Calling It Off

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY YVETTA FEDOROVA

The country club, the photographer and the band had been booked. China and crystal from Macy's, carefully selected. Orders were coming in on the Williams-Sonoma registry. But 18 months into her engagement, Connie Oberle, 31, a corporate lawyer in New York City, decided not to go through with the wedding. "I just knew something wasn't right," Oberle says of her ex-fiance. "We met when we were both ski instructors, and we were great on snow but not when the snow melted."

Although calling it off was painful, the decision was eased by camaraderie. Sitting in a cafe on a trip to Paris, Oberle was joined by her best friend from college, who had got engaged the same month. "So, are you going to go through with it?" her friend inquired. "Are you?" Oberle shot back. They decided to write down their answers on cocktail napkins, and when they read each other's "NO," Oberle called for the waiter: "More wine!"

Shortly thereafter, both women informed their fiances of their intentions. Five years later, Oberle, now married to a different man, isn't surprised that three colleagues at her law firm have canceled impending nuptials in the past year. "When you witness so many of your peers getting divorced — people whose weddings you've been to — it makes you take a step back."

As the first children-of-divorce generation to reach marrying age, today's twenty-and thirtysomethings would much prefer a broken betrothal to a "broken home." Breaking an engagement is difficult, but rather than face it with shame, many almost-unhappily-marrieds see it as a wise, even courageous act. Such "disengaged" individuals have become increasingly visible and vocal. Nobody tracks how many engagements are broken each year, and people in the always-upbeat wedding industry are reluctant to even discuss the issue. However, in an online national poll of 565 single adults conducted in August by Match.com/Zoomerang for TIME, 20% said they had broken off an engagement in the past three years, and 39% said they knew someone else who had done so.

Wedding planners and consultants are noting a trend, and several online and in-store bridal registries have recorded an uptick in disengagements. At Bloomingdale's, would-be brides and grooms often "postpone" their registry rather than attend to the unpleasant errand of canceling. Such postponements are up 15% in the past two years, according to Morgan Childs, Bloomingdale's bridal consultant in New York City. WeddingChannel.com, a popular online registry, counted 5% to 10% of its wedding registries "deactivated" last year. Erin Howlett-Avci, a former assistant registry director at Michael C. Fina in New York City, recalls that she found four different lists under the name of a groom who called last year to check his registry. "Oh, sorry!" the unabashed caller exclaimed. "Those other three are my broken engagements."

A timely new book, There Goes the Bride: Making Up Your Mind, Calling It Off & Moving On (Jossey-Bass), claims that about 15% of all engagements are called off each year. "This is a growing phenomenon," says co-author Rachel Safier, whose own canceled wedding inspired the book. "I thought I was alone, but people have been coming out of the woodwork. It's just not discussed, because it's clearly not the romantic side of the wedding story."

Seems the veil is coming off. Whether the bride decides she's too young, the bridegroom realizes he's not ready, or both agree they're just not meant to be a couple, the would-be wedded are coming out with their premarital fears and grievances. In chat rooms on — of all places — wedding websites, the topic is fretted over and hotly debated. TheKnot.com, the mother-in-law of all wedding sites with more than 2 million visitors a month, includes articles like "Calling It Off: Real Brides, Real Reasons," amid more registry-friendly fare. Message boards on Indiebride.com go by titles like "Runaway Brides" and "Okay, I'm Ready to Ditch." The site's founder, Lori Leibovich, says the subject is among its most popular. "In this day and age, when people are older and often live together beforehand, it's amazing to me how many people get engaged — and then start questioning the decision," Leibovich says.

The reasons behind the trend include the lengthening period of engagement; the vogue for mega-weddings, with their attendant stresses, expenses and complications; and the fear of divorce. The longer the engagement, the more time for disillusionment and the greater the likelihood that the wedding will be called off. A Bride's magazine poll found that the average period of engagement rose from 11 months in 1999 to 16 months in 2002. Sometimes, an engaged couple want to live together to test the relationship (6 in 10 live together before marriage, according to Bride's). By the time they're halfway into an engagement, the couple complain they already feel as if they're married, sometimes for better but often for worse.

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