Calling Off A Wedding After Illness

Emily Takes Photos

About a month before our scheduled wedding in July, I was rushed by ambulance to a hospital three hours away for emergency surgery to remove a tumor the size of a raquetball from my brain.

Less than a week before that, I had told my fiancé that I had doubts about marrying him.

It took tremendous courage for me to admit to my fiance the questions that had plagued me since we became engaged. When I grew violently ill the morning after telling him—the first dramatic sign of things to come—I became completely dependent on the person whose world I had just shattered.

It was not a good summer.

My takeaway message? Sometimes you have to dig really deep into yourself, into really painful places, to find that voice telling you the next move to make. Other times you need to have patience and listen.

We moved to a new city about a year ago so he could take a job offer and I could pursue my dream of going into business for myself. We rented a charming house in a historic neighborhood. We befriended the neighbors. I picked up one solid freelance client and a few months later landed another. He enjoyed his job far more than the one he left. We spent weekends hiking in nearby mountains and checking out different parts of town. At first we were very, very happy.

The move came at a difficult point for us. We had been together almost six years, and we were both feeling somewhat burnt out on our jobs, our living situation, and the high cost of renting where we did. The new city was three hours away and took care of all of those problems. Deep down I prayed that it was the outside issues, not him, that were fueling my discontent. I hoped he was who I was taking my frustrations out on, not the source of them. We ramped up planning for our wedding.

Slowly I realized, no. With those old issues fixed, I could no longer pass my unhappiness off on something else. I had to address our relationship.

We got together in 2005, right before I was diagnosed with a disease that causes fast-moving organ failure. (Yeah. Seriously.) He held my hand while I had IV treatments that left me sick for three days; he kissed my skin after I injected medicine; he humored my cooking while I endured different diets. Finally, he slept on the floor of my hospital room the night after I had a transplant in 2007. I felt so lucky. I had heard nightmares of husbands who abandoned their wives when the women became sick. I didn’t have one of those guys. Mine brought me pizza in bed.

For two years I was blissful. I felt better and stronger. I grew tomatoes in the back yard and we vacationed in the Canadian Rockies. I couldn’t wait to get married. Then, for lack of a better analogy, I began to understand how allies who fight together to conquer an evil foe then fight each other. We were partners in the fight against my illness. After that, our differences became too much. We tried so hard to save it. We got engaged. We went to one counselor after another. We fought and cried. We took new jobs and moved three hours away. In the end, I felt like the car windshield wipers that start out in time with your song and then slowly go completely off.

We cancelled our wedding because I had my skull cut open and a tumor taken out of my head. We never rescheduled. I moved out the week before Thanksgiving.

I’m not going to discuss our dirty laundry in a public forum. But I will say that I tried absolutely everything I could, short of changing the essence of myself, before I made the decision to leave. The man I was to marry is a wonderful, incredible man. I don’t want to look back and say, “If only I’d done one more thing.” Hopefully, I won’t.

I know my health threats are different than most. But I will offer what advice I can for others thinking of calling off their own weddings, and for life in general.

1. Fund a savings account. I wasn’t planning on thousands of dollars in medical bills when I started thinking about how I could afford to move out. Fortunately I had money saved to do both, and it’s not because I have a sky-high salary. I can’t describe the peace of mind this gives me. (If you need to have a talk with yourself and/or your significant other about setting financial priorities, I highly recommend reading personal finance columnist Michelle Singletary with the Washington Post).

2. Do what you need to do to try and save your relationship. But realize when you’ve given it your all and when going any farther would mean compromising your principles. This could mean staying longer than you want to and going to counseling. But it also will let you walk away with more confidence in your decision.

3. Don’t ignore that voice deep down inside telling you to go. This might require taking off the pillows and whatever else you’ve used to muffle it for so long. Be still. Listen. Address it. It’s saying these things for a reason. Figure out why.

The peace I feel after calling off my wedding reminds me slightly of the relief I felt after paying off my massive credit card debt after college. It’s been very, very hard. I’ve had to make significant sacrifices—namely, my vision for the future and the man I thought would stand next me. I’m still fragile and need time to heal. But the calm confidence I have now is worlds better than giving off the image of a perfect relationship that, really, is not.

