I canceled my wedding

When I was 24, I canceled my wedding ten days before it was to happen. For many years, it was hard for me to talk about. Whenever it came up, people would generally express enthusiastic support or sympathy and I’d smile slightly to show appreciation, but internally, I was wincing. It took more than ten years to get over my feelings of shame and guilt. It took me that long to look back on my actions with any amount of objectivity or compassion.

Mark was my first boyfriend. He was adorable, quirky, fun. I fell in love with him when I was a sophomore at Duke. He had just graduated and wasn’t yet sure about which career he wanted to pursue, so he continued working at his former summer job as a big rig driver with a local moving company. I think he’d concur that our shared adventures in that 18-wheeler were probably the highlight of our relationship. (I wrote briefly about that in my story “Truckin'”)

Three years after that, Mark was accepted at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, so we moved to California. At the new student orientation, one of the speakers offered the depressing statistic that most couples at the onset of law school are unlikely to stay together through graduation. We looked at each other; “not us,” we scoffed. A few months later, we were engaged.

While Mark attended law classes during the day, I worked at a children’s theatre company. While he studied diligently every night,  I attended rehearsals for roles I landed in local theatre productions. As I re-discovered creative expression through acting, Mark immersed himself in facts, logic, and argument. His quirky humor and adventurous spirit began to give way to a stoic and serious demeanor.

I knew the rigors of law school were tough, so I tried to provide him with support and encouragement. Yet, I felt restless. I yearned to expand and explore. I shared few of my own experiences with Mark, because law school was all-consuming. If he wasn’t in class, he was in the library or with a study group. Weekends were no different. I barely saw him. He’d apologize for his distracted state and his full-throttle focus on the law and I’d tell him that I understood.

I could make excuses about our situation being temporary, but at the same time, I felt like our paths were becoming more and more divergent. I’d been determined to support him, but now I was wondering, what about me?  I began to feel like two people: my old, predictable self with Mark, and my new, growing self in his absence. I began thinking about the fact that he was my first and only boyfriend; that we were still young and finding our way. I loved him, but getting married suddenly felt like a bad idea.

Our wedding day was fast approaching. Plans had been made and guests invited. I felt queasy and riddled with fear. He’d been my everything for five solid years. What was I going to do? For the first time since we’d been together, I felt utterly alone, facing the world and my life head on. I felt like I was living in a thick gray fog of foreboding.

Two weeks before the wedding, I called my mother.  When she asked me how I was feeling as the wedding approached,  I tried to lightly express my feelings of apprehension, as if they were probably normal or not to be taken too seriously. She  immediately got to the heart of the matter. She made it simple and practical and real. “This is your life, Johanna,” she said. “You need to do what your heart dictates. It’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. Don’t go through with it if you’re not ready.” Her sympathetic and loving tone touched me deeply. Then, she dared to present the option of a cancellation, as if it wasn’t a big deal. “It’s only money,” she said. “I think I can get deposits back, and if I don’t, it’s okay.” Perhaps this was why I had called her in the first place, a sub-conscious need to get consent.

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I hadn’t even thought about the deposits. These things were frankly the least of my concerns. The anxiety over possibly canceling our wedding had nothing to do with money or with canceling all the scheduled plans. I barely even thought about the guests. The only thing on my mind was Mark. How was I going to tell Mark. I was about to devastate the person I loved most. He had been my best friend for five years and now . . . what?

Time was ticking. Every time I pushed myself to say something, I felt sick to my stomach and could barely open my mouth to talk. The wedding was now ten days away and the pressure was overwhelming. I was swimming in so much anxiety that I couldn’t eat. No one else was going to do this for me. I had to battle my overwhelming anxiety and speak up.

I pushed myself to speak after dinner one night. “How are you feeling about the wedding?” I asked, while we were washing dishes. My entire body was shaking, but I pretended to be calm. I was hoping he’d give me an easy out. “Fine,” he replied matter-of-factly. He looked at me. “Why?” he asked. I felt woozy. I wanted to take several really deep breaths, but I continued to control my voice and sound calm. “Oh, I guess I’m just having those feelings people talk about.” And from there it went. Second by agonizing second.

