- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

She gave the ring back, but she kept the dress. Rachel Safier, a 33-year-old Washington resident, was two weeks away from her wedding day when it was called off. She knows very well the wisdom of a saying she credits to Marriage Savers, a D.C.-based pro-marriage group: “Better the broken engagement than a tragic divorce.”The story of an almost-wedding might seem like a tale not worth telling, a story with no end, no cake or champagne. But Ms. Safier proves that’s not so with her new book, “There Goes the Bride: Making Up Your Mind, Calling It Off and Moving On,” personal tales of women who had the photographer, a date and the heirloom ring, but never went through with the “I do.”“In a society with such a high divorce rate, a greater acceptance and visibility for broken engagements is a big part of the solution,” Ms. Safier writes.Hers is just one of several recent books not about divorce itself, but about how to stop a potential disaster in its tracks, suggesting the culture has shifted from being accepting of divorce to being desperately scared of it.Why are today’s couples looking to the bookshelf for answers? Prior generations entered marriage without such advice books and usually without having cohabited as a “test run.”Susan Piver, who wrote the popular 2000 book “The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say ‘I Do,’ ” says couples have not always needed to read books on how to figure out whether a person is right or wrong for them.”We come from parents or families where either parents or grandparents were handed a vision for marriage — [based on] a culture, religion or social group,” Ms. Piver says.But all the rules have changed, she says, and without a vision for marriage, “you have to create it yourself, and nobody tells you how to do that.”David Popenoe, professor of sociology and co-director of Rutgers University’s National Marriage Project, has a few ideas about why people today are so hungry for advice.”There’s a tremendous amount of attention put on finding just the right soul mate,” he says. “There isn’t such a person out there; if you think there is, you’ll be continually disappointed.”Dark and unromantic-sounding, maybe, but Mr. Popenoe says it is easy to get caught in a bad dating cycle: finding someone seemingly perfect, then learning about their flaws and running off again to find the next “perfect person.”The rise in couples living together before marriage also suggests a reticence to marry hastily, says Pamela Smock, associate director of the Institute for Social Research and associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.”They’ve grown up in a time when levels of divorce are quite high. … Young men and women want to make sure they make the right choice and feel that cohabitation is one way to see if a person is right for them,” Ms. Smock says.Ms. Smock’s research has shown that the term “engagement” is tossed around much more loosely today than in the past and that cohabitation sometimes serves as a kind of informal, unspoken engagement.”Cohabitation, for many men and women, is about exactly this: determining whether a relationship should become a marriage. … Now over half of marriages are begun by cohabitations. This suggests that we’re seriously trying to answer these hard questions on our own.”Ms. Safier advises ladies who know in their guts that their relationships are wrong to cut them off, no matter how socially inappropriate it may seem. Her own story anchors the book, which is intended both as a peek inside the end of an engagement and as a getting-over-it guide.By including her own example and those of the women she dubs the “almost brides,” she hopes to help lift the taboo. Fear of seeming defective has long kept broken engagements hushed.”It’s like cancer 20 years ago,” she says over mango juice and a plate of eggs in Dupont Circle one recent day. She was surprised by the way people reacted when she became engaged. “I always thought ‘Congratulations’ was a strange thing,” she says, her blue eyes smiling, likening the expression to a welcome into a club. “But marriages are not the finish line.” Her family was supportive, but Ms. Safier was so amazed at some people’s responses that she started a computer file called “Idiot Quotes.” Some examples: “You should have made it work — he was nice and there aren’t many nice ones out there”; “Was it really that bad?”; “Is he gay?”“There Goes the Bride” contains some dramatic examples. One woman, who called herself Roxy, explained how she came home early from work one day and caught her live-in fiance off guard.”I went upstairs and there he was — in my missing silk panties, slip, and camisole, [with] his Hustler magazines. … He tried to explain that he was not gay … but that he was a cross-dresser. He said he’d always been that way, and if I loved him, he could teach me all about it. I said I’d just gotten through law school and that was the last teaching experience I needed, thank you.”Around 75 percent of those who pull the plug on the wedding day are women, said Ms. Safier, who added that she learned through interviews with wedding-day vendors that broken engagements were on the rise.Mr. Popenoe was surprised to hear that women are usually the ones who call off weddings and offered some perspective. “It’s like in divorce — women file more, but it’s not that the woman is always the one who wants out.”Perhaps, he also suggests, these would have been “inertia marriages,” in which the couple is living together and after a certain point, the woman begins pushing the idea of getting married. Seeing no way out and not wanting to rock the boat, the man agrees, but as the wedding approaches, he begins to send messages that he isn’t on board.When the woman realizes he isn’t into it, she calls off the wedding. “I know men are getting more and more anxious about commitment — especially those who comes from broken homes themselves,” he says.Beyond reading books, trying premarital counseling and generally not having “eyes on the fantasy,” Ms. Piver has two recommendations for terrified couples. The first is to slow down.”I don’t mean have a five-year engagement,” she says, but once they decide to get married, they should think deeply and tune into each other. “Don’t let the wedding industry or your family’s culture or religious culture take over your plans.”The second is to be a team. “This is the first step of your life together,” she says, noting that it “isn’t a good spirit” if one half of the couple is totally disinterested in making plans. Of course, “This doesn’t mean he has to choose your shoes for you,” but both people should be involved, eyes wide open.One gets a sense in talking to Ms. Safier that she has made peace with her difficult past year, and that she feels she narrowly escaped disaster.Ms. Safier had been living with her fiance when the day of reckoning came. She left the ring on their bed, packed a bag and left. The dog tried to follow her. The heartbreak that followed was eased, she says, by writing her book.”So many couples that would have divorced in a society without any cohabitation,” Ms. Smock says, “now have a premarital divorce of sorts — they end their cohabitation without marrying.”Several books released in recent years are intended to be straight talk for couples who are having trouble deciding whether to get married.•”What No One Tells the Bride,” by Marg Stark, 1998•”The Conscious Bride: Women Unveil Their True Feelings About Getting Hitched,” by Sheryl Nissensen, 2000•”Should We Stay Together? A Scientifically Proven Method for Evaluating Your Relationship and Improving Its Chances for Long-Term Success,” by Jeffry H. Larson, 2000•”The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say I Do,” by Susan Piver, 2000•”Before You Say I Do: Important Questions for Couples to Ask Before Marriage,” by Todd Outcalt, 1998•”Before You Say I Do: A Marriage Preparation Manual for Couples,” by H. Norman Wright and Wes Roberts, 1997

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