From the time we meet our partner until we say “I do” there is often a natural momentum to our relationship’s journey. We meet, date, make it exclusive, introduce our partner to friends and family, get engaged, plan the wedding, and then walk down the aisle. Each step along the way requires greater investments of time and energy, and signals greater commitment. The further we get down the path, the harder it is to turn back.
Newton’s First Law (The Law of Inertia) states that when an object is in motion (or rest), it tends to remain in motion (or at rest). The same could be said about romantic relationships, such that a relationship in motion tends to stay in motion (Stanley et al., 2006). Though relationships are often derailed in the early stages, once a couple gets engaged, there are a number of strong forces propelling the couple to follow through with the wedding.
Yet some people do what seems unthinkable to many: They call off their engagement and their wedding. Why?
How They Did It
Kale Monk from the University of Missouri and colleagues sought to find out why people cancel their wedding and end their engagement (Monk et al., 2020). The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 30 heterosexual participants aged 18-48 who had done so. Importantly, the relationships that individuals described were generally long-term, serious relationships (the average length of the relationship prior to ending it was just over 4.5 years). Conducting semi-structured interviews allowed the researchers to more thoroughly explore individuals’ thought processes and reasoning, because participants were able to describe everything in their own words. Using grounded theory, researchers analyzed those discussions to uncover the most central issues that led to the participants’ decision.
What They Found
The dominant theme was that the impending wedding was a catalyst for thinking more deeply and intentionally about the relationship’s future. As one participant described it, “I thought at one point when he was yelling at me, like is this what I wanted for the rest of my life?” It seemed that for women, the process of planning the ceremony and event provided concrete markers that facilitated visualizing the future. For example, a participant explained that, “I had found a wedding dress that I liked and I was trying it on, and I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought ‘I hope that [my ex-fiance ́] and I are still friends after we get divorced.’” A standard pre-wedding task ended up giving her an eye-opening glimpse into her future.
For the men, it was less about wedding planning and more about the engagement revealing incompatibilities that would be problematic going forward. For example, “I remember thinking, ‘If she’s not listening to me while we’re planning this wedding, this is one day of our lives, does that mean she’s not gonna take anything into consideration after we’re married?’” Other guys mentioned how negative comments from their partner about important issues like religion or the desire to have kids made them question their long-term compatibility. Further concerns included that “I stopped doing a lot of things that I liked doing” and that there was an “inability to communicate respectfully and amicably and productively.”
It also seemed like participants recognized the role of inertia and sought to find ways to slow the momentum toward marriage. They mentioned the need to “figure some things out before… like maybe we just need to wait a little longer.” This often resulted in an on-again/off-again dynamic, where several women described trying to forgive transgressions and “fall back in love.” However, that didn’t work, leading them to ultimately decide to end things.
It seems that having “a little bit of space to process my emotions” gave participants a chance to examine the relationship more objectively. That process revealed a range of lingering major issues such as infidelity, conflict, growing apart, and abuse. Though many interviewees acknowledged that many problems had existed for a while and built up over time, they also noted a culminating event that precipitated the final break-up.
Calling off a wedding is a big decision that few want to make, but that people clearly need to make on occasion. Rather than putting yourself through such an unpleasant and difficult experience, it’s much better to take steps in your relationship now that will help prevent such an outcome.
Here are two key lessons:
- Before the relationship gets so serious that you’re considering engagement, take some time to really think about what a future relationship with your partner looks like. Are you truly compatible, not only in your day-to-day living, but also in terms of your values? Sit down and picture what your future life will look like with your partner. Envision that relationship both in good times and in bad. Do you like what you see?
- Take the time to really evaluate the relationship so that you’re aware of potential red flags early on. Don’t get so wrapped up in falling in love that you are forgiving major issues like constant conflict, emotional abuse, or cheating. See them for who they are now, well before you’re planning a wedding. Compatibility counts… is this the type of relationship you always wanted?
Monk, J. K., Kanter, J. B., Jamison, T. B., & Russell, L. T. (2020). Beyond cold feet: Experiences of ending engagements and canceling weddings. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. (Online July 30, 2020) https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407520942590
Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding versus deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations, 55(4), 499–509. https://doi.org/10.1111/j. 1741-3729.2006.00418.x
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