After Christine Sferle’s boyfriend of five years proposed to her in 2014, she didn’t expect to spend the next two days sobbing in bed. It wasn’t as if the picture-perfect proposal came out of nowhere; they’d had many conversations about wanting to get married. On the one hand, Sferle was happy and excited about her future with this truly amazing guy. On the other hand, she was overwhelmed with inexplicable anxiety, sadness and shame.
“The shame was not about getting engaged, but about feeling that I shouldn’t feel confused or sad,” Sferle told HuffPost. “It felt like a secret until I talked with my fiancé about how I was feeling and realized that it was totally OK and didn’t mean something about us was wrong.”
Wedding photographer Jamie Delaine experienced something very similar when she got engaged in 2013. She was head over heels in love with her fiancé, the ring he picked out and the proposal he planned at their favorite coffee shop. And yet she found herself at home in bed, crying and scared.
“Why did I walk up the stairs to my bedroom with tears in my eyes each night? Why wasn’t I feeling happy? I was sad. Overwhelming, all consumingly sad,” she wrote in a blog post.
When everyone around you is telling you that the engagement is the “happiest time of your life” and you don’t actually feel that way, you think surely there must be something wrong with you or your relationship. But that’s often not the case.
We asked women, now happily married, and therapists to explain why post-engagement anxiety happens and how to deal with it.
Post-engagement anxiety is normal. Here’s why it happens.
Big life changes — even positive ones like an engagement, a promotion or a pregnancy — can trigger stress, anxiety and other negative emotions.
“Having some anxiety symptoms does not mean you are unhappy per se about the event itself,” marriage and family therapist Marni Feuerman said. “Getting engaged to someone signifies one step closer to a lifelong commitment. You may have anxiety about planning a wedding, merging families, being a good daughter-in-law, moving in together, financial decisions, being a good wife and so on. There’s a lot that comes up post-engagement that can easily trigger some fears, even if they are not totally logical or rational.”
Sferle eventually realized she was struggling with a shift in her identity brought on by the engagement. She was a single or dating person for the vast majority of her life. Now she would have to assume the unfamiliar labels of “fiancée” and “wife.”
“We had been together for five years, but often, as in many cases of transition or transformation, the new identity arrives long before the comfort, acknowledgment and awareness settles into the mind and body,” she said. “So I still thought of myself as a single woman up until we got engaged. I think part of what I was mourning was the loss of who I had been and how I had seen myself up until then.”
“Why did I walk up the stairs to my bedroom with tears in my eyes each night? Why wasn’t I feeling happy?”
– Jamie Delaine
And if you’ve always been fairly private about your relationship (maybe you’re just not the type of couple to gush about each other on social media), the proposal suddenly puts your love front and center. Word spreads fast and suddenly you’re flooded with texts and phone calls from friends and family. The outpouring of love can be wonderful but overwhelming at the same time. Then you find yourself answering tons of questions about the proposal and your wedding plans, which can be difficult to handle when you’re emotionally fragile. It’s all an adjustment. But rest assured that these types of jitters are often par for the course.
Talk about it with your partner and other loved ones
You might be hesitant to discuss these feelings with anyone — let alone your spouse-to-be. After all, you don’t want to hurt their feelings by making them think these mixed emotions are tied to your doubts about them as a lifelong partner. But Feuerman said it’s absolutely worth thoughtfully broaching the subject with your future spouse.
“Do a bit of self-reflection first to get clear on what you are anxious about. You can bring it up without hurting his or her feelings by first confirming your happiness about being engaged before talking about your anxiety,” she said. “There is a good chance your fiancé feels the same way and would welcome a discussion. This is an opportunity for you both to calm each other’s worries and get clarification on topics triggering negative feelings.”
Delaine first told her fiancé everything she was feeling a few days after the anxiety surfaced. Even though he didn’t totally understand why she was upset, he patiently listened and offered comfort and support. While she was Googling post-engagement anxiety, she came across two books ― Emotionally Engaged: A Bride’s Guide to Surviving the “Happiest” Time of Her Life and The Conscious Bride: Women Unveil Their True Feelings About Getting Hitched ― that helped her process her feelings.
