Louise Hung was thrilled when her boyfriend popped the question—even if it didn’t happen with all the fireworks and pizzazz she may have hoped for. Late one night in their apartment, Hung was halfway through a round of Bejeweled Blitz when her S.O. suddenly dropped to one knee. He barely had time to ask, “Will you—?” before Hung uttered a resounding “YES!” followed by a slew of un-publishable expressions of enthusiasm.
But as wedding planning got underway, anxiety found its way into Hung’s conscience. “A few months before I got married, I was hanging out with my two best friends. It was one of those perfect nights where everything felt right in the world,” Hung recalls. “All of a sudden I had a moment of terror that times like this might have to end when I got married—that I would lose the independence and freedom I treasured so much in my life.”
Lose Yourself in the... Marriage?
For anyone approaching “I do,” feeling like you’re about to become someone vastly different than whom you were prior to exchanging vows may sound familiar. It's actually pretty normal to feel that way—in large part because it’s a legit possibility. The new family you’re marring into may take up more of your time, you could have fewer incentives to go out with your single friends, and maybe you’re planning for kids, which is, frankly, the biggest life change possible.
Hung had observed these lifestyle shifts in her friends’ marriages. “I worried that I'd have to ‘settle down’ or ‘grow up.’ It was irrational [since] nothing in the way my husband is or I am hinted at this. But I was fearful because I'd seen it happen before,” she says.
With research affirming the benefits of bonding between romantic partners, it may seem strange to imagine closeness has potential downsides. But studies show there’s a limit to intimacy’s advantages—and when it encroaches on our sense of autonomy, we’re headed not only for misery but also the dreaded loss of desire Intimacy, Sexual Sesire and Differentiation in Couplehood: A Theoretical and Methodological Review. Ferreira LC, Narciso I, Novo RF. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 2012, Sep.;38(3):1521-0715..
As Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and senior editor of PsychAlive points out, many spouses-to-be fall into the trap of becoming too enmeshed with their partners. They may give up former hobbies; lose track of their own interests, friendships, or family; or even let their own health be deprioritized in the pathological prioritization of their partner’s needs. “When you give up your identity for a relationship, you’re not going to be satisfied,” Firestone says. “And that's when the trouble starts.”
The weird thing about getting married is that it does involve a sort of loss: the loss of your single self. So it’s not crazy to undergo a bit of a grieving process when you move away from that unfettered, on-the-prowl, independent person you were before you committed to another person ‘til death do you part. But keep in mind that studies show we’re prone to overly romanticize our pasts, especially when we’re anxious about something in our present or future—in large part because it makes us feel better about ourselves as well as less alone Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions. Wildschut T, Sedikides C, Arndt J. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Feb.;91(5):0022-3514. Nostalgia as a Repository of Social Connectedness: The Role of Attachment-Related Avoidance. Wildschut T, Sedikides C, Routledge C. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2010, Aug.;98(4):1939-1315.. All this may help you realize that the “you” you may be longing for is a bit, well, favorably edited by memory.
To maintain your sense of self and avoid killing the sparks, Firestone recommends making a point to keep going out with your friends and having fun with your partner like you did while were still dating. Activities like trying new bars or restaurants, exploring a museum, or even training for a half-marathon together totally count.
For Hung, it took some time to strike the right balance between being her "old self" and being a wife. Some of her friends figured she wouldn't want to go out after she got married, which frustrated her. “That perceived notion that being married equals ‘not interested in adventures’ bums me out,” Hung says. In protest, she says she wore herself out trying to prove that she was still her former self, making her husband feel like an afterthought at times.
But eventually Hung learned to simply be herself. She honored her need for alone time while still finding enough time to spend with her pals and her husband alike. “Not surprisingly, once I relaxed, all my relationships improved and I felt a lot more at peace with myself,” she says.
Pining for the Past
Maintaining our own identities is all well and good, but it isn’t a cure-all for pangs of dread leading up to—or following—the big day. Edan Lepucki, author of California, had no problem being her own person post-marriage. Her issue? That person was filled with self-doubt, anxiety about marriage, and fears that whatever happiness she might have found with her partner would go down in flames.
“Until we got married, I never worried that my husband wasn’t right for me,” Lepucki recalls. “But after we got married, I began having absurd thoughts, like, ‘Maybe he’s not the right person for me. Maybe I don’t love him.’ I’d find myself crying in his arms, saying, ‘I don’t want to divorce you!’”
Unlike Hung, what Lepucki longed for wasn’t so much the self she’d been before meeting her husband, but rather that less stressful time period where the institution of marriage wasn't interfering with her enjoyment of him. After all, not having to fret over in-laws, whether you’ll be a good husband or wife, or whether your partner’s imperfections seem vaster than they did before you filed joint tax returns does take a load off one’s mind.
But as marriage and family therapist Paul Hokemeyer, J.D., Ph.D., explains, “Even the most well-adjusted and secure people experience some level of fear and anxiety about their marriage. It’s a major developmental milestone that marks the end of our adolescence and entry into adulthood.”
Rather than projecting all the ways in which our coupledom might go wrong, Hokemeyer underscores the importance of communicating to our partners what’s going on in our heads. “The key is to be honest with your spouse,” Hokemeyer says. “If you're feeling down, open up. Let them know it’s not about them. And trust that this insecurity will fade over time as the foundation of your marriage gets deeper and wider.” (Don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a trained marriage and family therapist or couples counselor.)
Lepucki did just that. Following a few years of therapy, solid communication with her husband, and a deep reflection on her past, she came to discover her fears about marriage had much to do with the trauma of watching her own parents divorce when she was a child—and fretting that she had no model of a solid marriage to emulate.
“Every time I was upset, I talked to my husband about it,” says Lepucki, who has now been married for nine years. “He was open. He didn’t flee. Over time we came back to our old selves again. And the better the marriage got, the more ridiculous my previous fears seemed.”
After the After-Party
One more reason spouses may pine for their pre-married selves is that the post-wedding period can feel like a little bit of a let-down, no matter how much they love their S.O. As Rhoberta Shaler, Ph.D., relationship consultant and author of Kaizen for Couples, points out, many couples head into marriage with plenty of hope and anticipation.
But as they get caught up in the hubbub of planning for the big day and relishing in the congratulatory remarks, they avoid preparing for the realities that await them after the honeymoon: like the fact that more decisions become joint decisions, and yes, this is the person you'll wake up next to for the rest of your life—and no, you can't just walk away if things get tough.
“Once the honeymoon ends, many couples assume there’s no longer anything to look forward to,” Shaler says. That nagging desire that something is missing can often be a desire for the excitement you feel that you’ve lost. But Shaler reminds us that what many newlyweds fail to realize is that they’re on the cusp of plenty of wonderful things. After the period she calls the "wedding daze," real life commences. And it's not as scary as it sounds: There’s a whole world with your new spouse that can be deeply satisfying and supportive, where you can be safe and transparent and vulnerable, she explains.
You’re not a weirdo or even in the wrong relationship if you have nostalgic feelings toward the person you were before getting married or engaged. Longing for our pre-married selves is a mixture of (occasionally irrational) fears about the future, internal insecurities, a desire to remain hopeful, happy, and full of anticipation, as well as a longing for the independence some of us risk losing if we become too enmeshed with our partners' lives. To offset the worst of these feelings, it’s crucial to not exclude from our lives those activities that made us who we were prior to tying the knot. Even more important: Communicate with your partner about what you’re feeling. (And again, if you can’t work it out on your own, don’t be shy about seeking couples therapy.)