Calling It Off

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY YVETTA FEDOROVA

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Moreover, the hoopla of wedding planning, even if not of Bennifer proportions, often ushers in the jitters. Millie Martini Bratten, editor in chief at Bride's, calls wedding planning "boot camp" for marriage. "You realize that even though you've been living together, you may not have discussed all the fundamentals you need to work out before getting married," she says. "All these questions arise during the planning process that bring up deeper issues: Do we have the same attitudes toward money? How do we face problems? Do we know how to argue and resolve differences?"

When disputes arise during the planning stages and couples realize they can't agree to disagree, they call off the wedding altogether — the wisdom being, better now than later. Wedding planner JoAnn Gregoli says that in 15 years, she has never seen so many cancellations as in the past year — many of them far into the engagement. "Nobody wants to settle," she says. "Women who marry today are older, more educated and more self-sufficient. They would rather go through the ordeal of canceling a wedding than make what could be a huge mistake."

Susan Piver, author of The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say "I Do" (Putnam), claims the pre-wedding period is "like an incredibly sped-up marriage, with all the emotions, stresses, pressures, hopes and fears," with divorce one of the biggest anxieties. "A lot of engagements are called off because people are afraid of getting divorced," she says.

That's what did it for Mike Santasiero, 33, a publishing production manager. Two of his three siblings were already divorced, scaring him into breaking off his engagement twice — with the same woman. After their first engagement fell apart two years ago, Santasiero thought that he and his fiance had worked out their problems. But once they were engaged again, trouble resurfaced. By February 2003, the couple called it quits for good. "We were having so many fights, I realized if I went through with it, the marriage wouldn't have lasted more than five years," he explains. "People joke around and say, 'So, are you engaged this week?' But it's not funny. I don't think people who haven't gone through it understand the impact."

TV and film audiences are certainly familiar with the concept. The dithering bride at the altar has been a Hollywood staple, from 1934's It Happened One Night to 1999's Runaway Bride. Both Rachel on Friends and Carrie on Sex and the City have returned diamond rings. But while Hollywood finds romantic tension and humor in such scenes, those who have lived through them say the experience entails unrecognized suffering. While it lacks the stigma of divorce, it nonethelss carries more complications and emotional fallout than the standard breakup. Lyn O'Hearn, 26, a travel agent from Lincoln, Neb., says her disengagement left her feeling depressed and guilty. She had dismissed warning signs of trouble as pre-wedding jitters. "When my fiance broke up with me in June, I was in shock." Fear and guilt prey on both parties, no matter who initiates the breakup. Sheryl Paul, a Los Angeles-based "bridal counselor" and author of the forthcoming The Conscious Bride's Wedding Planner (New Harbinger), says that in the past year more clients have approached her with qualms — typically six months before the wedding, when they're "in the midst of freaking out"--and that more than 5% ultimately reverse gears. Says Paul: "To go full force with this public commitment and set up this expectation of a wedding, then turn around and cancel is very difficult. You have to send out cards, make all these phone calls and disappoint your family and friends who've supported you."

But friends and family are also often the best supporters in the aftermath. According to wedding consultant Sharon Naylor, some almost brides are throwing "broken-engagement" showers in lieu of bridal showers, in which guests offer the ex-bride gift certificates for spa treatments and celebrate her independence and courage. When his fiance opted out five weeks before their March 2003 wedding, Michael Manning, 32, a Denver-based marketer, nonetheless held a bachelor party. Friends and family with nonreturnable plane tickets came to a "She Loves Me Not" bowling bash. "What else was I going to do on my wedding night?" he asks. Six months later, Manning considers the entire situation a blessing. "I was pretty bitter at the time, but I know now it was for the best."

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