Late spring marks the unofficial start of “wedding season,” and with that, plenty of couples are gearing up to exchange vows. But not everyone who plans to get married actually goes through with it — and the “cold feet” phenomenon has something to do with it.
These pre-wedding jitters have been blamed for wedding postponements and cancellations, but experts say they’re much more common than most people realize, even in couples who end up married. “It’s very normal to have cold feet before you get married,” clinical psychologist Thea Gallagher, an assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and co-host of the Mind in View podcast, tells Yahoo Life.
If you or your partner develop cold feet, it’s understandable to have questions about what exactly this means for the future of your relationship. Here’s what’s behind this phenomena and when it’s a sign that you shouldn’t move forward with your plans.
What is cold feet?
Cold feet isn’t a clinical term or diagnosis, Gallagher points out. Instead, it’s a figure of speech to describe nerves around a big event like a wedding. “All of a sudden, you get frozen in place, and it’s hard to make a decision to move things forward,” she explains. “You start to obsess over what you may lose and don’t think about what you can gain.”
Clinical psychologist Karin Anderson, creator of the Love & Life podcast, tells Yahoo Life that cold feet can be a “very nagging, pervasive and prevalent doubt that this is just not right.” When people have cold feet, they may try to talk themselves through it and blame nerves, but “sometimes cold feet is part of your authentic self trying to tell you something you don’t want to listen to,” she says.
Everyone handles cold feet differently, and it may not be as obvious to you that you’re going through this, Gallagher says. Instead of realizing that you’re unsure about getting married, you may end up picking fights with your partner or having extreme anxiety about details of your wedding planning, she says.
Even little things about your partner may suddenly become an extreme annoyance to you. “They may start to feel bigger since you are now filtering them through a ‘forever’ lens and thinking too far ahead,” Gallagher says.
What causes cold feet?
It depends. Getting married is a big decision, Gallagher says, and “the word ‘forever’ is hard for us to wrap our minds around.” She adds, “You see failed relationships and the high rate of divorce — all of that can feel overwhelming.”
Weddings are different from other big decisions like buying a house or getting a new job, Gallagher says. “With those, you feel like you could leave them if you wanted to,” she says. “When you get married, you’re basically saying, ‘I’m not going to leave this.’ Making that commitment can feel overwhelming.”
But for some people, having cold feet is a sign that something isn’t right, Anderson says. She experienced cold feet before her own wedding and ended up calling it off. “Cold feet can be you trying to give yourself a wake-up call,” Anderson says. “You can start to wonder if you’re stepping into this for the wrong reasons — your friends are getting married, you’re getting older… You could be trying to convince yourself that this is right when it really isn’t.”
Is it common to have cold feet?
There’s not a lot of research on this, but one small study of 464 people in the Los Angeles area found that nearly 20% had cold feet before getting married. The researchers found that women who experienced premarital doubt were more likely to be divorced in four years. However, the same wasn’t true for men.
But Anderson says that having cold feet doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed to fail. “It’s certainly one of the biggest decisions you’ll make,” Anderson says. “It would be surprising if you didn’t feel at least some level of nervousness and anxiety.”
When is it a red flag that you shouldn’t move forward with a wedding?
This is “very difficult” to figure out, Anderson says, noting that you likely are influenced by your friends, family members and fiancé, which can impact your thoughts about your future marriage. She recommends listening to your gut instead. “If you repeatedly can’t shake this sense that it’s just not right — even if you can’t identify why that is — you really need to listen to that,” Anderson says.
Gallagher suggests “looking at the facts and data” surrounding your relationship. “Is this a whirlwind romance or a longstanding relationship? Is your relationship healthy or toxic? Do you have a long history of breakups and makeups? Those are important factors to consider,” she says.
If you’re struggling with cold feet and unsure what to do, Gallagher suggests talking to a therapist or going to couples therapy with your partner so that you can discuss things you feel that need to be addressed.
But Gallagher stresses that having cold feet is normal to some degree. “There’s a lot we don’t know about the future, and it would be very boring if we knew everything in advance,” she says. “At some point, you have to take a leap of faith.”
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