Photo by: Emily Takes Photos from the APW Flickr Pool

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  • Alicia

    You have a lot of courage and strength. This was a great read.

    On a completely different note, I’d like to second reading Michelle Singletary!

  • Ceebee

    I want to hug you

  • Denzi

    It sounds like you did the right thing, all the way through, even though it was the hard thing. I hope you have wonderful people around you to support you while you heal.

  • Kelsey

    Wow, this was an incredible post….. Thank you so much for writing it. I completely agree with your advice at the end, as well. Very well said, all around.

  • April

    You are so brave, dearest! Thank you for sharing your story. Much love to you as you continue to heal in body and spirit. XO

  • I can’t imagine how much strength you must have to have lived all that and then to be able and willing to share it. Thank you for that.

  • PA

    This reminded me, powerfully, of my time spent in the hospital during my first year out on my own. My boyfriend at the time came with me to the hospital at 3 in the morning and barely left my side, barely slept or ate for the four days. He went to find the nurses when I ran out of painkillers, he held my hand while the surgery was done (I had to be awake), and he arranged for people to come visit me.

    The painkillers were strong opiates, and I honestly don’t remember much from those days, but I do remember my utter misery every time a nurse would whisper to me, “Oh, honey, he’s such a keeper.” It didn’t matter how much he cared, it just wasn’t right.

    Whoever you are, author, I applaud your courage to be on your own at a time when things probably seemed even more unsettled and anxious than usual. It took incredible strength to be honest with yourself like that. Best wishes to you!

    • Class of 1980

      Agree. “Being there” is only one component of a successful relationship.

  • Class of 1980

    It sounds like the illness derailed you from finding out if you were compatible early on. It’s no one’s fault. There’s nothing more you can do, except thank him for his help and wish him the best.

    It’s always great when you can prevent a divorce by not marrying the wrong person in the first place, so good for both of you!

    • This is totally what I saw in this article as well.

      Yes, he is a good man. Yes, he did loads for you. No, he’s not the right one for you. And marrying would have been wrong – for him as well.

      After all he did for you, trapping yourselves in a gradually disintegrating marriage that would have ended in divorce and possibly got nasty would have been one of the worst things you could have done, so dont forget you have saved him from that, as well as yourself.

      I hope you feel better soon!

    • Melissa

      I believe it was Class of 1980 who, in a reply on my post about divorce, said that divorce (or calling off a wedding, in your case) was the death of a dream. It was one of the realest and best responses I got, and I held onto that thought very tightly while I healed (still do, in fact).

      Here’s hoping your new dreams turn out to be fantastic.

      (Side note: thanks, Class of 1980.)

      • Class of 1980

        Hmmm. It wasn’t me! But glad it helped. ;)

      • meg

        I think it was LPC, actually.

        • Melissa

          Well, my mistake then, sorry. Still great advice, regardless of who I owe thanks to.

        • Wise women, both.

    • Ceebee

      I kinda feel sometimes illness derails your discovery or numbs you too much but so glad you had the time and space to figure it out even though the wedding train was chugging so fast. and I’m glad you were well enough to jump off

  • “Be still. Listen.” I am learning more and more to listen to my gut. I remember one early relationship when we were moving towards marriage, but anytime I thought about walking up the aisle to this person I would get nauseous. I learned to banish that image so quickly because, you know, I loved them! Now I see I could have saved myself so much time and grief (and them, too… I needed to be honest with them).
    Thank you for sharing your experience, for honoring your truth, I hope your feeling of peace only grows.

  • ErinB

    Wow. I’ve been away from APW for a while, and just called off my wedding yesterday. This post comes at the perfect time for me. Thank you.

    • PA

      I hope you’re doing … well, as well as can be expected! *Sends e-hugs*

    • meg

      We’re sending our love. And, good job. Brave and hard.

      • ErinB

        Thank you. Even the smallest encouragement goes a long way these days.

  • Anonymous

    Wow. I have no idea how to respond to this. But I’m doing it, because I desperately need to. You are brave. Beyond words. I see a better version of myself in your words. And this is why I love APW. I feel like everyone here knows me. Regardless of how terrible I am at commenting. Regardless of the fact that I don’t intend to have a wedding. But, but… something has been nagging me for so long and it’s in this post.

