The big day has arrived. You are about to marry the love of your life; the life partner you want to spend the rest of your days with. And yet, your stomach is turning, palms are sweating, butterflies are fluttering and your mind is clouded with an air of impending doom that asks, in a variety of different convolutions depending on your own personal anxieties: “am I doing the right thing?” The well documented phenomenon has its own term coined for it, but what is the psychology behind “cold feet”?
The expression itself dates back to the late 19th century. Its origin has largely been attributed by the Oxford English Dictionary to American author Stephen Crane. By the early 1900s, the phrase had made its way into mainstream vocabulary. And a few years later the term "cold-footer" was applied to those who were afraid to fight in the Great War.
Wartime usage and frost bitten toes aside, cold feet is a real and impactful phenomenon, and not uncommon. A four year long study conducted by researchers at UCLA in 2012, the first of it’s kind, was the first scientific study to test whether prior doubts about getting married are more likely to lead to an unhappy marriage and divorce. They studied 232 newlywed couples in Los Angeles, USA, surveying them within the first few months of their marriages and then conducting follow-up surveys every six months for the next four years. The researchers found that feelings of premarital doubt or uncertainty about an impending marriage were associated with future marital problems and a viable predictor of divorce. Interestingly, this effect was particularly pronounced when the bride to be was the party who expressed the doubt or uncertainty.
When asked, "Were you ever uncertain or hesitant about getting married?" at their initial interview, nearly half of the grooms (47%) vs 38% percent of the brides said yes. Yet while women were less likely than men to express doubts, their doubts were found to be more meaningful harbingers of upcoming trouble. Doubt proved to be a decisive factor, regardless of risk factors such as level of relationship satisfaction at the time of interview, parental divorce, cohabitation prior to marriage and how difficult the couple’s engagement was.
It is human nature to consider life impacting decisions carefully, and natural to worry about the repercussions of such choices. Commitment phobia can stem from a variety of different sources, and it can manifest in ways as varied as the people who suffer from it. Poor past romantic relationships, either firsthand or through observation of parental relationships, childhood trauma or unmet childhood needs or attachment issues. Getting cold feet before a wedding is common but on the other hand, feeling nervous about an important decision means that you truly care about the outcome. Such nerves can be resolved, and rest assured it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom and divorce courts. It is always worth looking deeply at any cause of anxiety as challenging fears and working together to resolve them help growth and cement relationships, ultimately leading to greater cohesiveness between you and your chosen teammate.