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Turning A March Into a Retreat

By Sarah E. Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page C08

Wedding planners have seen it all: He got cold feet. She cheated with her high school sweetheart. He thinks he's bisexual. She saw that faint red flag of doubt turn crimson. He realized that forever with her family was just too long.

Whatever the reason for ending an engagement, it's hard enough to break the news to the person you realize you no longer want to spend the rest of your life with. But once you've unleashed the bridal beast and started planning a wedding, you've got everyone else to think of -- from parents who may have helped with hefty deposits to friends who've bought bridesmaid dresses to relatives who've already made travel plans.

It's the ugly side of wedding season. And though ending an engagement can stave off future misery and divorce, in the moment of the unraveling, it may feel like an unforgivable, unthinkable act.

"You're not just severing a relationship with one person. There's usually a village behind it," says Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage therapist based in Boulder, Colo., and author of "Divorce Busting: A Step-by-Step Approach to Making Your Marriage Loving Again." "You're not just breaking the heart of one person, but there are enormous expectations on the part of friends and family."

Still, no matter how much damage control is needed, a broken engagement should be viewed as preventive, says Weiner-Davis, noting that 50 percent of divorces take place within the first four years. "If a person is at the point of calling off a wedding, it would be better to follow one's gut instinct rather than regret it two months later."

Jamie Coleman, who was planning a wedding for July, broke the news two months ago to her mother in a teary phone call: "If I'm having all these doubts, what's the point of doing all this?" she said, sobbing. Her mother was disappointed but sympathetic and told her not to worry about the $3,000 in lost deposits, she says. Her maid of honor was understanding, too. "People know this is better than another divorce," says Coleman, 27, an editor who lives in the District.

There's no easy way to have the conversation, but Weiner-Davis suggests tactfully announcing the decision, explaining the circumstances, thanking everyone for their support and realizing that others may need time to accept the news. She offers a sample bombshell: "After doing some soul-searching, I realize this is something I can't move forward with because I can't commit to this marriage. I don't want to hurt my fiance or be hurt or bring children into this world with so much doubt."

She adds that the person who breaks off the engagement should return gifts and reimburse those who contributed financially.

By the time Lenee Harris, 26, a wedding planner from Bowie, called off her wedding two months before the date, she had received nearly everything on her registry: china, glassware, serving spoons, bowls, a stainless steel teapot. The idea of returning it all depressed her, especially the napkin rings made of sugared fruit that matched her dishes so perfectly. But she boxed it all up and started the round of phone calls.

"I have some unfortunate news," she began. "We have postponed our wedding indefinitely. I would like to make arrangements to get your gift back to you. I appreciate it, but I don't feel right keeping it."

It took her nearly six months to coordinate schedules to drop off the gifts or return them to the store. "It's one of the worst feelings in the world, toting this stuff back," she says. "You just want to return it as soon as possible and get out of the store."

Some people told her to keep the gifts, especially a hand-carved coffee table that could not be returned. "They cared about me so they didn't mind me keeping it. People were trying to make me feel better," Harris says.

But unless the gifts were from immediate family, she wanted everything handled as cleanly as possible. "I felt dishonest," she says. "They gave it to me for my wedding. Since my wedding wasn't happening, I insisted that most of the gifts go back."

Rhonda Rose, a wedding planner with Occasions Etc., based in Damascus, recalls the time she received a phone call three days before a 150-person reception. The couple apparently had a huge fight. Rose made a flurry of phone calls trying to negotiate deposits, but the caterer had already ordered the food, and the florist had made the arrangements. So she gave the flowers to local nursing homes. "It was just really sad," she says.

Sometimes, the sheer stress of planning such an expensive event is so overwhelming, it forces one party to back out, says Betsey Jones, a wedding planner with King Street Events of Alexandria. But canceling a wedding doesn't always mean the end of a relationship. "A lot of times they leave it open-ended, saying, 'Hold on to the money. We're trying to deal with a hard time,' " she says, adding that the decision could simply mean a couple is stepping back and trying to refocus on their relationship.

One couple who called things off a week before the ceremony wed a year later in Hawaii, says Andre Wells, owner of Producers, an event-planning company based in the District. And Carol Marino, a planner with A Perfect Wedding in Fairfax, tells of another couple who canceled their wedding two weeks before the date but called eight months later inquiring about organizing a smaller one.

In fact, New York psychologist Greg Kuhlman, who teaches marriage seminars nationally, including in Washington, says jitters are normal, especially as the giddy part of romance gets replaced by the less romantic work of negotiating a life together. "People are getting married later and living together and hitting the reality stage now before the wedding," he says. "As you get closer to marriage, the challenges become clearer to you."

If a marriage is clearly looking like a mistake, the couple should obviously call it off, rather than suffer through a divorce, especially with children, he says. But Kuhlman advises couples to express those doubts in counseling because it can end up bringing them closer together.

But if you feel you must end the relationship, you have to do what's best for you, even if you hurt someone else, says Weiner-Davis. "Even if the person made the right decision, it won't feel that way for a while. Forgiving yourself takes time, too."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company