“What feelings?” he asked. “You know, second thoughts. Fear. Haven’t you had any?” I tried to ask innocently. “No,” he said. He couldn’t have made it any more difficult. A panicked conviction took over and I realized that I had to pounce right in. NOW OR NEVER. I honestly don’t recall what I said next. It’s like when you’re in an accident and you don’t remember the moment of impact. I remember rambling and mumbling and trying to temper my beating heart until he finally asked me the question: “Do you want to call it off?”  This is when my memory kicks back in. Like the moment after the accident, when you come to. “Yeah,” I said, shaking, and now crying, apologetic.

He was calm. He did not get angry or turn inside himself and brood, which was more common for him. Remarkably, his focus was on my own well-being. I guess my agony was palpable.

We stayed up through the entire night. It felt like we were on a hallucinogenic drug or living in a twilight zone. Both of our emotions were raw. We talked, we cried, we chain smoked, we held each other. When I finally fell asleep just before dawn, Mark stayed up. I awoke a few hours later to see him kneeling before me with a breakfast tray holding a five-page letter, a plate of food, and flowers. In the letter, Mark expressed his deep love for me and beckoned for me to give him another chance. It was like beauty and pain blended in a horrible and exhilarating cocktail. The horrible feeling of knowing this man loved me so much, and the awareness that I was still going to call it off, was horrid. And you talk about courage. His letter was an act of love that I will never forget.

“I think we should still go to Durham,” Mark said about the location where we were to wed. “The flight cancellation fee will be ridiculous. We might as well go. We can visit with my family. It’ll be good.” I couldn’t believe that he thought this would be a good idea. The last thing I wanted to do was bring myself that close to the plans I’d canceled, to be around his family at such a vulnerable time. How could Mark consider it? I even wondered if I felt worse as the canceller than he did as the cancellee.

He was determined to keep his itinerary and fly to Durham, with or without me. I understood that he needed to be with his family, but I couldn’t bear the pain of going along.  My friend’s dad, a doctor, kindly offered to write a medical note to the airline (I don’t recall what he wrote, something about an infection and not being able to fly), so I could avoid the cancellation fee for my ticket.

The flight was a red-eye. I drove Mark to the airport and parked in the lot, wanting to be by his side until the last possible minute. He took his small bag of clothes from the trunk and half-smiled as I closed it. “There should be two of these,” he said. I had been forcing the tears back, forcing the tears back, forcing the tears back through the drive there, but now, with those words uttered, I could do it no longer. He laughed a little when he realized how raw we both were, how difficult it was to find a way through this emotional process. We held hands and walked to the airline counter, where he presented both of our tickets and I presented my letter from the doctor. As the airline attendant read the letter, Mark looked at me. “You can still go,” he whispered. I shook my head, not wanting the attendant to realize it was really an option.

The doctor’s letter served its purpose and I got a voucher. Mark got a boarding pass. With fifteen minutes to spare before he had to board, we walked outside and leaned on a railing watching the planes in the dark beyond. He gave it one more shot. “Come,” he said. “It’ll be fine. Come.” I kept nodding my head no. I began to cry again and the valves wouldn’t close this time. We hugged our goodbyes and he turned to go inside and board the plane.

Alone, detached, I walked back to my car, acutely aware that this moment marked the start of a new chapter in my life. I started the engine, crying so hard now that I was gulping for air. I drove slowly onto the freeway, hoping to get a hold of myself. An airplane engine sounded in the black expanse above me and I looked out the window to see a blinking light in the sky. Maybe it was his plane, or maybe another. I tried to focus on driving, but I couldn’t see the road in front of me through my heavy sobs, so I immediately pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway. It was 11:00pm on a weeknight and there were few cars on the road, but I felt safer there. It took more than ten minutes to get a hold of myself and start driving again.

