Should I be content with my engagement? Suddenly I’m nervous … | Leading questions

Should I be content with my engagement? Suddenly I’m nervous

Making a big choice means declining an alternative future, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Is it the loss of possibility that’s troubling you?

The Bride of Lammermoor painting by John Everett Millais

I am getting married soon to my partner of six years and all of a sudden I feel really nervous and unsure about it. I do love him but we started dating when we were very young and, although our thoughts and ideas align well as we have grown together, I still wonder if I could be better matched to someone else. I feel terrible for having these thoughts as I know he doesn’t. I know he will be an amazing husband and we can have a nice life together but I miss the passion of the early stages of a relationship.

A new co-worker has started at my workplace and we have had some flirtatious moments. It felt good to be seen in that way by someone else, however I wouldn’t dare take that further. But I get on really well with him and find myself wanting to talk to him all the time. I wonder if having conflicting thoughts like these is a bad sign. Shouldn’t I be completely content with my engagement and excited to marry someone I love?

Eleanor says: While “I do love him, but” isn’t ever quite what you want to say about your fiance, I think your question houses a subtle distinction. Does this discontent lie within the relationship itself, or in what the commitment represents? Is there anything wrong with your actuality – or are you simply grieving the loss of possibility?

That second kind of dissatisfaction, the loss of possibility, often envelops us in the lead-up to big commitments. Once we’ve settled on the big move, the career decision, the relationship milestone, a deflating sense of anticlimax can creep in. I think it’s because these moments mean our vision of how things might be starts to come into sharper resolution – we start to see how things really will be, and therefore, at the same time, what they won’t be. For every big choice we make we decline an alternative future. We say to ourselves that those doors are closed, and the versions of life that lie behind them will stay hushed and inanimate.

That can be hard to stomach. Especially for the choices that take us from youthful things to grown-up things, from freedom to responsibility; they can make us feel as though we’re running out of possibilities. Sometimes that’s why flirtations have such kerosene power in moments of life transition – before a marriage, in midlife. It’s not so much that we’re transfixed by that particular other person but that we’re transfixed by getting to see ourselves, briefly, the way they do – as an unknown, as someone who crackles with possibility.

It would be peculiar if you felt nothing like this as you approach your wedding. The whole point of getting married is that your life changes as a result. You promise to take another person’s wellbeing as seriously as your own. That’s a big decision about how your future looks (and how it doesn’t).

But, if you really love someone, what on the surface looks like a “loss of possibility” should in fact feel like the exact opposite. True, monogamous marriage means you turn down the possibility of a new relationship, or the thrill of chemistry with a stranger, but what you get instead is the vast breadth of future that opens up between people who want to make a life together.

When you really love each other, that seems expansive, not constraining. It makes you feel that there is more of you, and more of the world – more future; more possibility; more freedom – not less. This is one of the great mysteries of love and commitment – how we could, by taking on responsibilities to each other, come to feel more like ourselves.

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If the alterations that marriage asks of you already seem unwelcome and constricting, that’s when I would want to pause. Your partner will not want a spouse who sees your union as a sacrifice – as something that robs you of the openness you long for.

You asked whether you should feel completely content and, while the answer to that is almost always no, it is important to distinguish between kinds of discontent. Losing any kind of possibility can leave a trail of melancholy. But if you can’t see the glow of different, exciting possibilities within your new commitment – that’s when it might be time to wonder.


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