It was the day she had dreamed about. Standing barefoot at sunset, "Joni" (a former client of mine whose name I have changed) stood looking at the man she was about to marry. She planned the perfect wedding--a fairytale. There was one hitch--as she looked into her future husband's eyes, she had a pretty good idea that the marriage would not last.
Joni's story was not unique. After years of working with women like her I was curious about why so many women stayed in relationships that were essentially doomed from the start. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I have spent more than 15 years working with women seeking guidance for relationship issues. The initial call usually involves a request to help with "communication skills" or "conflict management." More often than not, as therapy progresses, they reveal that the problems started long before they walked down the aisle. And if they're not married, they'll admit that they already know he's is not the right guy for them--yet they stay.
When I had a serendipitous meeting with a former runaway bride, we decided to write a book about this phenomenon. My coauthor's story of her near-miss at the altar along with my clinical experience turned into a mission to find out why so many women walk down the aisle knowing they are making a mistake! We thought if we could help women recognize the excuses for dating--and ultimately marrying--the wrong guys, maybe we could help them find the courage to get out before it was too late.
We developed a survey and sent it to divorced women, with one qualifier: "Did you know you were making a mistake as you were walking down the aisle?"
We sent it to everyone we knew. Within days our inboxes were jammed. Eventually, close to 1000 women gave detailed accounts about why they knowingly dated and eventually married the wrong guys.
Amid a chorus of critics who shout "hindsight bias" or "selective memory," I stand firm. If you take 10 divorced women and ask them whether they believed on their wedding day that they were marrying the right guy for the right reasons, seven of them would say yes and three will confess they had serious doubts long before walking down the aisle. That's the shocking truth for 30% of divorced women.
These women have very clear, distinct memories of the doubts, issues and concerns that existed in the relationship all along. They can also tell you exactly what they were feeling before they walked down the aisle. For example:
I was avoiding my dad's eyes as I waited with him at the end of the aisle. I did not want to hear any "pearls of wisdom." Instead I paid attention to the photographer. I simply could not look at my dad because I knew I was making a mistake.
I felt like I was dying a thousand deaths. I just wanted to get the whole thing over with.
By the time they made it to the ceremony, they felt it was too late to turn back. While their insides told them to run, their outsides marched down the aisle. They saw problems and ignored them. However, every single one of them put the blame for ignoring the problems and issues squarely on their own shoulders. The problem is not that their fiancé was a bad guy-the problem was that they ignored the problems!
Why would smart women do this? They cited many of the same reasons:
•Age: The self-imposed biological clock is starting to tick a little louder.
•"Marriage will instantly make the relationship better."
•"It's my last chance to get married and no one else will come along."
•"If it doesn't work out I can always get a divorce."
You can be critical, point your finger and shake your head. Judgment aside, "these women" are your sisters, daughters, and friends. Maybe even you. Their common --yet misguided--belief is that they are better off with the wrong guy than being alone. It doesn't matter how self-actualized, independent or liberal-minded they are.
So what's the answer? When in doubt, don't! Don't let fears of being alone dictate a night out with someone you have nothing in common with. Don't continue to date a man with whom you have zero chemistry. Chemistry matters. Don't say "I do" because you have "invested too much time in the relationship" or it's "the next logical step." And absolutely don't think that divorce can be used as an escape route without consequence. Divorce is not easy even when you are the one serving the papers. It's expensive, painful and it affects everyone around you.
Just ask Joni. She saw the red flags and she ignored them. Her gut told her something was wrong but she tuned it out. She found out the hard way that being alone would have been a lot easier than marrying the wrong guy--especially as she starts the painful task of navigating a divorce. The moral of the story is pay attention to those red flags and gut feelings. If you do, you are guaranteed to have happier, healthier relationships. What a difference this would make in the divorce rate. As a therapist, I'd be thrilled.