In “Emotionally Engaged,” psychotherapist Allison Moir-Smith, founder of Emotionally Engaged Counseling for Brides, shares her three-stage process from her workshops and individual therapy sessions, offering insight, guidance, tips, and techniques for becoming an emotionally engaged bride — and wife. Here's an excerpt:
The Happiest Time of My Life?Yeah, Right.
It all started off happily enough.
In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I was an “Insert Groom” bride-to-be. You know the type: the single woman who secretly fantasizes about her wedding in such detail that when she finally meets Mr. Right and he proposes, planning the wedding is a snap. From the moment Jason popped the question, my secret wedding fantasy was unleashed.
I could picture it well: in eleven months’ time, 120 guests would witness our marriage ceremony, held in a field on my parents’ property beside the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. My maid of honor and two flower girls would be wearing sunny, canary yellow dresses, with daisies tucked behind their ears. Jason would wear a bright yellow tie to match. We’d toast with champagne in my mother’s garden in its full summer glory and have dinner and dancing under a big white tent in the backyard.
My vision of our wedding was so complete that just two weeks after Jason proposed, I’d booked all the big-ticket items — the caterer, the tent, the DJ, and the Port-O-Potties (a nasty necessity for a home wedding like ours). I’d even secured the services of a wedding coordinator to ensure smooth sailing. All I had to do for the rest of our engagement, I figured, was register for gifts (fun with a scanning gun!), be feted by friends (kitchen shower, or bath?), worry about the weather (I hope it doesn’t rain!), and, of course, revel in how lucky I was to be marrying the love of my life. I’d kissed a lot of frogs during my eleven years in Manhattan, so I knew how right our relationship was for me.
For two years, Jason and I sat side by side in graduate school. As we worked toward our master’s degrees in counseling psychology, our friendship deepened, slowly but surely. Over time, this handsome, smart man with a big, compassionate heart became one of my closest friends. During the final week of classes, our friendship bloomed into love. A year later we were engaged, and I had that perfect foundation for a relationship that had always seemed so elusive when I was going on blind dates: I was marrying my best friend.
With Jason, I felt more natural, beautiful, and myself than I ever had before in a relationship. I felt appreciated and accepted, supported and safe. (He even found my wedding fantasies endearing.) I loved, trusted, and admired him far more than any other man I’d known. We both felt an enormous amount of promise and hope about our married life together, and we were grateful to have found each other.
So you can imagine that when, a few weeks after Jason proposed, I started to feel sad, anxious, and irritable for days at a time, I was confused, to say the least. One minute I’d be giddily looking through books of invitations, the next I’d be lost in thought, reminiscing about some long-ago family vacation, nearly brought to tears by the memory. And at times, I became a complete bridezilla — a bitchy, self-absorbed, entitled, wedding-obsessed, perfectionistic, stressed-out nightmare of a person. (Which, I promise, is completely out of character.) There were days when, if a vendor didn’t return my phone call within twenty-four hours, I’d go ballistic. If I missed a date on my to-do list, I’d panic that the whole schedule was out of whack. If someone offered a simple suggestion about our wedding, I’d be offended.
As the weeks wore on, I began to feel a deep pit of sadness in my stomach about leaving my single life, which baffled me because I was happy (and relieved) to have finally found my mate. At other times I felt paralyzed by fear of the future, even though being married to Jason was exactly what I wanted. When I talked to certain family members and friends about the wedding, I felt overwrought with guilt, like I was abandoning them by going off and getting married.
What I was feeling just didn’t make sense; the contradictory emotions did not compute. What the hell was going on with me?
By the time the six-month countdown to our wedding began, the giddy and productive “Insert Groom” bride had completely vanished, and I sank into a dark, sad hole. Insomnia haunted me. Late at night I’d roam the apartment, worrying that I’d be a depressed bride. I envisioned myself walking listlessly down the aisle, indifferent to my husband-to-be and assembled guests. In those middle-of-the-night hours, I felt isolated and alone, cut off and unsupported by my family and friends, none of whom seemed to understand what I was feeling. When I tried to explain myself to them, they stared back at me quizzically, unable to fathom why I was upset when I should be so happy.
Worst of all, the emotional roller coaster I was on scared me. “Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “If I’m feeling this upset all the time, does it mean I should call off the wedding?”
Then my mother and I started talking about lasagna, and everything fell apart.
The menu Jason and I had created for our casual rehearsal-dinner picnic beside a pond was supposed to be simple and fun. We thought that lasagna, Kentucky Fried Chicken, salads, beer, wine, and Klondike bars for dessert would be a nice contrast to the fancier sit-down wedding reception the following day.
Planning it, however, became a mother-daughter wrestling match. I was thirty-four years old, but I felt like a teenager again. My emotions were on full blast, as they’d been in high school, and again, I felt like I was on the losing side of a power struggle with my mom. The conversations between us went something like this:
mom: How do you plan on keeping the lasagna warm?
me: It’ll be hot when the caterers deliver it.
mom (one week later): How do you know it will be delivered hot?
me: Because it’s their job.
mom (three weeks later): Why don’t you keep them in the ovens at the club during cocktails?
me: Okay, Mom. Good idea.
mom (a week after that): I don’t think the ovens are big enough. How do you know the ovens are big enough?
me: I’ll ask.
mom (two weeks later): I’m still worried about the lasagna being hot.
me: Oh my God, Mom! Okay, we’ll rent chafing dishes.
mom (the next day): Do you really think chafing dishes will work?
me: Good Lord, Mom, yes! And if they don’t, we’ll have it lukewarm, because we don’t care that much.
mom (two weeks later): You know, lukewarm lasagna isn’t very pleasant.
