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Got “Cold Feet”? Watch Out for Marital Woes Ahead 

Remember that classic scene from Runaway Bride where Julia Roberts bolted from the altar and trotted across the horizon in a wedding dress? Or when Chandler in Friends left a note for Monica before he fled just hours before their nuptial? These storylines are common in TV and movies, but it can happen in real life too. Many people get cold feet before their big days; it is so common that friends and family usually tell the bride/groom-to-be to just brush it off as a little blip on the path to living happily-ever-after. Indeed, people often have more doubts about themselves, their partners, and their relationships when they face significant changes in their lives.1 But are we right to ignore these doubts? Not so, according to recent research.

In one study,2 researchers interviewed and surveyed 232 newlywed couples within the first 6 months of their marriages about their pre-marital experiences. Couples were then asked to complete a measure of marital satisfaction every 6 months over a 4-year period. The results revealed that premarital doubts were in fact very common: one or both spouses-to-be experienced doubts about getting married in 85% of the couples.

Interestingly, men reported feeling wedding jitters significantly more often than did women (47% of men vs. 38% of women). However, it was only the women’s doubts that signalled true trouble ahead…women who had doubts prior to the wedding were 2.5 times more likely to be divorced during the first 4 years of marriage than were women who did not have doubts. Men’s doubts, in contrast, did not predict the likelihood of divorce. What’s more, among people whose marriages remained intact, men and women who felt uncertain prior to marriage had significantly lower levels of marital satisfaction over time than those without premarital doubts. This is perhaps not unexpected given that the feeling of uncertainty is also linked to greater experiences of negative emotions3 (e.g., anger) and negative evaluation of the relationship.4

These findings tell us that doubts before marriage, especially among women, may be a warning sign of trouble ahead. So, while it is normal to feel anxious about making a life-long commitment to another person, take the time to address the doubts, should you have them. Doing so may just increase your chances of marital happiness.

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1Knobloch, L. K. (2007). Perceptions of turmoil within courtship: Associations with intimacy, relational uncertainty, and interference from partners. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 363-384.

2Lavner, J. A., Karney, G. R., & Bradbury, T. N. (in press). Do cold feet warn of trouble ahead? Premarital uncertainty and four-year marital outcomes. Journal of Family Psychology.

3Knobloch, L. K., Miller, L. E., & Carpenter, K. E. (2007). Using the relational turbulence model to understand negative emotion within courtship. Personal Relationships, 14, 91-112.

4Solomon, D. H. & Knobloch, L. K. (2004). A model of relational turbulence: The role of intimacy, relational uncertainty, and interference from partners in appraisals of irritations. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 795-816. 

Sonia Ip - Graduate Student, Clinical Psychology, The Australian National University
Sonia is a Registered Psychologist in Australia and is currently a doctoral student. Her thesis examines the role of alcohol in the early stages of romantic relationships, as well as the characteristics of intimate relationships among individuals with alcohol use disorders.

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