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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Is It Cold Feet? Or Something More Serious?

Is it wise for engaged women and men to ignore the doubts many experience before marrying? Aren’t their doubts just symptoms of a case of the jitters brought on by the realization that marriage is approaching?

A new study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, cautions engaged couples against assuming that premarital doubts are meaningless. The researchers ask, “What if premarital uncertainty is not simply another normative challenge to overcome, but is instead a true warning sign?”

Their study, titled “Do Cold Feet Warn of Trouble Ahead? Premarital Uncertainty and Four-Year Marital Outcomes,” was published in September by the Journal of Family Psychology. UCLA called it “the first scientific study to test whether doubts about getting married are more likely to lead to an unhappy marriage and divorce.”

Justin Lavner, the study’s lead author and a UCLA doctoral candidate, commented that “people think everybody has premarital doubts and you don’t have to worry about them.” However, Lavner said, “we found they are common but not benign.”

Lavner explained to me that the question asked of couples was, “Were you ever hesitant or uncertain about getting married?” In this light, he said, the type of hesitancy addressed in the study reflects “some sort of doubt about the relationship” itself – something specific related to “uncertainty about getting married,” not mere nervousness over the wedding “in the stress leading up to it.”

A Matter to Resolve

The study acknowledges that uncertainty does not predict future distress for every couple. After all, in two-thirds of the newlywed couples studied by the UCLA researchers, at least one partner reported having had doubts about the decision to wed.

Still, attention to doubt is warranted, it says. For, “comparisons among spouses with and without doubts showed that doubts did predict poorer marital outcomes after four years, especially among women.” (The researchers conducted follow-up surveys with the couples in their study every six months for four years.)

When the study participants were asked if they ever had been uncertain or hesitant about getting married, 47 percent of husbands and 38 percent of wives said yes. While women were less likely than men to have had doubts, the women’s doubts were more meaningful in predicting trouble after the wedding, the researchers concluded.

When only the husband had doubts, 10 percent of couples divorced; when only the wife had doubts, 18 percent of couples divorced; when each of the partners had doubts, 20 percent of the couples would one day divorce, it was explained.

A concern expressed by Lavner is that “some people might have difficulty coming to terms with [their] doubt or might hear messages from other people that doubts are common and aren’t anything to worry about. However, he told me:

“I think the biggest implication of these findings is that doubts do matter on average, and they are something that couples — and professionals working with couples — should pay attention to.

“This obviously doesn’t mean that couples should cancel their weddings, but it does mean that they should explore what’s underlying those doubts and try to resolve it.”

Implications for Couples, Professionals

Some of the UCLA study’s implications for professionals who counsel engaged couples and others working with them were spelled out in the researchers’ report.

“Doubts should not simply be dismissed as a normative experience or viewed as something that will go away once partners make a commitment to each other,” the report states. Instead, “feelings of premarital uncertainty should be validated, taken seriously and used as an opportunity for exploration.”

However, given the reluctance on the part of many to “share their doubts,” those working with engaged couples may need explicitly to encourage “the disclosure of feelings of uncertainty,” it proposes.

The study suggests that premarital counseling can provide a context in which couples might “safely disclose unresolved issues or lingering questions.” These conversations, in turn, “could be used to reach consensus around difficult topics” like having children or coping better with stress.

The UCLA researchers said further study is needed of the specific forms assumed by the doubts that engaged men and women experience.

These doubts “could include specific concerns about the relationship (e.g., ‘I’m not sure if we’re aligned on having children’), or the partner (e.g., ‘Does he work too much?’), or may represent anxiety about marriage more generally (e.g., ‘Am I ready for this commitment?’),” the study said.

Thomas Bradbury, a well-known UCLA marriage researcher who co-directs the university’s Relationship Institute, was a study co-author. Commenting on it, his obvious hope was that couples will talk about their doubt “and try to work through it.”

Bradbury compared the situation in which engaged people realize they are experiencing doubt to the situation that exists when people notice something disturbing on their own skin. “If you see something unusual on your skin, should you ignore it and go to the beach or see a doctor? Be smart, and don’t ignore it — and don’t ignore your doubts either,” he advised couples.

Bradbury’s advice was to “have a conversation, and see how it goes.” He might ask the engaged: “Do you think the doubts will go away when you have a mortgage and two kids? Don’t count on that.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.