Surviving The Emotional Whiplash Of Canceling Your Wedding

4 things you need to know when you decide to call it off

Our wedding was going to be in my hometown, at a private winery surrounded by blooming lavender fields in Northern California. Our colors were pearl and magenta, and my dress was a strapless A-line. Catering was set to cook for 150 people, the florist was secured and ready with a million magenta gerbera daisies, our Episcopalian officiant booked, and we were working on choosing a first dance song. My mother had her dress, and his mother had booked a local Italian restaurant for the rehearsal dinner. (All of this was done, by the way, from New York before Pinterest, before text messaging, and when The Knot was still fairly brand new and making waves with its wedding calculator.) My best friend was working on her speech. The invitations were ready to go out the following Saturday, in a box near the couch.

And then my fiancé told me he didn’t want to have any more children, ever.

We canceled the wedding.

It wasn’t really about whether or not we’d have more children. There were huge waving screaming red flags from the beginning, and they all make this a good, juicy, exciting story. (Buy me a margarita sometime and I’ll spill the beans.) But weddings are canceled for all sorts of reasons, none of which should need to be measured or justified, so I’m skipping the details this time around. The important factor is the wave of relief that washed over me when I thought about canceling my nuptials. Relief is different from excitement; I didn’t wipe my hands off and immediately move on to a Better Life. There were a lot of emotions to sift through, a lot of difficult conversations, a lot of heartbreaking questions and answers. But I focused on the relief and put one foot in front of the other.

Whether it is neon warning signs or a small achy feeling in your gut, choosing to cancel your wedding is often more stressful and scary than not, especially once the train really starts speeding toward the station. The bigger the wedding, and the closer you are to the date, the more emotion and money is invested from all around you. For me there was a lot of pressure to get married because we’d had a baby, and I was choosing to walk away from the action that would essentially have righted the error of my ways. Also, my partner loved me and loved our daughter; there were a lot of reasons it “made sense” to get married. But it was better to struggle as a single-mom and face down my family’s moral opinions than make a legal, financial, celebratory, religious commitment to a life in which I was not happy.

People still tell me that it was a brave thing to cancel my wedding. I didn’t especially feel heroic about it, but it’s a concept I’ve mulled over for over ten years now, and I think I underestimate the pressure placed on engaged couples to seal the deal. I am not pro or anti-cancel, but I know there are people out there who are worried about the small voice inside begging them to wait, and I wish there were more readily available resources to help figure out what that voice means. Based on my experience, and the frightening variables that make this feel overwhelming, these are the five pieces of guidance that I wish were available to me when I was weighing the options and questioning “I do.”

1. You will survive. Everyone survives these things. I’m sure that, deep down, you already know this. The discomfort—the embarrassment, the tears, the unknown—can feel excruciating, but it will pass. I felt overwhelming relief when the wedding was canceled, but it also took a long time for me to find a new normal.

2. Find support, but not from your engaged partner. Ask someone who is close to you for some extremely confidential quality time. If no one comes to mind who can offer unbiased and open-minded listening skills, see if you can find a therapist in your area. Religious leaders often offer counseling, so maybe the officiant of your wedding is a good bet. Even look for an online forum; anything is better than nothing. Contact me if you have to! There will be a time to talk with your fiancé, but right now you need a neutral zone.

3. It isn’t about love. It is absolutely possible and acceptable to love someone and still decide that marriage is not the right path for the two of you. It’s also possible to feel incredibly loved by your fiancé and also feel like marrying isn’t the right direction. Marriage is about more than love. Marriage is about all aspects of life; finances, children, dreams, career, health and safety, freedom, and happiness… If you can’t identify what the nagging feeling is now, I bet that you’ll figure it out eventually, so don’t ignore it just because it doesn’t fall into a particular category.

4. Don’t let the logistics overwhelm you. This is also where support is crucial. I sent a list of vendors to my parents, who called or visited each and every one in our small town. A lot of them were happy to refund the deposits, and those that didn’t offer refunds allowed us to use them as credit at their businesses. Later in the year, I used the photographer for some family pictures, and we sent flowers to people who had helped during that uncomfortable transition.

Instead of those pretty invitations, we mailed out plain postcards with a simple sentence: “The wedding between Eve and J. has been postponed indefinitely.” That was the wording my mother was most comfortable with, and it got the job done. There was no need for any lengthy explanations or apologies. If we had been even closer to the wedding, we would have phoned everyone (in fact, I am sure we did phone some people to make sure they got the news). People have plane tickets and hotel reservations to cancel, and it’s better they know sooner as opposed to later. If it feels too scary or hard to know what to say, write it down and read a script that keeps your uncle in North Dakota from asking too many questions.

Be sure to surround yourself with people who can help—get your bridesmaids to put that crafting energy into new tasks, whether its sit with you and stamp postcards, check names off the list, pour you a glass of wine, or split the guest list with you to deliver the news.

After it hung in my closet for a few months, I took my wedding dress to a consignment store in the area and never worried about it again. My family enjoyed the cases of wedding wine with dinner for years. 

5. Maybe most importantly, there are no wrong decisions here. One of my favorite passages ever is in a book from the Twelve-Step community: “Shame never lifted a single spirit.” It is alright to cancel a wedding. It is alright to get married and decide later on that it was a mistake; you will learn and grow from each experience. It may be that this marriage will last a lifetime and you can chalk these hesitations up to cold feet; only you will know when you know. I ignored signs until I didn’t, and then I got through the fallout, sometimes gracefully, often haltingly. (See #1, above.) Remember that no matter what, it will all be okay.

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