    Deep inside. I have a nagging voice. Unfortunately my voice simply says “What if…”. It remembers my first love. My deepest love. The one that wrenches my guts when I think of it. Of him. Our affairs, our intertwined lives, the passion, my soul mate, we were so young and immature, I always went back to him. Over the course of 10 years. But not this time…

    Thinking of him now, tears me apart inside. Because I’m in a committed relationship. A long one. Nearly a decade. And we are committed. Monogamous. We have a house. We share everything. Except this tiny nagging voice. There are dreams, deep longing dreams for the old love, always saying “What if…”.

    • Rachel

      I wish someone would do a post on this! I feel the same way.

      • Anonymous

        I am engaged to a wonderful man but I worry often whether it is the right relationship for me. I am stuck because I go back and forth between it feeling so right and letting the little things completely overwhelm me and questioning whether something better is out there for both of us. I am a worrier by nature and I know that with the issues I struggle with, I will likely find fault with anyone. This relationship is so much better and deeper than anything I have ever been in before. And yet…I can’t help but wonder if I’m settling. Are the little voices in the back of my mind asking for perfection or are they giving valid warning that this one isn’t right.

        • Anonymous

          Right?! “They” say when you know, you just know. But after 7 years, I still don’t know :(

        • MDBethann

          It’s tricky, isn’t it? Sometimes the little voice is right. And other times, the little voice is an imp looking at the past with rose-colored glasses. There were a few times before I met FH that I had considered getting back together with an ex, but usually I managed to remember why it didn’t work out in the first place. Then, I did briefly reunite with an ex (right before I met FH) and fortunately realized pretty quickly that the reasons for breaking up with him were all still there, so I ended it for good. And then met FH, who was right for me. I got lucky.

          That said, maybe the nagging voice does mean things aren’t alright with the man you’re with now, but it also doesn’t mean that the ex is worth going back to either. Comparing relationships is risky and dangerous because each is different. It’s probably best to evaluate your current relationship on its own merits compared to who you are now and what you want out of life and how well those things go together. And seeking help from an impartial third party in making that evaluation could help.

          As for settling, I have had this conversation several times with one of my single friends who has a “crush” that she doesn’t know really well and then 2 guys who she is seeing and getting to know. She often questions if she’s “settling” by not going for the “crush” or the “ideal” guy. But, as I’ve told her, how do you – or anyone else – know that the crush or the wonderful ex is all you imagine them to be? I think the real questions to ask yourself are:
          -Do you love who you are with?
          -Are you happy with them?
          -Can you see yourself spending your life with them?

          And engage an impartial third party – pastor, counselor, SOMEONE – to talk about your doubts or concerns.

          I don’t think settling is giving up on your ideal/crush/dream ex, but rather not being true to yourself and having “yes” answers to questions like the 3 I posed above.

          In some way, I think we all go through this exercise, consciously or not, when we decide we want to marry/commit to our significant other, and hopefully our “yes” answer is based upon an honest assessment of what we really want in and for our lives.

          I wish the readers struggling with these little voices all the best and that they come out on the other side of whatever decision they make at peace with their decision. Hugs to you all.

          • Becky2

            One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about relationships was from a co-worker. It relates to distinguishing the imp voice from a red flag voice. I was discussing some things that were troubling me about my relationship and she said, “There’s always going to be something about someone you don’t like. It’ll be a different thing with a different partner. The trick is finding out what you can live with.” I found it really helpful to consider what one can accept as one’s natural human foibles vs. what is a red flag. There’s not necessarily always a “better” just “different stuff that bugs us.” Just throwing it out there.

          • Ceebee

            #1 do you love who you are when you are with them
            is almost like the holy grail, the infinite wisdom, the Only rule.

        • Newtie

          I second the advice to talk about your worries to a third party! Talk to a close friend, if you can, someone who knows you well enough to know when you’re having a “grass is always greener” moment and when you’re having legitimate doubts. One of my good friends got married despite having nagging lingering fantasies about an ex, then got divorced less than a year later and has now been with the ex (happily!) for several years. If she had told us (her friends) about her doubts before the wedding, I think we could have helped her save herself from a lot of heartache – when she finally opened up, it was pretty clear to everyone else that the things that were worrying her were more than just “grass is always greener” type thoughts. But before the wedding she was too embarrassed to admit her doubts, and kept telling herself “everyone has cold feet,” etc. Confide in someone – don’t sit with your worries alone!

