Here comes the (freaked out) bride

Author and therapist Sheryl Paul explains why wedding planning turns some people into quivering messes.

Published December 4, 2003 6:38PM (EST)

During her engagement in the fall of 1995, Sheryl Paul found countless wedding planners offering advice about dresses and flowers and food -- but she didn't find any books that helped her with the big problems she was facing: the fear of marriage and becoming a wife, and the anxiety about leaving behind her family and single life. After all, planning a wedding and getting married should be an experience nothing short of ecstatic, right?

Not always. The engagement, the wedding and the first few months of married life are periods of constant ups and downs, says Paul, a Los Angeles-based therapist and author. But none of the wedding books she read discussed this emotional roller coaster.

So Paul, who was earning an M.A. in counseling psychology at the time, wrote her own wedding book -- "The Conscious Bride: Women Unveil Their True Feelings About Getting Hitched." "As part of my research I conducted interviews with many women and I quickly learned that I was not the only one who felt afraid and anxious while planning my wedding," says Paul. "Some women burst into tears when they were proposed to, some wanted to flush their engagement ring down the toilet, some cried on their wedding night and had no idea what was going on. They didn't have the vocabulary to name and talk about their experience."

While working on "The Conscious Bride," Paul launched a bridal counseling business, Conscious Weddings. She now works one-on-one with brides around the world, helping them deal with their individual transitions into marriage. Her second book, "The Conscious Bride's Wedding Planner," recently hit bookstores.

Why is there so much pressure to create The Perfect Wedding?

There are very few times in a woman's life where she has a chance to create a fantasy as she does around her wedding. It's a day where there's a potential for an immense amount of beauty and tears. Couples feel inspired to create this day that expresses their love and expresses their deepest commitment to each other. Where people get out of whack is when they're acting on a very deep, usually unconscious motivation that starts from the time they're little girls -- they try to create a "fairy tale wedding." The reality is there's no such thing as a perfect wedding. Images that we see in magazines and movies are not real and they cost thousands of dollars to create.

So how do you hold an amazing wedding without getting all caught up in the fantasy? How do you check yourself?

You check yourself by first checking in with your intention -- why are we having a wedding? -- so that you're not trying to create an externally imposed vision of what you think the wedding is supposed to look like. Are you trying to please your parents? Are you trying to measure up to a celebrity wedding that you just saw on E!? Have you and your partner sat down and asked yourselves, What do we really want to achieve with this wedding? Why are we having this wedding as opposed to eloping or going down to the courthouse? When couples stay attuned to their intention they usually end up having a very beautiful day.

What are the most common traps engaged couples fall into while planning the wedding?

The most common trap is spending all of your time on planning -- and I mean literally all of your time, so that you don't have any time to sit down with your partner and connect.

Equally important as couples spending time together -- and this is where my work comes in -- is each person individually taking time to explore what this transition means to them. If both people are overly involved in the planning they're not going to slow down enough to look inside and say, I'm leaving an identity -- what does that mean? I'm entering into marriage -- what are my fears, what are my expectations? How can I prepare for this monumental transition? Women who don't prepare for the transition to marriage often experience post-bridal depression and are not present for their first year of marriage. And because of the depression, the first thing they think is, have I made a mistake?

What is "post-bridal depression"?

Post-bridal depression is what happens when women throw themselves into the planning and become consumed with their list of to-dos. Then, after the wedding is over, they crash. And every conversation they didn't have, and every fear they didn't explore before the wedding comes down on them. And the reality hits: I'm married to this person for the rest of my life.

Why do you think people avoid talking about these issues during the engagement period?

Because it's not socially acceptable to talk about your fears about marriage. But people don't realize that you're supposed to be terrified out of your mind. That's normal. Why wouldn't you be terrified? You're about to jump off a cliff with this person, and you don't know what it's going to look like on the other side. Much of my work with women is telling them that the more they talk about their fears, the less afraid they're going to be. The fear is exacerbated by trying to pretend that it doesn't exist.

So suffering from post-bridal depression doesn't necessarily mean you made the wrong decision.

No. That's one of the biggest misconceptions, not only after the wedding, but before as well: If I'm scared, if I'm doubting, if I'm confused, if I'm grieving, does it mean that I'm making a mistake? Sometimes it does, and that's a very difficult place to be.

