In preparation for our marriage, my fiancé and I had met the requirements of the “engagement encounter” weekend and the meeting with the priest.
We even read a book on keeping a Catholic marriage strong. We knew this vocation was difficult and that many people failed because they didn’t have a clear understanding of the sacrament, but that wasn’t going to happen to us. Our love was one for the ages. We were different.
Having quelled the minor anxiety I experienced just before my wedding, I sailed through the ceremony and into my honeymoon stress-free. A few weeks later, however, I was anxious again. It was worse this time. I noticed I was not happy in my new marriage. Not miserable, just not happy.
That brought anxiety, and then a sort of depression. It was crazy. How could this have happened? Had I rushed into things? Had I made an error in judgment that would now ruin two lives? Just what was I thinking?
A couple of weeks after the honeymoon I was waking up every morning in a near panic. During the day, if my wife mentioned anything that reminded me of the permanence of the situation, I would feel myself closing off and pulling away.
If she mentioned changing her name, I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. If she mentioned so much as painting a wall, I was immediately on edge.
I turned to my parents for advice. As I was wringing my hands and opening up to them, my dad exclaimed, “You’re not special!” His response makes sense now, but at the time I was in too much of a state of panic to grasp what he was saying.
His generation expected marriage to be difficult. They knew life was not always a breeze. I knew that marriage (and life in general) meant sacrifice, but I really did think I was different. I thought that those feelings of joy were going to last. I thought I would always feel excitement, or at least happiness, when my wife walked into the room. When that no longer happened, I began to question everything. I had no idea what was happening to me.
In any case, my parents didn’t think I had made a mistake, no matter how anxious I was. Neither did my parish priest, who also listened to me babble. Certainly my wife didn’t think our marriage had been a mistake. She had already been through a divorce and annulment; she knew what she was doing. I seemed to be the only one who worried about this. I was wracked with gut-wrenching anxiety, and everyone around me thought I was nuts. Clearly I was missing something.
Desperate for answers, I did the one thing they tell you never to do: I googled “marriage anxiety.” I read a number of articles that told me that if I was experiencing doubts (boy, howdy!) I should probably turn and run. But it was too late. I was already married.
It was disheartening to say the least. So I prayed. After a little more searching online I stumbled across the work of Sheryl Paul, a psychologist who specialized in wedding anxiety and author of the book The Conscious Bride. (Her site helped me a great deal, some parts of the site should be read with a grain of salt, but overall her approach is sound.)
She talked about transitions—switching jobs, buying a house, or moving—can be accompanied by grief because they are essentially death experiences. In the case of marriage, we are dying to our single self. That’s a pretty big transition.
Paul points out that our culture does not prepare people for transitions, and so we often find ourselves caught off guard. I was 45 and had never lived with anyone. I was used to having gobs of time to myself. I had carved out an existence that consisted largely of distraction and space and time alone, and when I engaged others, it was on my terms, at the time of my choosing.
We are told that our engagements and weddings should be “the happiest times of our lives,” and when we experience anxiety (which is natural and normal), we think something is wrong.
What is wrong is that we do not properly grieve the loss of our old life. We do not come to terms with the death of our old self, our old ways, and certain freedoms.
Burying those feelings are only a temporary solution. They will come roaring back, and when they do, they manifest themselves as anxiety or depression.
I had feelings of tension and irritability in the presence of my spouse. I felt apprehension in anticipation of having to be vulnerable or loving when I had no feelings that even came close to love. I knew I loved my wife. I knew that she and I were perfect for each other. I just didn’t feel it.
As I continued to read stories day after day that sounded just like mine, a more realistic picture of myself and of my marriage emerged. Eventually I realized that I had not prepared myself for the vocation of marriage. I had not begun to die to myself. I realized I had to face the fact that my entire life had changed.
In my next post, I’ll address how I came to grips with my new life and managed to overcome my anxiety.
Editor’s Note: Check back next week for the third post in a series about anxiety. Click here to read the first post, Wedding Day Anxiety: What If I Don’t Feel In Love?