Thursday, 18 November 2010

Auntie Seraphic & Worried Advisor

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

I'm in a worrisome situation, and was wondering if you can advise me.

I've been reading your blogs for some time now, and I remember your writing that you had doubts about marrying B.A. (who was the right man for you), and also that you had doubts about marrying your first husband (who was the wrong man for you). So you know what both legitimate and illegitimate doubts about marrying a guy feel like.

Although I'm not about to get married, some of my friends are engaged, and I've been asked how one knows if one's doubts about marrying the guy should result in calling off the wedding. This worries me a lot. I really don't want to see any of my friends in unhappy or even mediocre marriages, but I'm realizing that real decisions to marry don't usually involve 100% certainty.

Perhaps I should also tell you that all of the engaged couples I know share a solid Catholic faith, and are from approximately the same background, so I guess it's really a matter of individual compatibility, not clashing values.

In light of your experience, how on earth should I advise them? How does one know the difference between good and bad doubts? Do you know of any good books that would be helpful further reading?

Worried Advisor

Dear Worried Advisor,

Ironically, one of the most important things I was taught at ministry school was "Don't Give Advice." What we were taught to do was to ask questions for clarification. These questions were pitched so that those being ministered to would arrive at their own answers. Although this doesn't fit very well in written correspondence or blogs, I firmly believe that this is best in conversations.

Therefore, if engaged friends ask you if they should call off their weddings, the safest thing you can do is to ask them questions.

Such questions might include, "What's happened to make you feel this way?" and "What would breaking off the engagement feel like?" and "Have you spoken to your fiance about this?"

Meanwhile, you are labouring under a misapprehension. As a matter of fact, I was 100%sure I wanted to marry B.A. from four days before he asked me to think about doing so. Later, the thought that our wedding might be delayed in any way made me cry. A week before the wedding I was in morbid fear lest he die before his plane landed. We had only one serious tiff before we got married (about an interfering neighbour), and I got cold feet only on the day before the wedding, when bridal nerves had sent me almost over the edge.

In fact, I was so sure so soon that I wanted to marry B.A. that afterwards when friends with boyfriends pondered aloud "Is Pookie the right man for me?", I just assumed Pookie wasn't.

Perhaps this was a bit harsh, though. Some women need to go through their discernment out loud. Also, I was 38 when I met B.A. and had gone through a lot in life (not to mention five years of therapy) and therefore knew who I was and what I wanted when I saw it; I was no longer the confused, self-deluded and easily-bullied 25 year old I once was. Finally, and very importantly, having established an identity as a Happy Single Woman, I had no wish to marry for the sake of being married. In fact, getting married to B.A. put a spoke in several career paths, alas.

From my experience then, I can derive other questions like "Why are you marrying X in the first place?" and "Would you be just as happy marrying someone else?" and "Are you still in a process of discernment?" and "Would postponing the wedding make you feel frantic or relieved?"

It could be that your engaged friends just feel like talking--discerning out loud--and are not actually hanging onto your opinion. If they have serious doubts, why they are talking to a peer instead of to an older married couple, a priest or their intended is a mystery to me. Of course, it could be that they are terrified of what X might do if the wedding were called off, so you might want to ask "Are you afraid to discuss this with X? If so, why?"

And now, questions for you: Why do you feel at all responsible for the marriage decisions of your friends? What do you enjoy about it? What don't you enjoy about it? How would it feel to say, "Goodness, I couldn't possibly advise you on something so important! Have you thought about talking to [your mother, your fiance, your priest] about this?"

That said, I once talked a very good friend out of getting married "just to get it over with" and an even better friend out of marrying the twice- (now thrice-) divorced headcase she had had a baby with. I did this by asking them questions that helped them come to their own answers, and I have never regretted this.

In the very rare (I hope) situation in which you feel absolutely certain an intimate friend or family member is making a terrible mistake, you can write to the priest officiating the wedding to say so, giving your reasons. He will put the letter in a file, and if the marriage goes ahead but turns out to be no marriage at all, your letter could help to free your friend or relation from a sad situation.

Grace and peace,


Sheila said...

The week before I got married, I was positive we would never be happy together! I liked him fine, but I was sure he'd be miserable, living with me. Luckily I got up the guts to tell him how I was feeling, and he told me that he was the happiest he'd ever been -- so I was able to go forward with a smile on my face!