How can you tell when these feelings are just indicative of pre-wedding anxiety, or when they're a sign that the couple probably shouldn't be getting married?

It's usually pretty clear to me. This is a generalization, but either there are serious issues, or the person is just not ready to give up their singlehood. I had a woman who said to me, "You'll be a miracle worker if I actually get to my wedding day!" And she did, but she did a ton of work. I knew, with her, that she was with a great guy, and even though her fear-mind would say, "But he's not this and he's done that" -- when you're afraid, you tend to focus on your partner. So how do you distinguish? You work with somebody that you trust.

How do you help your clients work through feelings of anxiety and fear and depression?

It's very specific to who I'm working with and what issues they're presenting. If someone is overwhelmed by fear, I'll sometimes have them start out by writing a list -- uncensored -- of all their fears. To get it out on paper so that it's concrete. And they'll e-mail it to me, so not only have they gotten it out but it's being witnessed. And then we'll go through it, point by point: Is this reality? Is your fear that you're going to turn into a little housewife with an apron around your waist darning your husband's socks -- is that really what your husband expects, or do you have that fear because that's what your mother did?

Are there particular issues that you see your clients facing again and again?

A lot of us have come from marriages that didn't work. Having that in our blueprint certainly affects how we think about marriage and how we enter marriage. We saw a lot of bad marriages. We saw marriages where women center their lives around their man. So that affects how we think -- who am I going to be as a wife? What does it mean to be a wife?

On the other hand, we also have a tremendous amount of freedom in deciding what marriage means to us. There is no one way to have a marriage.

But how can you have a successful marriage if you grew up with an unhappy marriage as your model?

Seek out role models and interview them. Ask them, What works about your marriage and what doesn't? What's the hardest part, what's the easiest part? What do you love most about marriage?

The only happily married couple I can think of are my grandparents, who are still in love after 50 years -- but I'm thinking, would I really want to follow my grandmother's marriage advice?

It's probably not a marriage that you aspire to, but it would still be worthwhile to interview them. There's something working there. Beyond that, you've already absorbed it -- they're your grandparents. I remind women of that: if you have a couple in your family who have a great marriage, that blueprint is in you already. Even if we only see them a couple times a year, it's passed down.

Women today earn more money, and sometimes make more than their partners. How is this affecting wedding planning and newlywed life?

Money's a huge issue and it often comes up during the engagement. I see it as an opportunity to get to know how you and your partner view money. Are you a spender or a saver? What about your partner? How much are you willing to compromise with your partner? If you are dead set on a location that costs $4,000 and your partner feels uncomfortable with that, where do you place your priorities? Money is usually a metaphor for control, and when a couple is moving towards their wedding day, they're increasingly feeling out of control, because that's the nature of transition: they're about to step into the unknown.

What have you noticed in your work when it comes to in-laws and wedding planning?

For the groom's mother, it's often the case of "Oh, she was a very nice girl ... until now." And suddenly there's this urge to criticize everything the bride does. If the future mother-in-law is being hypercritical, that's the time for the groom to step in and set a boundary and declare his allegiance: "Hey Mom, I know you have these feelings, but you can't criticize my bride." So the line is drawn very early about where he stands. It's a real problem if he starts taking his family's side. That's bad news, because with the wedding comes the birth of a new family -- the husband and wife, and in order for that birth to take place on solid ground, both partners have to transfer allegiance from their families of origin to their partner. If that doesn't take place, and the husband is siding with his mother, the wife is, for sure, going to feel that his loyalties are in the wrong place.

We always hear about how hard the first year of marriage is -- should couples consider counseling at the first sign of trouble, or try to work through it on their own at first?

A lot of that trouble in the first year -- in the work that I've done -- is because people did not do the preparation. Each person has to do the emotional work for this transition -- meaning that they've successfully loosened their ties to their family, they've recognized that there is a shift in identity, and that they have conversations around what their expectations are for each other after they get married. That usually means digging deep into more hidden, unconscious places, because the expectations aren't usually on the surface. Most of us have a host of beliefs about the roles of husband and wife. And instead of talking about it, we end up focusing on the wedding planning. There's been a lot of research and talk about the first year and how hard it is. But when people enter into marriage consciously, it doesn't have to be that way.

By Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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