A few weeks after that fateful night, I moved into my own apartment, and several months later, we officially broke up. I moved to Los Angeles to study acting, and he graduated from law school and began working as an attorney. We dated other people, but we stayed in touch. We both came to realize how much we missed each other and how rare it is to find the kind of connection we’d had. We began talking on the phone more often. Then, we began to visit each other on the weekends. Another year later, over the phone one night, he joked about becoming engaged again, and in a careless moment, I agreed. When I landed the role of Catherine in A View from the Bridge at Palm Springs Playhouse, we decided I’d move in with him, since he was now an attorney in Palm Springs and his place was just 20 minutes away.

It took no time to recognize that there we were again; him in his world of fact, proof and precedent, away during the days; and me in my world of emotion, creativity and catharsis, away during the evenings. It occurred to me finally that what we had most in common now was the connection from our past. It was a very special and rare kind of connection, which I realized after dating other people, but those magical days in college and that time in our lives was the reason it took hold. Years and experiences had taken us in other directions. We’d each changed and grown; were no longer as in synch. Without any hesitation, I initiated the conversation about canceling our second engagement, and Mark again was calm in his response, though this time, he agreed.

We broke up for good then. I moved back to L.A. where I proceeded to make a living as an actor, and Mark eventually opened his own law practice. We remained in touch and occasionally talked on the phone. Once, when he was in L.A. on business, we met for lunch. I didn’t feel comfortable telling him about my own love life, but he shared stories about the woman he was dating. He’d been seeing her for a while and I liked hearing that. I wanted him to be happy.

About a year after that, I got word from a mutual friend that Mark had eloped. Just hearing that news felt like heavy sandbags of shame toppling off of my shoulders. Within mere seconds, I was breathing easier and standing taller. It was as if I’d been holding my breath all that time. (Mark later told me how it happened: one sunny afternoon while they were working on their garden, his girlfriend dared him to get married, and he took the dare, driving her straight to the courthouse. This happened on October 16, he told me. My birthday.)

People tend to respond to my canceled wedding story with a congratulatory tone. A surprising number of married people have also added, “I wish I’d done that.” It’s shocking to hear that said so plainly and so often. Talk about a reality check; evidence that my act of canceling had served as a powerful, pre-emptive strike.

Canceling a wedding so close to the date is nothing I will ever care to congratulate myself for doing, but I did learn a very difficult lesson: to thine own self be true; even if it’s excruciatingly painful.

– Johanna

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  1. I understand every word you wrote. I cancelled my wedding 3 days before, 2.5 years ago. Everyone tells me it was an act of courage and congratulates me. However, I feel shame about it. Not for the money my family lost, or the money he lost (he covered for the new apartment and honey moon), not even because of the people who came from other countries to attend the wedding, and all that stuff… it´s because of HIM. I question myself why I didn´t do it way before… Why I had to wait to the very last moment… Then, after attending some therapy sessions and talking to older couples, I come to realize that it happened exactly they moment it had to happen, not one day before or one day after. But! that day! I pray for him often and wish to see him married and happy. I still love him, and so do him… But, we just don´t work together.

  2. Thank you so much for telling your story. My FI and I just cancelled the wedding yesterday. I’ve been lookin up articles and stories on what to do next. We live together and it’s not an easy task.
    I went through so much to be with him. My family is very religious and stopped speaking with me after they found out we were living together.
    Also he was abusive to me once while he was drunk and that set the stage for me beginning to lose hope for us. We went to counseling and still do. We actually have an appointment in 2 days to see what are the next steps.
    This is the second time we break off our engagement. He is convinced that over time we will be okay to get married I on the other hand am not. My mind feels like a grey fog.
    I’m emotionally exhausted and trying to mentally prepare myself to send out wedding cancellation cards and contacting all the vendors.
    Thank you for your story. It gives me hope for a better future

