Chasing “Happily Ever After”: Why You Should Wait for the Real Thing (And How I Almost Didn’t)

Wedding cakeWedding cakeBy Jennifer Armstrong for HowAboutWe

Dan and I met when we worked on a college homecoming float together at Northwestern University just outside Chicago-his fraternity and my sorority were partnered for the parade, I was a sophomore, he was a junior. I was still dating my high school sweetheart, but soon enough, I wasn't. Dan would become my first "adult" relationship-my first sex, my first make-life-plans-together, my first follow-him-across-the-country, my first cohabitation, and ultimately, my first engagement.

It would take a decade, but it would all happen, until one day I woke up improbably doubting the impending wedding plans that had seemed to take forever to get to. Where once I was obsessing over what I'd say in my vows when we finally got engaged someday, instead I was thinking: Crap, there are vows? Like, forever vows?

What I would eventually learn is that "cold feet" are not a harmless nervous reaction to potentially getting hitched. While well-meaning relatives and friends will tell you to thaw those puppies out and slip them into some nice strappy sandals for the big day, a recent study proved otherwise: Pre-marital doubts, particularly women's, do correlate to divorces later. That's why it's all the more important that we listen to our much-vaunted feminine intuition, even-especially-when wedding-planning fever takes hold.

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In my case, the lure of happily-ever-after proved particularly hard to resist. I was an A student who liked her life tidy, and I planned to get this whole marriage thing handled as efficiently as possible. That, however, required quite a bit of stubbornness starting with the day I graduated from college.

Dan had enlisted in the Navy for four years, which meant that he had to move to San Diego upon graduation. I followed him there in an act of supreme obstinacy. I spent most of my time alone, as he was usually off at sea. I lived in a series of teeny, cheap apartment complexes with algae-filled pools and dirty, fake-stucco facades. I couldn't get a job in San Diego as a newspaper reporter - people don't leave jobs in San Diego once they get them - so we had to drive an hour or two to see each other on weekends when he wasn't away.

I was determined to make this work, even if I had to do it all myself. I drove to see him much more than he drove to see me, the theory being that he had to spend so much time away from home that it made sense to be at his place (which was also nicer than mine). But I'm sure I was also trying to force our relationship to work despite signals to the contrary. I started swallowing my feelings (why couldn't we go out for dinner instead of staying in to watch Star Trek again?) for fear of setting off a fight that would lead to a real conversation that would lead to a breakup. Despite my efforts, we broke up every few months anyway, then got back together. When I was 25, we moved back to Chicago together so that he could go to grad school there, then broke up. Then got back together a year later.

I was 26 when we moved to New York, where we both landed jobs, then moved in together for the first time. We got engaged. It felt like the end of a long-fought battle that I had won. And as an overachiever, I liked very much to win. I had bent this relationship to my iron will. The celebration/my coronation as Queen of the Best Life Ever would come in the form of a wedding.

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Thus I refused to give up on our coming nuptials, even as my whispering doubts became shrill anxiety attacks. We had bought a condo together, and I couldn't afford a place to live on my own, so, I reasoned, I was stuck. I know it sounds crazy, but I even felt stricken by the idea of calling off our caterers and losing our deposit on the wedding location (in our case, the majestic Chicago Historical Society, back in my hometown). How would we take back our save-the-date? What would people think?

All of this, in retrospect, was my attempt to rationalize my fear. I was afraid to fail, afraid to be alone, afraid to figure out who I was without Dan. But the fact was, I had already become that woman, or part of me was trying to, whether or not the hyper-rational part of me was getting with the program. I was, in short, resisting what life was telling me, screaming at me: We no longer belonged together. Not even this very second. Forever was out of the question.

And yet I ignored those anxiety attacks, which sent me to doctors and hospitals afraid I was having heart trouble, a brain tumor-anything, I suppose, seemed better than figuring out how to leave the man I'd chosen to marry. I refused to believe that my new favorite activity-making friends with guys-had anything to do with a rebellion against my relationship. (Why can't a girl make new friends, right?) I ignored my smoldering crushes on other men. (Cold feet, right?) I took up margarita-drinking and staying out late to escape from the reality at home. At 29, I was too old for such petulant behavior, but I couldn't see my way out of it.

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The reality I didn't want to face was this: Every Sunday morning, for months, I awoke thinking, This is the day I will finally tell him I'm leaving. I summoned up the courage to start that conversation around 8 p.m., after dinner. (The logic here: Sunday night is easier than a weekend night because who wants to hang around the house together all weekend after breaking up? And who wants to figure this stuff out on a weeknight?) By midnight Sunday, however, I'd find myself once again getting into bed as Dan's fiancée. After a few hours of tearful talking, he always found a way to convince me to stay. I railed at him for not simply letting me go, but couldn't find the strength to resist his pleas.

Finally, however, I did leave. More than a year after we were supposed to get married, and after we had bought a bigger, more expensive condo together, I turned 30 and finally grew up. I packed a suitcase, returned his ring, and walked out. A friend had a studio apartment to sublet, and I found my escape route at last.

I cried a lot in the early days of living in that apartment, where the shower was in the kitchen (ah, Bohemian New York!) and so was a mouse. But even then, I knew I was right, and I never regretted my decision. Now I know it was the best choice I ever made: After the crying was over, I got to figure myself out all over again - not as part of a couple, but as myself.

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I got to date lots of guys, some massively wrong and some close to right. I grew my bobbed hair out, dyed it from brown-with-highlights to black; I overhauled my wardrobe once, and again, and again in search of an identity that felt like home. I got to spend so much time on my work during certain critical phases of my career that I got sick. I reveled in the freedom my new life afforded me, perhaps ironic given how much I'd clung to the structure of my old life. Then again, perhaps not so ironic after all. What we fear and what we need are often closer than we care to think.

But now, at 37, thanks to that critical decision to finally give up my happily-ever-after, I have the life I always wanted. I am a legitimate, independent writer with three books to my credit. I still live in New York City, but I've worked my way up to a separate bathroom and kitchen - and the domestic partner of my dreams, who doesn't give me anxiety attacks, and loves the woman I've become.