'Runaway Brides' Challenge Stigma Against Unmarried Women

'Runaway Brides' Challenge Unmarried Stigma And Their Own Fears

A few weeks ago, reports surfaced that Charlene Wittstock tried to leave Monaco three separate times to avoid marrying Prince Albert on July 2. Wittstock eventually did made the long walk down the aisle, but recently, a few other well-known brides refused: Crystal Harris very publicly called off her wedding to Hugh Hefner in June, and Ginnifer Goodwin broke off her engagement to Joey Kern in May.

Celebrity brides are hardly the only fiancées to get cold feet, but the surfacing of so-called “runaway brides” in headlines this summer invites a closer look at why and how some women call off their engagements -- and why so many others who feel they should, don't. What enables a woman months into planning her "I Do's" to say, "Wait, come to think of it: I Don't"?

Second thoughts are a consistently popular topic on wedding registry sites like TheKnot.com -- type "cold feet" into the site's search box and you get 212 results, including links to community forums where individual posts often yield at least a dozen replies. "I feel wayyy too young to be doing this but I feel like we're in too deep," wrote one bride-to be.

"I'm getting married in less than 3 months and I'm considering having someone block the doorway. I can run fast in pumps- believe me," confessed another. "NO criticism, please. I'd just like to know whether other women who are clearly excited about their wedding plans are equally as excited about their married lives."

IndieBride.com, a site for brides seeking advice not generated by the profit-driven commercial wedding industry had over 33,000 conversation threads about the urge to bolt. One user explained that she'd been pressured into a big traditional wedding with a "princessy" dress, something she never wanted. "When I think about getting married I feel sick to my stomach. It is keeping me up at night," she wrote. "Many deposits have been put down, save the dates have gone out. Cancelling it is not logical."

Calling off a wedding is not a decision most women make impulsively. In addition to the potential benefits that make marriage appealing to both sexes –- love, lasting companionship, tax benefits, among others -- research shows that unmarried women still feel stigmatized, even though more American women than ever are remaining single. The 2007 U.S. census showed that 41 percent of women aged 25 to 29 and 24 percent of women aged 30 to 34 had never been married.

Through interviews with women who've called it off, Anne Milford and therapist Jennifer Gauvain, co-authors of the book "How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy," found that many women have an arbitrary timeline for the age by which they should be married.

"30 tends to be a milestone, like a random deadline that women mentally set for themselves," Milford said.

Mandy Karo, 25, of Craig, Colorado, who broke off her engagement in April, said one of the reasons she originally said yes to a man she knew was wrong for her was that she saw how many of her friends were married and having kids. She was eager to settle down herself. "Part of me really just wanted to get married," she said.

And pop culture's celebration of the wedding as the ultimate milestone in a woman's life has arguably reached an all-time crescendo. Current and upcoming wedding-centric reality television shows include "Say Yes To The Dress," "My Fair Wedding," "Four Weddings," "Rich Bride Poor Bride," "Bridezillas," "The Real Wedding Crashers" and "I Do Over." Wedding-themed movies have had impressive showings at the box office over the last decade, and there are numerous national and regional bridal magazines in circulation and countless wedding websites and blogs.

Once a woman has begun planning a wedding, changing her mind becomes even more difficult. There's often a sense of shame attached to calling off a wedding and a feeling that things are too far along to back out.

By the time Karo called off her wedding, an announcement of her engagement had already run in the local newspaper, along with a professional photo of her with her fiancé.

When Erin Mack, a 29-year-old executive assistant from Farmingdale, N.J., and her fiancé decided in May 2010 to call off their wedding just five weeks before the big day, Mack had already attended her shower and bachelorette party and had accepted gifts and well wishes from all of her friends.

A "runaway bride" herself, Milford remembers her own perception that after a certain point, there was no turning back.

"I opened up these gorgeous monogrammed towels, and his and hers monogrammed robes, and I said, 'Oh my god, I have to go through with this wedding because the towels have already been monogrammed,' " Milford said.

As a result, women often ignore their own misgivings about their impending marriages. Between the book research and Gauvain's 15 years spent practicing as a therapist, the two estimate they've encountered about 1,000 divorced women, 30 percent of who said they knew were making a mistake when they were walking down the aisle.


So how are some women able to acknowledge their true feelings and cancel their weddings?

Sometimes, the red flags are clear. That was the case for Karo, who got engaged after knowing her fiancé for just eight months and was originally supposed to get married this fall. She was among the many brides who initially refuse to acknowledge their doubts. "I was ignoring the voice inside me that was saying it wasn’t right," she said. Then, she says, her fiancé became progressively more controlling and critical of her, to the point that her discomfort with his behavior outweighed her desire to get married.

