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If your post-New Year’s Facebook stream was filled with blinding diamond rings and “I said yes!” captions, you’re not alone. December is the most popular month to get engaged, says TheKnot.com. The timing makes sense, despite the hectic schedules and added pressure that the holidays bring. After all, engagements are about starting a new family, and many couples want to share that joy with their own.
And a diamond equals happily ever after. Right? Actually, slipping on a ring can be more nerve-wracking than joyous. In fact, 20% of engagements end before the wedding actually happens, according to multiple studies. Just look at celebrities attempts at “I do’s.” It’s almost impossible to remember that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez were once engaged, or that Ryan Reynolds and Alanis Morrisette almost married. This week Gwyneth Paltrow talked about her engagement to Brad Pitt back in the nineties. Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth —whose “Will they or won’t they?” charade went on for years — and NFL hall-of-famer Michael Strahan and entrepreneur Nicole Murphy — who ended their five-year-betrothal in August 2014 — are more recent examples of broken promises. And just last month, Kate Hudson announced that her engagement to Muse frontman Matt Bellamy was over.
But despite being common practice, breaking off an engagement is one of the hardest things a woman can do, even if you’re sure you’re making the right choice. “We get caught up in the dream of a big wedding,” relationship coach Rachel DeAlto. “Intuition is crucial.” To determine whether or not what you’re feeling is just cold feet or a true need to flee, DeAlto suggests talking to an unbiased third party — whether that’s a friend or a counselor — about what you’re feeling. “I also ask people to write out why they’re having these feelings,” she says. “Keep writing until you figure out where the emotion is really coming from, whether it’s a fear of commitment or a fear of something else.”
Jill, 32, stayed engaged to a man for four years before backing out. “We started dating, fell in love and three months in, he proposed,” says the Sydney, Australia-based lawyer, who asked that her name be changed. “I remember thinking, ‘Why is he doing this? Everything is good.’” That marked the beginning of her uncertainty. “On our drive home, I felt weird. I didn’t want to tell people because I felt like they would mock us and question why we did it so fast.”
To appease the naysayers, Jill and her fiance decided to have a long engagement. Three years later, they finally set a date. It wasn’t long before she made the decision to leave. “In the four years we were together, I had finished my law degree and got a serious job. He had not done much,” she says. “He had always been quite reliant on his parents financially, and after losing his job went into a drug-fueled downward spiral. He was smoking bongs while I was defending litigants in court.” At this point, the couple had already bought a house together, but Jill still chose to end things before signing an even more serious legal contract. “I learned a lesson for my own kids— no serious decisions until you’re 30,” says Jill, who is now married to someone else.
Jill admits that she felt a certain pressure to say yes: “There’s always some element of that when the guy you love is on one knee, asking for your hand in marriage.” But for Alicia, 27, the doubt didn’t start percolating until later. “It was a beautiful proposal,” says the blogger and tv host, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Phoenix. “It wasn’t until a bit later that my stomach starting to turn and I’m sure his did, too.”
The couple, who were dating for a year before they got engaged, began planning the wedding almost immediately. “We had nearly everything done. Venue, church, dress etc.,” she says. “But six months into our engagement, we knew things weren’t right. Disagreements and issues kept us both from feeling the way a newly engaged couple should feel.” They broke up, as Alicia puts it, “quite dramatically,” just days after they had taken their official engagement pictures. She still speaks of her former fiance quite fondly, a physician who treats cancer patients. “He is an amazing doctor,” she says.
While these two women’s experiences couldn’t have been more different, their end result was the same: a sense that they made the right decision. But what if it does get messy, without thousands of dollars spent and hundreds of gifts already bought? It can be hard not to loathe oneself after inconveniencing so many others. “You really have to be compassionate with yourself,” says DeAlto. “You have to remember that while it might be the hardest thing you ever do, the payoff is so great.”
As for whether you have to give back the ring? If you’re the one ending the engagement, it’s probably the right thing to do. (Both Jill and Alicia returned theirs.) But it’s not necessarily the thing you have to do. Every state has a different law about this: some say that if you are engaged on a holiday, a ring can be deemed a gift. Other consider it a legally binding contract, which means you must return it, since you broke the agreement. But that’s neither here nor there. Argues DeAlto, “Why would you want something that represents what you don’t want?”