Got Cold Feet? It May Signal a Short Marriage

A bride's pre-wedding jitters may be a sign of marital dissatisfaction and divorce down the road

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The jittery bride and the ready-to-bolt groom are clichés for a reason: Las Vegas elopers and Britney Spears aside, most people don’t take the idea of lifelong commitment lightly. And now a new study finds that if the cold feet are wearing white heels, the marriage may not be long for this world.

In fact, a bride’s pre-wedding doubts more than double the odds of divorce, according to the new study. The research, which was published in the Journal of Family Psychology, included 464 newlyweds, who were interviewed separately every six months until their fourth year of marriage.

The groom’s qualms were not as dire: they did not predict marital dissolution. But either partner’s doubt was linked with lower satisfaction for that partner over time if the couple stayed together. For men, however, marital unhappiness was linked mainly with having a neurotic personality, which led them to worry about most things, not just whether to marry or stay married.

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Premarital angst was common, but fortunately, did not always predict divorce or lasting distress: 40% of women and 50% of men reported having had doubts. Indeed, a full two-thirds of the couples included at least one partner who wasn’t totally sure the marriage was a good idea. About half the couples shared either doubt or lack of doubt.

Within four years, 12% of the couples had divorced, and the chances of a split were higher among couples in which women had had cold feet: 8% of women without pre-wedding doubts had divorced, compared with 19% of women with doubts. In contrast, 9% of men who had felt confident about getting married ended up divorced, compared with 14% of those with doubts, but this difference was not statistically significant.

Even when the researchers controlled for other factors associated with risk of divorce like having divorced parents, experiencing a stormy engagement, being neurotic or having a neurotic partner, the link between female doubt and divorce remained. A difficult engagement reported by the wife, however, was not linked with divorce.

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The study has some important limitations: for one, the question about doubt was a simple yes or no query, so it doesn’t capture what types of doubts or what degree of doubt people had. Secondly, the couples were first interviewed during the first six months of their marriage, not during their engagement, so they might have retrospectively recalled pre-wedding doubt if things were already going south in their marriage. Still, early doubt wasn’t linked with marital satisfaction at six months, so that is not likely. Further, the couples were tracked in the early 1990s, when people tended to get married at earlier ages than they do now, so it’s not clear how generalizable the findings may be. Similarly, since all the couples were heterosexual, the implications for gay marriage are unclear.

Nevertheless, the authors conclude: “Doubt should not simply be dismissed as a normative experience or viewed as something that will go away once partners make a commitment to each other. Rather, feelings of premarital uncertainty should be validated, taken seriously and used as an opportunity for exploration.”

In other words, women with a serious case of cold feet might want to turn them around and run the other way.

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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.