          • Rachel

            What types of things were worrying your friend that finally indicated to her it was more than “the grass is always greener?” type doubts?

        • Ceebee

          I guess the difference between cold feet and real wrong is what you tell yourself.
          Pop quiz – guess which is which:
          I can do this – I’m going for the greater good- everybody’s happy – everybody has issues
          I want to do this – my life is infinitely better – I’m happy – I know why I’m doing this

          I’ve never liked Carrie Bradshaw but I agree with her on one thing. Never settle for less than butterflies.

          And when girls said He makes me laugh, I never got it. Till after I joined the WhatIf Club. It was one of my biggest flags. That no one else makes me laugh like that, and no one else gets my jokes.

    • AlsoAnonymous

      Oh man. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been having the “What ifs” intensely; even more so because I never was with my first love, and we’re still in touch, and still affectionate. It feels like that relationship never came to pass, and like it should. But he is in another country, and it would feel so odd to leave a relationship for the hope of something that might not happen.

      • Anonymous

        I know this may be controversial to say, but I just don’t think everyone finds their perfect match. And through history and across cultures, we are in a very unique place where we promote that as the ideal to live up to.

        So do I think my partner is the perfect person for me (not perfect, just perfect for me)? No, not really. But I do care about him a great deal as he does for me. We enjoy being together, I can live with his quirks as he seems to be able to handle mine, I can see a lot of happiness in our future and I’ve always been able to picture him at the end of the aisle so to speak. I would love to find someone who is my best friend and equal partner in everything, not just some things, who makes me laugh hysterically and thinks I am hilarious in turn. I would love to feel that I am my best self with him all the time. But I don’t think the odds of finding that person are high in this crazy world.

        There is a Swedish word that roughly translates to something both like “just enough” and “just right”. And I guess at the end of the day, that’s how I feel about my relationship. We have a lot of great things going for us and many more in our future. I do feel some jealousy toward those people who seem to have found something closer to “perfect for them”, but given a choice between the possibility of a future “unpartnered” (and don’t get me wrong – I had some really fabulous adventures during my single years) and an imperfect partner, I choose this. I believe this is as close as I come to perfect for me. I’ve always been one to seek the next best thing, the next big adventure, the happier place, so this is a difficult place for me to come to. But sometimes just enough is just right.

        • Parsley

          Yes! I think our cultural story about soul-mates and the ONE can be really destructive sometimes – the story that there’s one perfect person you’re supposed to be with and when you find that person, everything will be easy and wonderful and you will never have any doubts ever about anything. I just don’t think that’s a true story. Sometimes doubts are real and should be listened to, but every relationship, no matter how wonderful is work, and sometimes hard. I have no magic answer to the how do you know what is the “imp” and what is a red flag, but for me, letting go of the idea that I was looking for my perfect match, and switching to an understanding that I was looking for someone I would choose to be with and commit to working on our relationship with helped me hugely.

  • There are echoes of the Atlanta book talk in this. When we as women don’t talk about money, we screw ourselves and each other. So THANK YOU, so much, for putting it out there that everyone needs a savings account. One of my dear friends has no bank account or debit or credit cards and it disturbs me deeply. Money is an important tool that gives us choices, and we should never give that up.

    • Class of 1980

      Money = More and Better Choices and More Peace of Mind

      No Money = Fewer and Worse Choices and Less Peace of Mind

    • meg

      Money, for me, as a kid who grew up without a ton (but the bills were always paid) and with friends who really had none… is about having choices and having some security. You can walk away from all kinds of things with money in the bank: abusive jobs, shitty parters, terrible renting situations. It gives you the power to really own your life. That, and taking away worry are what money is REALLY about for me.

      • PA

        This can even extend to your career: my financial accounting teacher advised us to have a, “go to hell” account – money that means you never have to be dependent on the pay someone gives you, and when they ask you to do something immoral or otherwise shady, you can just tell them to go to hell and walk out.

