Carolyn Hax: Ignore that ‘cold feet’ feeling before getting married?

Carolyn Hax
Columnist February 19

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

You’ve run a number of columns on people having cold feet and the relationship [later] failing. Common knowledge says the first variable automatically means the second variable occurs. But what about having cold feet and the marriage works out?

I ask because my mother (and other ladies in her generation) scoff at cold feet. She told me that my dad had it, and she just “let him” freak out. He got his act together after a few days, and she married him. They’ve been together 50-plus years. My aunts tell me that a couple of my uncles did the same, and these women just brushed it off! It all worked out for them, too.

During my bridesmaid days, I remember a friend or two completely freaking out — the “What am I doing? Why am I marrying him? I don’t want to do this. This is a bad idea!” sentiment. Those worked out, too. I’ve seen accounts where people claim they had cold feet after the relationship collapses. But that’s so easy to say in the aftermath!


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

My friends don’t remember saying that stuff, but I bet if they got divorced, they would. What do you say for those who have cold feet but end up happily married decades later?

Cold Feet

I don’t like the term “cold feet.” It’s vague and can mean something different to every person who feels it (them?), which opens up someone with legitimate doubts to false assurances of, “Oh, everyone feels that, and then stays happily married for 95 years.”

Not only are the seeds of doubt highly individual, but so also is one’s definition of “it all worked out.” Does that mean they were genuinely happy — or does that just mean they didn’t divorce? Some pretty miserable unions manage to go the distance, and I don’t see that as something to celebrate.

I also don’t like agendas, and I sense one here: a pro-traditional-marriage, Mom’s-generation-knew-how-to-gut-it-out-unlike-today’s-whiners spin. Maybe I’m wrong, but if not: A generation doesn’t have to wake up day after day in any given marriage; only the two people in it do.

When brides and grooms have doubts, I hope they face them squarely. I hope the people they confide in have the compassion and presence of mind to draw the bride or groom out a bit, and then listen carefully enough to offer the right kind of reassurance — either that it’s okay to feel nervous or that it’s okay to walk away. Presumably loved ones know the bride or groom well enough to recognize whether “completely freaking out” is in character or not, and founded or not.

I hope they don’t bring any biases for or against marriage or for or against the people involved to their counsel, at least not without labeling them as such.

I think “cold feet” sufferers of all kinds, even the ones who just are nervous about the significance of the commitment, should hear from someone they love (or read here) that it’s okay to face your doubts, whether the episode lasts an hour or two or preempts the wedding itself. The only wedding that has to happen is the one the couple enters freely and unburdened.

I’m not sure that answers the question, but that’s my answer.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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