5 Steps Towards Embracing Your Pre-Vow Ambivalence
By Jessica Levith, MA
Vowing to share the rest of your life with another human being is one of the biggest decisions a person can make. In the weeks, months, or sometimes even years leading up to a ceremony, a very natural excitement starts to build. Your friends and family jump into the planning pool, cross-country plane tickets are purchased, and a Venn diagram of harm-reduction seating arrangements are made. The pressure of excitement is on to make sure that you and your partner’s special day is absolutely perfect. Beneath the surface of this excitement, however, a second pressure is growing. –It’s the pressure of pre-vow ambivalence.
“Is my partner the right one for me? I mean –Of course I love him and all…”
“Am I ready for this? …Although I am getting up there. -If not now, when?”
“Ok, forever, I get it. -But now how long are we really talking about here?”
“What’s that rate of divorce again?”
This emotional pendulum of reasoning for and against marriage can be categorically overwhelming. –And, right at the time everything is expected to be perfect! So what to do?
The good news is that you’re not alone in your struggle. Many nearly-weds are afraid to speak of this pre-vow ambivalence. -But, why? Well, it seems that the shame or frustration of uncertainty regarding one of life’s biggest decisions keeps us from seeking the needed comfort of our elders or the advice of our confidants. We can be left feeling isolated and wanting to block the ambivalence out.
Don’t be afraid of it.
Although ambivalence can be a state of intensely mixed feelings, at its core, it is a healthy, protective measure, a process of weighing the pros and cons of any given situation, in order to help us make more informed, quality decisions. Why wouldn’t committing yourself to someone else for the rest of your life tap into this organic state? It’s always with us. -Whether we like it or not. It comes along with us to the office. It has an espresso as we dine with our friends. And yes, it may even join us in our most intimate of moments with our partner. How we choose to relate with our ambivalence dictates our level of stress, our relationship with ourselves, how we approach the world.
Were We Trained This Way?
Unfortunately, it looks that way. Reality TV shows and a plethora of bride magazines constantly drive home the message that any ambivalence towards getting married is unacceptable. According to media, weddings are all about elation and certainty. Any natural concerns or fears we might have regarding this projected utopian experience, signal us backing out of our commitment or not truly loving our partner.
It’s time for us to start acknowledging, respecting, and embracing our human complexity. Marriage is a big deal, filled with different textures of uncertainty. A shift in our perception that allows for the exploration of mixed feelings towards marriage, invites opportunities to be honest and to grow with our partner.
Ambivalence exists within us, and it is ultimately our choice to deny or embrace it.
So let’s say, you’re planning the ceremony. You’re sitting on the floor of your living room with your friend, and a fan deck of colors in your lap. All of a sudden you can’t decide what color you want the reception table napkin rings to be. -You absolutely freeze. Your chest tightens, your throat closes, and the sweat from your palm causes your chin to slip. It truly feels as if the entire ceremony will be destroyed should you not figure out the right color for these damn rings.
Or, perhaps, you’re having an opposite experience. You’re in your living room, and you unequivocally know you want those napkin rings periwinkle. -But periwinkle is out of stock. Instantly, you devolve into what reality TV has dubbed “Bridezilla”. You throw a massive tantrum, threatening to cancel the entire ceremony unless your future mother-in-law flies to Peru this weekend in order to restart the napkin ring assembly line.
Now, comedy aside, both of these situations can feel intensely painful and out of control. So, what’s happening here? What’s going on beneath the surface? Could this be denial of ambivalence at play? Could your indecision about these napkin rings be masking a deeper indecision about committing the rest of your life to this person you’ve chosen? Or, conversely, could your absolute certainty about the napkin rings be masking a deeper uncertainty about entering into a commitment that may or may not even last? –To someone you ultimately have no control over?
Attempting to suppress ambivalence (or any emotional state) is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. You can try to smack down the discomfort over here but, unless acknowledged and processed through, it’s bound to pop up over there in some other form.
Five Steps to Embracing Ambivalence
The First Step is acknowledging and externalizing your ambivalence. Get a notepad. Make quick mental notes when intensely mixed feelings about marriage arise throughout the day. Where am I? What task am I undertaking? Where am I feeling this in my body? Get it out of you. Don’t put too much thought into it, however or you’re liable to skip down the panic path. Then, say something kind to yourself like “Oh, there you are again, Mr. Ambivalence. Sure, you can hang out, but you’re just a feelings state”. By acknowledging and externalize your feelings, you can begin gaining control over them.
Thinking your thoughts through is the Second Step. Schedule some alone time. Head to a comforting spot in the park or a quiet room in your home. Get your body calm and try avoiding interruptions. Take out your notepad and start fleshing out the earlier ambivalence. What was troubling you in that moment of ceremony planning? What may have been bothering you on a deeper level? Dig deep. Name the feelings that come up. Where are you feeling these feelings in your body?
The Third Step is learning to accept and sit with the potential for multiple, conflicting feelings. Remind yourself that ambivalence at its core is a healthy protective measure. We are a complex species and getting married is a big deal! Just because part of you isn’t sure he’s the right one, doesn’t mean you need to break it off. There’s another part of you that obviously does. -You got engaged. Reality-test your need for certainty. Might it simply be a defense mechanism created to comfort you in a time of panic?
Have a breathing exercise learned and ready for these moments, as discomfort commonly arises. Focus on the area of stress in your body, and continue to breathe through them. This third step holds a lot of weight. The more you can accept multiple feelings and expand your tolerance for them, the less internal pressure of denial needs to build.
Sharing your ambivalence is Step Four. Keep from isolating this piece of you. Find a trusted friend who’s walked down that aisle before. Most likely, they have experienced this same mixed bag of emotions. If you’re really struggling to find an appropriate ear, try seeking out a mental health professional that specializes in the engagement phase.
Step Five is continuing to practice steps 1-4 until Mr. Ambivalence becomes a dear friend. -A feelings state that’s just around to help you make good decisions.
The reality shows and bride magazines have one thing right. A ceremony is exciting. Everyone is there to celebrate your new union. Try to keep bringing yourself back to the present moment and enjoy the true meaning of your day.
Ambivalence is within us all the time, whether we like it or not. Accepting our ambivalence instead of suppressing it, is our best bet for inner development as well as relational growth with our partners and other loved ones.
Jessica Levith currently sees adolescent girls and adult women in her private practice setting at SF Women’s Therapy. For more information or to set up an appointment, you can contact her at 510.883.3074 or east-baytherapy.com. You can also check out check out sfwomenstherapy.com.
 Marriage in this article is defined as the union of any two people.