  • Marguerite

    I’m so glad you wrote this. It makes me feel so much less alone. My ex and I traveled a similar road, though with a much different set of health and life issues. It is SO HARD to trust that tiny voice in the face of the other person’s wonderfulness, support, and love. Like you, I am also enjoying the new peace in my life, despite (maybe because of?) the high cost.

  • Jennifer

    Hugs to you. We do the best we know how to do as we’re doing it. The very best thing you can do for yourself is to trust that you do in fact know what is best for you.

  • Z

    This is a really moving post. Thank you for writing it. And this is kind of shallow maybe, but this sentence:

    In the end, I felt like the car windshield wipers that start out in time with your song and then slowly go completely off.

    is just perfect. It’s such a vivid image.

    • meg


  • Moz

    I wish you nothing but the best. Be well and happy.

  • I kind of wish I could send you an “Amen”, “What she said,” and a hug wrapped up in a gift basket. So this is the next best alternative:

    Amen to listening to that voice that tells you when something is not right. Too often women endanger themselves (physically, emotionally, etc) because we don’t trust our own instincts.

    What she said. “But I will say that I tried absolutely everything I could, short of changing the essence of myself, before I made the decision to leave. The man I was to marry is a wonderful, incredible man. I don’t want to look back and say, “If only I’d done one more thing.” Hopefully, I won’t.” You have a clear conscience, which is the best sometimes we can ask for.

    Hugs all around to each and everyone who faces the difficult choice of staying or going. You are certainly not alone. I can only say this from my experience, but it most certainly gets better.

  • ML

    i haven’t commented in several months – newly single i feel a little out of place, but this post moved me so deeply. thank you, meg, for posting. thank you, anonymous, for having the courage and talent to put it all so eloquently.

    in the fall, my boyfriend and i ended our long term relationship. not because there wasn’t love, but because, for me at least, it wasn’t the kind of love i wanted to share with my life partner. “the little voice” tugged at me almost to the point of a breakdown, but i intellectually knew that i loved him, that he is a good, special man, and so i continued to convince myself that that voice was wrong. i put all of my energy into figuring out how to love him well.

    i got to a point where i couldn’t tell if my anxiety was suffocating my relationship, or if the relationship was igniting the flames of anxiety. i would experience waves of overwhelming love – that feeling of everything being “right” – and then just as quickly as it came, the certainty would be gone.

    we were given a lot of work-related space from each other last year. enough to admit that our lives were going in different directions at completely different speeds. that we couldn’t love the way the other person needed it, and that we didn’t feel loved the way we wanted to be.

    it’s hard, and lonely, to be on my own again. but my brain and my gut are no longer tearing each other apart. and that’s exciting. it feels good.

    • Jen

      I am in the same situation as you. Sending love!

      What I learned from my relationship is to trust my gut, as well. I like how you phrased it – not feeling loved the way you needed. This was one of my problems, among many.

      And I feel so much relief over getting rid of the constant stress he put me in!

      • ML

        sending love to you, too! deep breaths & movement. :)

    • formerballerina

      As someone who watched what I thought was the love of my life drive away (exactly a year ago today actually), I know how heart-wrenching it can be. But I found that I breathed a sigh of relief. He is a great person, an incredibly giving person, but it became clear that we were not going the same direction.

      The friction between what you feel you should feel and that small voice is maddening. One powerful piece of writing has helped me start making sense of all of it: which is summed up by the line “Because wanting to leave is enough”

  • Warrior Woman.

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  • Jilly

    Sometimes leaving is the best we can do for us and the other person. I also ended my engagement after a serious illness to a man who stood by me. It was heart breaking to hurt him. Through my illness, surgeries and hospital stays I realized he was a wonderful man who I really had nothing in common with. But I was always going 100 mph and didn’t realize how fundamentally different we were in the core of our being. I learned what was important laying in a hospital bed. I am still emmensly thankful to our mutual friends who were there for both of us when I moved out. I even lived with them for a year. After 10 years I still know it was the best decision I could have made for both of us. He just got married to a woman he knew in HS, and I am thrilled for them both! He’s a kind, good person and I’ve wanted this for him! I am single and living by myself and LOVING my life. Although there is this one guy who…. :)