“I shared what I read with [my fiancé], and he was interested in the thought processes and changes I was describing,” she said. “He was so supportive, and that gave me the courage to open up to other close family and friends about it.”
When she confided in some of her recently married bridesmaids, she found out that three out of the four had experienced similar thoughts or feelings post-engagement.
“Almost every newlywed woman I have asked has felt sadness during the course of her engagement,” Delaine wrote in her blog post. “A tension between ‘the happiest time in my life’ and ‘everything is changing and I want it to stop.’”
For Sferle, opening up to her now-husband about her anxieties helped pull her out of her funk and reminded her why she fell in love with this man in the first place.
“One of the reasons I love him is that I can tell him anything,” she said. “This is so important in a partner, because now, as life throws us more and more tough experiences together: death of his parents, having a baby, job loss, etc., we’ve got a foundation of communication, trust and togetherness that strengthens because of our honesty about the hard feelings in the hard moments of life from the beginning.”
Telling her friends and family, however, wasn’t as easy.
“They were less comfortable with ‘uncomfortable feelings’ and wanted to fix it for me,” she said. “Or they jumped to conclusions that having confusing feelings meant something was not right about the relationship or that they were red flags. I think that’s a natural thing to think as an outsider to a relationship, but it kept me feeling alienated because they hadn’t had those feelings and didn’t understand the complexity of mine.”
Know that sometimes, the anxiety may be pointing to a deeper problem in the relationship
While these anxious feelings are usually nothing to worry about, in some cases, they may be a result of legitimate concerns about this person or the impending marriage. You may have to dig deep in yourself or enlist the help of a therapist or other confidant to help you nail down the root of your apprehension, said marriage and family therapist Becky Whetstone.
“I like to take my newly engaged clients through the process of inquiry: ‘Have you noticed any red flags? Are you sure?’” she said. “Interestingly, many of these individuals or couples will be well aware of potential red flags or dangers ahead, but then choose to justify or ignore those and get married anyway.”
General concerns about the weighty commitment of marriage or transitioning into a new phase of life are usually benign, but “if you are able to name specific issues that are troubling or that you haven’t worked out, particularly if they are specific to your fiancé, this is often in the red flag category,” said Feuerman.
“Almost every newlywed woman I have asked has felt sadness during the course of her engagement. A tension between ‘the happiest time in my life’ and ‘everything is changing and I want it to stop.”
– Jamie Delaine
And if ultimately you realize your partner is not the person you want to be with long-term, remember that breaking off an engagement, while daunting, is far easier than filing for divorce down the road.
“I am dealing with a client right now who recently got engaged to a woman he now realizes will cause him much pain and suffering,” Whetstone said. “I tell him a broken engagement becomes a blip on the radar of your life story, but a failed marriage has much more emotional impact.”
How to manage post-engagement anxiety
Besides working through your feelings on your own (perhaps through journaling) and opening up a dialogue with your future spouse and other trusted friends and family members, consider doing some premarital counseling with a therapist or member of the clergy, Feuerman recommended.
“This way, a third party can help you navigate discussions about anything that is making you feel anxious,” she said. “It’s not a bad idea to talk to those who are already married and have gone through this phase of life. It is likely the anxiety will be normalized and you can relax a bit more and enjoy this special time in your life.”
And the more we talk honestly about the anxiety and fear we experience, even during seemingly “happy” times, the more we can normalize the wide range of human emotions.
“The less I stressed about having to have it all look or feel a certain way, the more I was able to relax and be OK with everything changing,” Sferle said.
It’s important to note that these feelings of anxiety aren’t necessarily the same as those that come with a diagnosable anxiety disorder. But if you’re concerned — or if your anxiety is starting to regularly interfere with your daily life — it’s definitely worth reaching out to a doctor or a mental health professional.