When people call off their wedding, naturally it comes as a shocker. The couple who seemed so into each other and could not wait to start spending their lives together, suddenly decide to go their separate ways. Why? After dating for a long time, and making all the arrangements, why do some people call off their wedding?
From the time we meet our partner until we say “I do” there is often a natural momentum to our relationship’s journey. We meet, date, make it exclusive, introduce our partner to friends and family, get engaged, plan the wedding, and then walk down the aisle. Each step along the way requires greater investments of time and energy and signals greater commitment. The further we get down the path, the harder it is to turn back.
Newton’s First Law (The Law of Inertia) states that when an object is in motion (or rest), it tends to remain in motion (or at rest). The same could be said about romantic relationships, such that a relationship in motion tends to stay in motion (Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006). Though relationships are often derailed in the early stages, once a couple gets engaged, there are a number of strong forces propelling the couple to follow through with the wedding.
Yet some people do what seems unthinkable to many: They call off their engagement and their wedding. Why?
How They Did It
In a recently published study, Kale Monk from the University of Missouri and colleagues sought to find out why people cancel their wedding and end their engagement (Monk, Kanter, Jamison, & Russell, 2020). The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 30 heterosexual participants aged 18-48 who had done so.
Importantly, the relationships that individuals described were generally long-term, serious relationships (the average length of the relationship prior to ending it was just over 4.5 years). Conducting semi-structured interviews allowed the researchers to more thoroughly explore individuals’ thought processes and reasoning because participants were able to describe everything in their own words. Using grounded theory, researchers analyzed those discussions to uncover the most central issues that led to the participants’ decision.
What They Found
The dominant theme was that the impending wedding was a catalyst for thinking more deeply and intentionally about the relationship’s future. As one participant described it, “I thought at one point when he was yelling at me, like is this what I wanted for the rest of my life?”.
It seemed that for women, the process of planning the ceremony and event provided concrete markers that facilitated visualizing the future.
For example, a participant explained that “I had found a wedding dress that I liked and I was trying it on, and I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought ‘I hope that [my ex-fiance ́] and I are still friends after we get divorced.’” A standard pre-wedding task ended up giving her an eye-opening glimpse into her future.
For the men, it was less about wedding planning and more about the engagement revealing incompatibilities that would be problematic going forward.
For example, “I remember thinking, ‘If she’s not listening to me while we’re planning this wedding, this is one day of our lives, does that mean she’s not gonna take anything into consideration after we’re married?’”.
Other guys mentioned how negative comments from their partner about important issues like religion or the desire to have kids made them question their long-term compatibility. Further concerns included that “I stopped doing a lot of things that I liked doing” and that there was an “inability to communicate respectfully and amicably and productively.”
It also seemed like participants recognized the role of inertia and sought to find ways to slow the momentum toward marriage. They mentioned the need to “figure some things out before… like maybe we just need to wait a little longer.” This often resulted in an on-again/off-again dynamic, where several women described trying to forgive transgressions and “fall back in love.”