than before the nuptials. If you are in an abusive relationship, get out now before the damage is irreversible.
Another issue that is not going to be resolved with a wedding is substance abuse. If you or your partner have addictions to drugs or alcohol, especially if both of you do, then you should work to resolve those addictions before you embark on marriage. The path to sobriety is tough, and throwing a stresser like a wedding in with it makes for hard times.
Finally, if one or both of you have been unfaithful to the other during your engagement, then you need to seriously rethink your position on commitment. You may be tempted to rationalize infidelity on the grounds of “cold feet” or anxiety about being with the same person for the rest of your life, but in reality, if you are engaged, you should already be at a place where you have committed yourself to being faithful to your partner.
Infidelity points to deeper signs of unrest or insecurity that are not going to be solved with a walk down the aisle. Making a commitment to fidelity at the wedding is not enough: if you are not committed to it during the period leading up to your wedding, then you should really look deeply at the reasons you or your partner strayed. Is one of you trying to give the other a reason to walk away so they don’t have to be the one to call it off?
There are other signs that you may be experiencing that may not be as cut and dry as the clear messages explored above. The first is if you have felt a change in the relationship since the engagement and wedding planning have begun. Many people say that the wedding planning that leads up to a marriage are a microcosm of the marriage itself, in that you will be experiencing a lot of stress, and a strong need for good communication skills will be more imperative than you have felt before.
During the planning of the wedding, you will be dealing with financial questions, family pressures, and communication challenges in a pressure cooker. If you find that your ideas about money and financial priorities are quite different from one another during this period, then there is a good chance that your long-term financial goals may not align. You should explore this thoroughly, since financial issues are one of the primary stressor on married couples.
Another issue is family. The influence of family members, how they treat you, and you how you and your partner treat your future in-laws are going to come to light during the planning of the wedding. If there is not a basis of respect in all of these dynamics, then this could point to troubles down the line. If a parent is overbearing about the wedding, and one or both of you are not able to communicate to them that they need to back off, how do you think situations like family holidays, child-rearing and how enmeshed they are in their family ties will be in the future?
If there are pressures that led you to get married in the first place, when you might have waited or not proposed at all, you should examine them. A pregnancy, an insecure, needy partner, or a partner whose “biological clock” is ticking are not good reasons to get married. While that is not to say that with a lot of work, you can still make a marriage work, you should not see a marriage as a solution to these situations. It sounds more like feelings of obligation or a sense of responsibility have pushed you onto the wedding, rather than feelings of deep commitment, and while these are noble, they don’t provide a solid foundation for a marriage.
Finally, if your friends and family, those who love and respect you the most, have come forward to air their reservations about your wedding, don’t brush them off. Love is blind, but friends are not. Think of what it took for them to come to you and tell you they are concerned about your commitment to this person you love. They know that they are risking alienation and anger from you, but they decided it was important enough to take the risk. Try not to hold it against them, and hear them out.
Breaking off an engagement is difficult, but it is not a failure, and it is much less difficult than divorce. If your engagement breaks up, you don’t owe anyone an explanation, save the person you are engaged to. You owe them a well-thought out explanation, and you owe them an explanation as soon as you make the decision. Don’t drag it out, because if you are pretty sure you cannot go through with it, then they deserve to know as soon as you do. Completely aside from the issues of lost deposits and gifts to be returned, you made a commitment to commit to them, and the least you can do is commit to being honest to them.