Each time we spoke on the phone, Mom mentioned the lasagna. No solution I offered allayed her worries. She talked to my dad about it (“I don’t know how Allison’s going to keep the lasagna hot”); to my two brothers (“I’m worried about the lasagna”); and to my four sisters (“Lukewarm lasagna isn’t very nice, don’t you agree?”). Even Cookie, her cleaning lady, got an earful (“Allison’s having lasagna delivered to the rehearsal dinner”), as did anyone else who’d listen. My mother was driving me crazy, driving them crazy, and yet she could not be stopped. Or shut up.
In the eye of the lasagna storm and in a highly emotional state, I couldn’t find my way out. For a good four months, the conversation went around and around like this before I realized that
(a) nothing I said or did would stop her lasagna obsession, and
(b) my mom and I weren’t actually fighting about the temperature of the lasagna.
What were we fighting about? I didn’t quite know yet — although I had an inkling that we were clashing about the changing nature of our relationship, as Jason and I prepared to marry. What I did know was that it was my job to figure out what was going on. Mom couldn’t help; she was too busy worrying about the lasagna.
I smartened up and stepped out of the fight, even going so far as to hold the telephone away from my ear when the word “lasagna” crossed her lips. Instead of doing backflips for my mother, I became more of an amused spectator, keeping her craziness and her grievances at arm’s length.
I decided to refocus my mental energy on the only person I had any control over: me. I knew that if I could make meaning of my sadness, anxiety, and fear, I’d be able to grow from what I was feeling, rather than just be battered by it. So I began to try to figure out what was going on with me and to learn from this crazy emotional world I had entered as a bride-to-be. Cold lasagna be damned.
Understanding My Craziness
The rare times I admitted to my conflicting emotions, I generally heard one pat response: “It’s a rite of passage,” family and friends would say. “Of course you’re having a hard time.” Rite of passage, rite of passage — I kept hearing the phrase over and over again.
“What the hell is a rite of passage?” I thought. “And why is it so damn hard for me?”
I’d just completed my master’s degree in counseling psychology, so I knew the value of self-analysis — of closely observing and examining one’s inner dialogue, thoughts, and behaviors. My hope was that by asking and answering the tough question — Why, during the happiest time of my life, do I feel so bad? — I would make sense of this strange experience. In other words, if I studied my emotions during my engagement, I’d know that all the angst I was going through wasn’t for naught.
So I took myself on as a client and a research subject, so to speak. With my therapist hat on, I worked to understand my inner experience. Instead of fighting my feelings or trying to distract myself with the wedding to-do list, I became curious about my emotions. My inner dialogue — aka the whining in my head — changed from, “Why do I feel so bad all the time?” to “What can these ‘bad’ feelings tell me about myself?” I wrote pages and pages in my journal, and I continued to work hard in my weekly sessions with Ceil, my therapist, to be as self-aware as possible.
It took me a while to overcome the shame of not being a 100 percent happy bride. (Flipping through Martha Stewart Weddings, all the brides beamed big toothy grins at me. They seemed happy. And from what I knew, my married friends hadn’t melted down the way I was; they seemed happy, too.) When I gave up that self-imposed struggle, however, I was able to look at how I was really feeling: happy, but also sad, scared, afraid, disappointed, ashamed, guilty, delighted, overwhelmed, confused — what a complex cocktail of emotions was roiling within me! No wonder I tried to keep the feelings at bay. Now, however, I was going to unleash them.
What happened? The anxiety, fear, and overwhelm quickly dissipated, and I was left adrift in a deep sea of sadness. Grief, even. It really felt like a death, a funeral of sorts, and though it didn’t make sense at the time, I trusted it. I knew from my experiences both as a client in therapy and as a trained therapist that the only way out was through: I needed to feel my sadness before I could understand it. Then and only then would the grief truly pass, and I would feel fully happy again.
In an effort to make sense of my sadness, I went to the library and devoured whatever texts I thought might be helpful. My first order of business was to get to the bottom of this rite-of-passage business. What was a rite of passage, exactly, and how could I learn to go through mine more gracefully?
A rite of passage, I learned, is a ritual that helps a person pass from one life stage to another. Throughout our lives, we go through many rites of passage — birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, motherhood, the empty nest, old age, and death. Each passage is, essentially, a change of identity. We mark and celebrate these changes in identity with rituals: first communions, bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteens, baby showers, even funerals. The purpose of these events is to help us pass from one defined position to another, to facilitate the separation from an old identity and the transition into a new one.
A wedding is the quintessential example of a rite of passage. (Turns out my family and friends were right!) To marry, the bride and groom leave their single lives and families of origin in order to begin their married life together as one new family. Traditional wedding rituals encourage this separation. The single girlfriends throw a last-hurrah bachelorette party before the bride goes off into marriage. The bride wears different clothing than her bridesmaids, signaling her separation from them. The father gives the daughter away to her husband-to-be at the altar. When viewed through this rite-of-passage lens, a wedding’s ingrained traditions, its universal structure, and even its insanely detailed planning process help women make this break with their former realities.
Learning this helped a bit, but I was still confused. Why was I so sad and scared when I was doing exactly what I wanted to do — get married to Jason? Because, I learned, I was going through a major life transition. Neither single nor married, during my engagement I was in the process of leaving my single life (without having fully left it) and, at the same time, entering married life (without being fully a part of it). No wonder I was such a wreck.
That I was grieving the end of my single life was a counterintuitive, unconventional, and revolutionary way to think about being engaged. It debunked the myth that this was the happiest time of my life. And that gave me freedom to do the psychological work I needed to do before I walked down that aisle.
Excerpted from “Emotionally Engaged: A Bride's Guide to Surviving the “Happiest” Time of Her Life” by Allison Moir-Smith. Copyright © 2006, Allison Moir-Smith. All rights reserved. Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.