How to Break Off an Engagement, With Expert Advice and Guidance
When you say "yes" to that long-awaited question "Will you marry me?" you never imagine that the reality won't actually play out—that you won't actually walk down the aisle and say "I do" to the love of your life. Yet, approximately 20 percent of all engagements are called off before the wedding day approaches.
What's more: The number is likely even higher, as broken engagements are not usually reported, and many people may be hesitant to disclose due to the complicated emotions associated with such a scenario, Marisa Cohen, Ph.D., M.F.T., relationship researcher, psychology professor and therapist, points out. "The timing in which engagements end can vary dramatically, and as a result, the variability of how the partners move on post engagement may look very different," she says. "Some engagements may end shortly after the proposal, whereas others may end the day of the wedding."
No matter when during the engagement period things fall apart, it is understandably difficult for both parties involved. Fear, guilt, doubt, sadness and grief are just a handful of emotions that a person might experience when considering breaking off an engagement. "The precipitating factors for the breaking off of the engagement will play a role in the emotions people have about it," says Phebe Brako-Owusu, LMFT. "If it is as simple as realizing there is a lack of compatibility, there may be sadness about losing this person as a partner; however, for situations like a partner having an affair and feeling the need to break off their engagement, the emotions may be more complex, to include guilt for the pain they have caused their partner and even relief that they are taking steps to not cause further damage."
While understandably scary, anxiety-provoking and sad, you have every right to break off your engagement if you feel that marrying this person is no longer the right decision for you. Here, relationship experts share their best advice for how to handle the process of breaking off an engagement.
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How to Break Off an Engagement
If you're considering breaking off your engagement, you might be feeling overwhelmed and unsure where to even begin. Here's how to move through the process, leading with respect and kindness.
Think About the Long Term
It's a lot easier to think about what feels good right now—but marriage is a long-term decision. It's important that you can picture your life with this person in five, 10 and 20 years from now. "My professor once said, 'When you pick your partner, you pick your problems for life,'" shares Brako-Owusu. "So you have to ask yourself, 'Is this someone I can see myself with in a decade or two, still fighting these battles?'"
Put Yourself First
Brako-Owusu recommends taking some time to think about the implications of your engagement ending—not for your partner, or for your parents, or their parents, but for you. Don't worry about what other people might think—your friends, your colleagues, your potential in-laws. "You have to think about how you can function on the stage of your relationship—Will you be happy? Will you have your needs met if you move forward to a bigger commitment like marriage?" she says. "If your answer is 'no,' then it is worth thinking about the viability of the relationship."
Explore Relational Patterns
Sometimes, factors that trigger us to consider breaking off an engagement may be intrinsic or related to relationships we've had in the past. This is why it can be helpful to examine past relationships and family dynamics to identify recurring patterns, notes Colette Sachs, L.M.S.W., Associate Therapist. "This exploration fosters a heightened awareness of your relationship tendencies and provides valuable insights into your emotional landscape," she says. "Engage in introspective practices such as journaling or therapy to unearth subconscious fears and desires, allowing for a more nuanced understanding of your motivations."
Communicate Openly and Honestly
Clear communication is crucial when considering breaking off an engagement. Brako-Owusu recommends giving yourself the chance to practice some of these conversations in the mirror to get your words straight. "If you have the space and capacity to talk to your partner about your consideration, do so in an honest way, communicating your emotions, needs and what has led to this possible decision," she adds.
Seek Outside Help
It's wonderful if you have a supportive group of friends and/or family members, but it can also be helpful to enlist the help of a professional mental health clinician during such a pivotal and emotionally charged time in your life. "Engaging in couples counseling or individual therapy can provide a supportive environment to explore concerns and make decisions with the guidance of a trained professional," says Sachs. "Exploring these doubts with an individual who is impartial can foster a space in which you can gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play, fostering effective communication and providing a supportive environment for both partners to navigate the complexities of breaking off an engagement, regardless of the ultimate decision."
Slow Down and Embrace Uncertainty
Sachs suggests trying your best to resist the urge to rush decisions in the face of uncertainty. Instead, she recommends allowing yourself the time and space to sit with discomfort. "Assess the compatibility of your values, goals and lifestyles, while also acknowledging that uncertainty is a natural part of life and relationships, and by embracing it, you create room for a clearer perspective to emerge over time," she adds.
When Should You Break Off an Engagement?
There is no right or wrong time to break off an engagement; but rather the right time for you, or when it no longer feels right. "For some people, it may be more sudden, as in the case of a breach of trust, while, for others, it may be more gradual, especially if they are noticing a distance between themselves and their partner and are trying to make the best decision for the both of them," notes Dr. Cohen. "If you are unsure and need help processing the complex emotions and thoughts you are experiencing, I highly recommend the support of a mental health clinician," she says.
What to Say When Breaking Off an Engagement
There is no blueprint or script you should follow when breaking off an engagement with someone, especially someone you care about deeply. The most important thing to do is to speak from your heart and to be as respectful as possible. Brenna McGee, a licensed marriage and family therapist and coach based in Albany, California, recommends rehearsing some of what you want to say beforehand so that it comes out smooth when you speak to your partner. She also suggests trying to avoid behaviors or actions that might be an attempt to make your partner break off the engagement instead. "It can be much slower and more painful to heal from actions that require more self forgiveness, even if it adds a tempting finality to the breakup," she adds.