You Can Always Say 'I Don't'

The toughest question, as it turned out, wasn’t whether we could cancel the caterer or back out of the bakery order or renege on the reception hall. It was: What do we do with the odd combination of towels and kitchenware and lingerie that I got at my bridal shower? The answer we came up with was that when you’ve already used those particular items—this wasn’t crystal stemware still in the crates, after all—you take them as consolation prizes and move on.

Other than that awkward little anti-Emily Post moment, canceling my wedding was startlingly simple. I’m here to tell you that the practicalities of it all are the least of your worries. If you’re engaged—even if you aren’t having doubts—I suggest you spend a little less of your betrothal time on dress, shoe, and cake shopping and a little more contemplating what you want from a lifetime mate, if you’re truly ready to settle down, and whether this guy is really all he’s cracked up to be in your romantic fantasies. Once you’ve gotten through all that, I’d recommend skipping the caterer taste test in favor of some serious talks with your future husband about, well, everything—hopes, dreams, visions of the future, procreation, life philosophy, who’ll clean the toilets. (Don’t assume you know his answers; I was stunned by some of the stuff that came out of my beloved-of-ten-years’ mouth.) If you still want to say “I do” after all that, then I’ll be the first to toast to your lifelong happiness.

Whether you do, you don’t, or you’re not sure yet, there’s one thing all brides or potential brides absolutely must know: Calling things off isn’t that hard. The emotional cost, of course, is steep. I wouldn’t wish that giving-back-the-ring moment on my worst enemy. Telling someone you don’t want to spend your life with them is brutal. But no woman should let bully her into going along for the ride—no matter how many of those nagging “reminder” emails they send her—just because she won’t have anywhere else to wear that veil.

The bridal industrial complex, of course, would have you believe otherwise: They churn out massive magazines, books, and websites that pile on layer upon layer of instructions for planning the big day until you’re so tangled up in taffeta—and buttercream, and place cards, and bouquets—that you forget that between “Will you marry me?” and “Do you take this man?”, there’s plenty of room for “no, thanks.” You forget that, essentially, the industry purporting to “help” you has more invested in getting you down the aisle than you do.

Five decades ago, wedding magazines listed an average of 20 tasks on their bridal checklists over a recommended three-month planning period, notes Hana Schank, who wrote “A More Perfect Union”; nowadays, that’s up to 179 tasks over a year. “They only benefit from your stress,” she says. “You’re so busy obsessing about which color ribbon you want that it becomes easy to forget what the wedding is really about.”

It’s hard to tell how many couples call the whole thing off since there’s no registration authority (thank goodness) overseeing engagements. But the Catholic Church is the closest thing we’ve got to such a thing since they require premarital counseling, and they peg it at about 15 to 20 percent. My gut tells me that’s on target, if not a little low. Even in an age of self-confessionalism, it’s still not something everyone—particularly women, who in some circles still end up branded hopeless spinsters—likes to broadcast. “This phenomenon is just starting to be talked about,” says Rachel Safier, author of “There Goes the Bride.” “Some people react to it like, ‘Oh, you’re a transvestite?’”

We sometimes forget, I think, that we always have the right to say “no” to marriage. We’ve come a long way toward independence, but we were still raised to dream of our wedding day, when everything would be about us and everyone would know we’d done something right. Why do you think it’s so much fun to show off your engagement ring? Because it’s a symbol that somebody not only loves you, but loves you enough, all the way, as much as possible. You snagged a man. You won. Anything else—your Pulitzer Prizes, your Oscars, your Nobels—is incidental to this accomplishment. And so much more difficult to wear on your hand. “Women feel like they’re going to be judged based on this one day in terms of their worth as a woman and ultimately as a wife,” Schank says. “And the pressure’s definitely getting worse.”

My grandmother always told my sister and me, “When a man asks you to marry him, you say yes.” We would laugh, poke fun at her old-fashioned sentiment. But the fact is that when it came to that moment—the proposal—I thought exactly that: It never occurred to me to say no. Granted, I did love my fiancé at the time, and I was genuinely excited to marry him after a decade of dating since college. But when a man hits his knee and hands you a diamond and tells you he wants to spend eternity with you, it’s tough to imagine saying “nah.”

It only gets worse from there, as you put down thousands of dollars in deposits on reception spaces and caterers, fill out order forms for cakes and invitations, get a pricey dress fit precisely to your dimensions, and purchase that damn veil. I wasn’t shocked in the slightest by that famous “runaway bride” debacle last year, or by the fact that the poor girl in question looked a little loopy—the perceived pressure of planning this sometimes-monstrous event could drive anyone to hop the next bus out of town. A now-divorced friend of mine recently told me, as we discussed my own wedding cancellation, “I never realized that I could’ve just stopped it. That seemed so hard.”

I thought so at the time, too. Even as I expressed my growing doubts about marriage to my fiancé—my life had suddenly, rapidly changed after moving to New York City and getting my dream job at Entertainment Weekly, and I was reassessing what I wanted for my future—my stomach constantly pulsed with anxiety. And it was over dollar amounts, not emotional quandaries. Would we have to pay for the rest of the reception-space cost if I called it off? What kinds of contracts had we signed in our premarital bliss? Would we be stuck with hundreds of mini-quiches and mounds of chocolate-raspberry cake? How could we tell all of our guests—whom we’d sent save-the-date cards in the heady early days of our engagement—to stop saving the damn date?

In the end, it came down to our last-chance-to-order-invitations day—and that’s no coincidence. I knew the deadline precisely, as any good bride does, and that’s when I pulled the plug. Once I told my fiancé, I sunk into such an emotional funk that I was numb as I moved backwards through my wedding-planning checklist to undo it all. I braced myself through the first few calls for some sort of protest from the vendors, or maybe a demand for more money … but a process I imagined might take a few weeks took mere hours, and everyone couldn’t have been nicer. “Okay, well, I’m sorry to hear that,” they said with nary a hint of shock. “Good luck with everything.” Over and over, they said almost exactly the same thing, from the caterer to the bakery to the DJ—as if this was in the training manual, as if this happened all the time. Of course, we lost the deposit on the reception space, but we were prepared for that. And $2,000 is nothing compared with the lawyer’s fees—not to mention the emotional cost—that would’ve come with a divorce.

So when in doubt, say no—or at least cancel or postpone until you feel nothing but an unequivocal “yes.” The caterer is the last person you should be worrying about—and you can always make a cute throw pillow out of that veil.


Author: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong grew up deep in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, then escaped to New York to live in a succession of very small apartments and write about pop culture. In the process, she became a feminist, a Buddhist, and the singer/guitarist in an amateur rock band. She also spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly, cofounded, and now writes for several publications, including Women’s Health, Runner’s World, Writer’s Digest, Fast Company, and New York‘s Vulture. Her history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2013; her collaboration with Heather Wood Rudulph, Sexy Feminism, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2013. She is the author of the Why? Because We Still Like You, a history of the original Mickey Mouse Club published by Grand Central in 2010. She has provided pop culture commentary for CNN, VH1, A&E, and ABC, and teaches article writing and creative writing. Follow her on Twitter: @jmkarmstrong


  1. amanda says:

    No one talks about what happens after the wedding, ie that you dont just get married, grow old and die. Marriages require work, and I wish people would tell that to little girls too!


  1. [...] eventually broke up for a million interrelated, complicated reasons, the buildup of ten years of sacrifices and regrets [...]

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