Any woman who flips through the pages of a bridal magazine knows instantly how she's meant to feel about her wedding day: Like a princess running through a field of daisies on a sunlit morning, with layers of white silk streaming behind. Elated, free, proud and grateful. Complete at last.
Talk to the betrothed on the message board of the Web site Indiebride.com, however, and a different picture emerges. "When do the doubts stop?" asks one of the site's 5,644 registered users, going on to discuss her misgivings about the man she's marrying. "Confused to say the least," writes another about her feelings toward marriage.
The Indiebride.com women are far from alone. Though people rarely discuss it, engagement is a complicated and often difficult period filled with mixed emotions.
For many, it's a time of gratitude for finding a wonderful person mingled with doubts about whether that person is the right one. It's joy mixed with insomnia, excitement mixed with worry, and deep-seated fear about the changes to come.
All of these feelings are perfectly natural in the face of a major life change, even a positive one, psychologists say. In fact, they are often necessary for fully embracing a new life.
"Change is hard, and our culture doesn't prepare us very well for it, for grieving the parts of our lives that are ending," says Sheryl Paul, a psychologist and author of The Conscious Bride: Women Unveil Their True Feelings About Getting Hitched. "With engagement, there's the grief of letting go of being single, and the sadness of how your relationship is changing with your friends and your family of origin. It's major."
Both men and women go through a difficult process of shedding their single identities when they marry, psychologists say. Men, the usual partners to propose, tend to work through their emotions before popping the question, and their struggle over getting hitched is widely known and accepted -- even parodied with jokes about "the ball and chain."
Women, on the other hand, tend to grapple with the idea of being married during the engagement period. Unlike men, though, they are bombarded with social messages that they should be jubilant, and so feel guilty when negative emotions seep into the mix.
"When you accept that you're going to feel scared, it's easier to move beyond it," says Paul. "When you fight it, you start thinking something's wrong with you and it's much harder."
Engaged women are wary to talk about their reservations with loved ones for fear of angering or disappointing those invested in the wedding, adds the Rev. Laurie Sue Brockway, author of Wedding Goddess: A Divine Guide to Transforming Wedding Stress into Wedding Bliss.
"A bride is really ashamed about these feelings, so she will just hide them or suppress them," says Brockway. "Then, they come up again after she's married."
The best way to resolve complex feelings about marriage is to get them out, psychologists say. A woman should talk about them, write about them, and let herself feel them.
A natural, but guilt-ridden, experience for brides-to-be is to become hypercritical of their partners' flaws, says Allison Moir-Smith, a psychologist and author of Emotionally Engaged: A Bride's Guide to Surviving the 'Happiest' Time of Her Life.
While such nit-picking can sometimes be a distraction, it can also be a form of mental preparation, she says.
"It can be our way of coming to terms with and accepting who our fiance is," warts and all, says Moir-Smith.
As the age of the average bride climbs higher -- it's now 26 -- many women struggle with giving up their independence. Gone are the days when women reached 22 years old and decided it was time to find a man and get married, says Brockway.
"We have jobs and careers and names that are known," says Brockway. "I'd be worried if a bride didn't have some serious thoughts about what she's doing."
Anxiety, sadness and second-guessing are normal during the engagement period, and nearly everyone wonders at some point if she's found the right partner. Usually these feelings can be chalked up to wedding jitters, but, occasionally, they mean a fiancee should reconsider her decision, psychologists say.
Jessica Berthold writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.