Author:Paul Gilmartin

Pre-Vow Ambivalence: A Guest Blog by Jessica Levith M.A.

I do?

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[1] 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.

Denying Ambivalence

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.


Enjoy Yourself

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 You can also check out check out


[1] Marriage in this article is defined as the union of any two people.



Soldier Robert Patrick Lewis

The former Green Beret/Special Forces Medic talks about his childhood in Texas, the loss of his adoptive mother, his tours in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa, the injury that resulted in his getting a Purple Heart and living with PTSD.  Robert is a spokesperson for USA Cares and the author of Love Me When I’m Gone.


Living with Asperger’s Syndrome: A guest blog by Dan G.

Two years ago I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is on the lighter end of the Autism Spectrum.  I’ve been told my case is very mild, but it is very clearly there nonetheless.  My friend had told me, years before, that he thought I might have this condition.  He sat with me and made me take an online test, as he did with several others.  I’m certain he has Asperger’s, maybe worse than I do.  My results were pretty neutral because he had input that affected the honesty of my answers.  Later, I took the same test by myself, and the results were far stronger.

For those who don’t know, Asperger’s is “characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development.” (Wikipedia)  To understand how a person with Autism views the world, there is a truly fantastic 2010 film called  Temple Grandin..

Autism is not considered a disease; the simplest explanation is that the brains of those on any level of the Autism Spectrum are simply “wired differently.”  Wired.  Weird.  Heh.  For the love of God, the ‘repetitive patterns of behavior’ is obnoxious beyond all measure.  I will literally go hours where my mind will repeat nothing but the four line chorus of a crappy song that I can’t stand.  Granted, this can be good for comedy or creative research, but it still drives me absolutely nuts on a consistent basis.  “What am I thinking?” you ask?  Oh, just the logistical fallacies of the Justin Bieber song ‘Baby.’  I’ve never heard the song in its entirety, but there is NOTHING more important for me to be thinking about RIGHT NOW than THIS!“  It causes me to research things, unto ungodly hours on the internet, which results in sleep deprivation.  It could be 2 AM and, even though I know I need to be up in 6 hours, I must know EVERYTHING about Doctor Who RIGHT… NOW!!

I’ve always felt out of place around “normal people.”  Even back in grammar school, I never understood why my peers would change the way they dress, or act, or speak, in order to fit in with others.  Refusing to adapt, naturally, resulted in the relentless bullying I endured for the next decade.  It’s no wonder that Autism is nicknamed “Wrong Planet Syndrome.”  So often it feels like I was dropped into a world that is so incredibly bizarre to me, while others seem strangely comfortable in it.

Recently, I have realized that my Asperger’s has caused significant anxiety and depression, and the three constantly re-enforce each other.  I don’t know how interact with people on a basic level, which gives me anxiety, which saps my energy and makes me depressed, which makes me realize exactly what I need to do to fix my problems, but I’m too exhausted to even try, which makes me fat and apathetic, which makes me know ‘for a fact’ that I will screw up any social situation I enter into, which scares me and makes me even less prepared to interact socially, and so I don’t even try to engage in said social interaction, which makes me feel hopeless and alone, which gives me anxiety… and so on.

My condition became far more apparent when I transitioned from cooking into an office environment, to the point that I decided to seek diagnosis and counseling.  As a result, I was officially diagnosed by both my psychologist and several psychiatrists.  The little rules that everyone, except for me, seems to inherently understand made no sense at all.  People would ask “How are you?”  But, if you actually told them how you were feeling, they would freak out.  I realized that asking “How are you?” was, essentially, a way of just saying “Hello” a second time, and therefore was redundant and unnecessary and stupid.  I would walk over to someone’s cubicle with a business related question, only to find that they were chatting with someone else about their personal lives.  What do I do?  Do I stand there and wait awkwardly until they’re done?  Do I wait for a pause in the conversation and interrupt?  Do I stand there for a minute awkwardly, and then walk away and come back later?  Do I go back to my desk and send them an e-mail?  But doesn’t that completely defeat the purpose of us all being in the same office?  All of them seemed like wrong answers, but I usually went with #2, which always felt like the worst answer; not only was I being awkward, but I was interrupting now.

This became far more confusing when I started doing stand-up comedy almost 3 years ago.  Reflectively, situations like the “How are you?” scenario above seemed hilarious.  People, by sociological custom, are obliged to ask how you are, but they don’t actually want to know how you are.  I found things like this hilarious in retrospect.  Yet these ‘jokes’ were usually met with silence from the audience.  I feel like a decent joke writer, but I’m not sure why people don’t laugh.  Again, there’s a disconnect that I don’t understand and it’s frustrating.  When I try to tell jokes that require even the simplest level of thinking, the crowd looks at me like I have a third eye.  Things that I personally found ridiculous about the assumptions of day to day life are met with blank stares.  But maybe that’s just part of being a new comic.

Well, crap… maybe I really was born on the wrong planet…




Ali Handal

The singer/songwriter guitarist talks to Paul about being a female guitarist in a male-dominated industry, her negative self-talk, fear of failure, workaholism, and why she stayed with a past boyfriend whose actions betrayed and disgusted her.


Siblings John & Megan

The siblings discuss growing up in an affluent but emotionally witholding household, and how their struggles with depression and her eating disorder ultimately brought the two of them closer together.  They talk about the difficulty of connecting with an emotionally shutdown mother consumed with presenting a facade of normalcy to the outside world.  They discuss John’s childhood self-harming, Megan’s non-purging bulimia and compulsive exercising and starving, and the importance of finally asking for help from people who could emotionally provide it.  They also talk about the danger to one’s military career (John was in the Air Force) with disclosing a history of mental illness.   And the importance of naps without guilt!!


Emily Gordon (Voted #2 ep of 2013)

The podcaster (Indoor Kids) and former licensed therapist opens up about her battle with Adult Onset Still’s Disease, her mentally-ill grandmother, rebelling as an adolescent, being a woman in the South, working with schizophrenic patients, and perpetrators and victims of domestic violence.  They also talk about the importance of having emotional support, and how to distance yourself from people who are draining.


Peter T

Paul’s friend opens up about being adopted by a physically and sexually abusive paranoid schizophrenic mother, being a child actor, becoming sexually promiscuous and almost dying from AIDS.  They talk about spirituality, Peter’s Christianity, and the importance of surrender.


Stefanie Wilder-Taylor

The writer (I’m Kind of a Big Deal, Sippy Cups are Not For Chardonnay) podcaster (For Cryin’ Out Loud) and tv host (Parental Discretion on NickMom) opens up about her alcoholism, bulimia, post partum depression, childhood and marriage.  Phew!!