I think you point out all the right questions to ask: Would you be relieved if you called this off, or sad? Have you asked your fiance(e) about this? Etc.

I must point out that compatibility is largely over-rated. I recently posted about this. If you're both mature individuals, you share the same important beliefs, and you are madly enough in love with each other that you still want to be with each other despite the differences -- you can be very happy. My husband and I are pretty "incompatible" in some respects, but we have good communication and we work through everything fine.

The question to ask there is, "Do you get along well NOW?" Nothing is likely to change that much after you get married. If you're easily able to work out your differences before marriage, you'll use those same skills later. But if you're fighting all the time, don't expect marriage to change that.

The only caveat to that is, a good Catholic spouse should be good with and like kids. Even if they're not terribly experienced, they should be willing to try. I think it's important to test out potential spouses on their kid-friendliness by babysitting together, volunteering together, visiting friends with kids, etc. Because that's the one thing that can be a total game-changer in marriage. Other than that, relationships tend to be pretty similar before and after marriage.

Andrea said...

I think that incessantly asking whether a particular guy is right for you is a bad sign.

Seraphic Spouse said...

If incessantly, definitely.

But if it's just an excuse to talk endlessly about the beloved...

EllaMaria said...

So true! Many of the soon to be married women I meet just want to talk about their beloved and you will spend hours listening to whether he is right & one realizes all they want is you to praise their future spouse . . . sigh, I hope I never do that.

Domestic Diva said...

I was once wondering if the doubts I had were cold feet or legitimate concerns. A wise woman (who also happened to be a professional Christian counselor) asked me to imagine myself a year later in 3 different scenarios: married to the guy with a baby on the way, still dating him, or broken up and moved past the pain & grief. I didn't like any option, but felt particularly uncomfortable with the thought of being married to him. She then repeated a few things that she'd heard me say and assured me that these were real causes for concern (not being "too picky"). Once I realized why I was so hesitant, the thought of breaking up made me feel incredibly free. I'm so grateful for her wise (and professional) counsel.
I'm glad to hear what it's like from the other side - when it's really right to move ahead. What a contrast to my experience! Thanks for sharing, Seraphic & Sheila.

Cordi said...


I find it such a delightful thought that you just knew that B.A. was right for you. I've wondered if that ever happens to people, and I'm so glad to hear that it does! Much happier than analyzing, angsting, and then concluding.

theobromophile said...

A few thoughts:

The question I would ask is, "Why are you trying to make this work?". Marriages deserve all the work that can humanely be put into them; dating, relationships, and, yes, even engagements do not merit that consideration.

Also, sometimes people get cold feet because they feel like they have to do something. If you were to tell someone, "Look, engagements get called off all the time. You'll lose your deposits, your mother will get the vapours, but trust me, life will go on," most people feel relieved. (The ones looking for affirmation and to drool over their fiances will squawk up a storm.) Sometimes the relief is in the form of remembering again that this is a free choice, wedding hysteria aside, but a choice that this person desperately wants; other times, when the marriage shouldn't happen, it's like being paroled out of prison.

The other thing is that weddings (and some relationships) bring everyone's emotions into play. My big question to someone is how everyone around them feels - not because this is a democracy and a majority vote rules (on the contrary, the person doing the marrying is the only one who has to live with the fiance(e) in question!) - rather, it helps someone to deconstruct all of the expectations flying at them.

The only advice I would ever dole out is that if you are uncertain, do not go through with it. Even if you are talking to an atheist, agnostic, sort-of-practising Catholic, or the like, divorce is messy. Being married and divorced is tough. It's expensive. It does a number on your psyche. And... um... the part I keep to myself is that I know people who said, while engaged, "Can't do this, good-bye" and that "good-bye" lasted a whole day. They are all happily married to the fiance-turned-former-fiance-turned-fiance again.

dark but fair said...

@ Shiela: Thank you for illustrating the ambiguity of the term "incompatible". I have heard it used by one person who meant that they had few things in common, and by another person who just meant that they enjoyed different hobbies of leisure!

@ Domestic Diva: Your Counselor friend was awesome. It is funny how asking such simple questions in the right way can help people see a problem.

@ Seraphic: Thanks so much for this post.