But for many brides, there isn't always a clear indicator that the match is ill-advised. Instead there's just a nagging feeling that something isn't right.

Kathleen Denny, 26, who works in marketing in Syracuse, N.Y., was supposed to be getting married on August 20. She had been dating her boyfriend for five years and living with him for a year and a half when they got engaged in March 2010. Despite not feeling head over heels in love, Denny dismissed her reservations. She even went to counseling to make sense of her doubts and determine if her own perspective was warped.

"I'm kind of a Type A. I'm a perfectionist," Denny said. “I thought, 'Maybe it's my fault for being critical, maybe I just need to relax.' I thought, 'Maybe I have this fairy tale idea of what an engagement should be.' I was trying to figure out how after 5 years, I wasn’t sure."

But as plans for the wedding fell into place, so did the anxiety.

"At one point last summer, it took all the energy in the world to get to work and not constantly think about it," she said.

With books out there like Lori Gottlieb's "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough," which argues that today's women may be too picky when it comes to choosing a mate, it's understandable why Denny might doubt her own doubts. But Peter Fraenkel, director of the Ackerman Institute for the Family's Center for Work and Family and a professor at the City University of New York, sees that willingness to question an upcoming wedding as a good thing.

He finds that engaged couples today are more aware of and circumspect about the commitment they're about to make. "There's more mindfulness about trying to catch things before they get destructive," he said. "There's a sense that people have watched their parents" and don’t want to repeat their mistakes. Rather than running away, many brides -- and grooms -- are facing the gravity of the decision they're making and choosing the path that makes the most sense.

Last fall, Denny broke off her engagement.


While there's a clear upside for a bride -- or a couple -- to call off a wedding that doesn't feel right, there are also significant downsides.

To begin with, cancelling your big day can mean losing a sizable chunk of cash. When she called off her wedding, Karo, the almost-bride from Colorado, had already paid deposits on the venue, the caterer and the photographer. Mack, the New Jersey bride, lost $8000 in wedding fees. (When she couldn't get back the deposit she had paid on the hotel event space where she'd planned to have her reception, she made the most of the situation by holding a charity benefit there instead.)

And financial consequences are just the beginning: There's a whole section in the fifth edition of "Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette," called "When it Doesn't Work," that takes would-be brides through the logistics of handling broken engagements.

Protocol dictates that if invitations have gone out, guests should be notified with a printed cancellation card, assuming there is enough time for mailing. Family and close friends, along with those in the bridal party, should get a phone call notifying them of the news.

And then there are the emotional after-effects, which often affect more than just the couple. Jessica Ortiz-Robinson, who works in education in Dallas, had been dating her boyfriend for seven years when she got engaged at the age of 25.

Since the two had been high-school sweethearts, their families were close. When news came that the wedding wouldn't be happening, no one took it well. Her parents and sisters were devastated, as was the groom's family: Ortiz-Robinson sought counseling -- not to cope with the ending of the relationship, but instead to deal with how everyone else responded.

"It was weird because there was guilt" about the grief her decision had caused those close to her, she said. "But I was relieved."


Milford said that despite the fears women have about calling off a wedding, in her research she has never encountered a woman who regretted her decision.

"If you're thinking 'I will never find anyone else' or 'It's my last chance to get married,' stop, take notice," she said. In addition to indicating how uncertain a bride feels about her upcoming marriage, those fears, while common, often prove unfounded.

Ortiz-Robinson is now 31 and was married in February to a man she had no doubts about. "I think, wow, this is what love feels like. When I was in the other relationship, I thought I was selfish for wanting more," she said.

Mack has also found new love. She got engaged to a different man a year after her wedding was called off and is getting married on October 1. Still, her upcoming wedding doesn’t entirely erase the embarrassment she felt after calling off her first. Initially, she said of her current engagement, “I didn't even want to put it on Facebook, thinking, 'what are people going to say and think.' I was afraid it was going to cheapen the whole thing.” Then, she said, “I realized I'm happy and everyone that knows us can see that it's drastically different."

Karo, who has been single for four months now, said her approach to finding a mate has changed dramatically. "I plan on being a lot more careful about how fast I let things happen," she said. “The rest of your life is way too long to be married to someone that doesn’t treat you right."

She added that she feels very differently about scheduling her own life based on where friends seem to be in theirs. "I don't ever want to settle, even if I'm 40 and still not married," she said.

In the end, said Mack, "If you're having reservations, you shouldn't do it. I'm a firm believer in 'Doubt Means Don't.' "

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