  3. I too cancelled my wedding. It was quite incredible reading this, because so much of what you said really struck a chord with me. I was quite a lot older than you were (32), and in February called off the wedding which was supposed to be in June.
    Like you, I had a conversation with my mum, and her reaction was not at all what I expected – I thought she would tell me that I was just suffering from nerves, but instead she was calm and told me it was ok not to go through with it.
    Like you, I wasn’t so worried about losing deposits, the fact that we had already sent out save the date cards, or the fact that I had already bought my dress etc, but just so worried about telling the person about whom I did (and still do) care for dearly. I don’t think I have ever had to do anything so painful.
    6 months later I still feel tearful thinking or talking about it – people ask me all the time ‘Isn’t the wedding coming up soon?’ and I have to explain over and over again, my voice wobbling each time.
    I’ve been living somewhere else these past few months and working out whether permanent separation is the right thing or not has been, in many ways, much harder than the actual cancelling of the wedding. I know there were good reasons why I had doubts about the marriage and why I left, and those reasons still exist and to a large extent will probably always exist. Your experience of going back and realising that it was not right a second time is a good reminder to me that although it may feel tempting, it would not necessarily be for the best.
    The fact that my fiance is a very kind and gentle person, and didn’t do anything ‘wrong’, has made the situation all the harder.
    Looking forward to things starting to feel a little easier, gradually.

  4. Wow, I really needed to read that. I was supposed to wed in 2 days. Needless to say my girlfriend canceled 2 mo before the set date. I’m left hurt, confused and embarrassed. After reading your story it’s given a
    me a chance to see things from her perspective. Maybe she felt as you did, at least I hope. Ten years is a long time and I’m glad you can finally talk about what happened. I want to thank you for sharing your story I’m sure you have touched many hearts, mine included. Thank you

  5. Take it one day at a time. Try to be gentle with yourselves. I know it’s really hard and you feel horrible right now, but have faith. Navigate your way with love and honesty and you’ll be all that much stronger for it. Whatever happens.

  6. I myself cancelled my wedding just yesterday. Our wedding is supposed to be in two months now. We fought too much and I ran out of patience and felt so much that I hated him. His family knows what happened and they never want to see us together again. The sad part is, I regret cancelling it. My eyes are still sore. We talked last night and this morning. He doesn’t want us to end at the same time he is also tired. MHis mom emailed me telling she will not support us if we decide to proceed with the wedding. She paid for everything and wants her money back. I’m so depressed right now. I know I can’t do anything about it. I just hope I will find the strength to get back on my feet. He was my everything for 4 years. I gave up everything for him even a career just to be with him. It’s over now. Everythingis over. I don’t know whats life after this. Wish me luck.

  7. Johanna, your writing, work, and mission is inspiring…you came into my mind…fondly…as I drove past your old building on Beachwood…where I live….and I googled you….found your site…very happy for you and for what you are doing…your big heart and insights always knew no bounds…I may have been one of those that you ‘seeing’ in this story…love your writing and your courage to put all this good stuff out to the world.

    Mr. Koch

  8. Your anguish is palpable. Be gentle with yourself, Tony. All you can do is your best. Try to forgive yourself. The past is behind you and the present is literally, a gift. You did marry and you’re so happy that you did. That’s what matters. If your wife loves you as much as you love her, she’ll understand. And by the way, eloping on a romantic beach in Hawaii sounds fabulous! You may have done yourselves a favor. 😉 It’s certainly simpler and more profound that way.

    Anyway, I understand your anguish all too well, even if my story went the other way. With time, you’ll be able to find levity in your story (believe it or not!) Forgive yourself and relish in what you have.

    I wish you and your wife a very happy marriage!

  9. I canceled my wedding two weeks before it was supposed to happen. I regret it very badly!!!! I just got scared and didn’t realize what a great opportunity I passed up to show the woman I love how much I really loved her. We ended up eloping on a romantic beach in Hawaii a week later. It was very romantic but to this day I regret canceling. I failed to realize how important it was for my wife to have that day and we could have shared it with all of the people we loved the most. Even thought we still got married, canceling the wedding did lots of damage to our relationship and caused a lot of concern for our family and friends and they still to this day don’t take us very seriously as a couple. I live with so much guilt. I wish I could do it all over again. Now, I’m trying so hard to make it up to wife I love her so much and I will do anything to make it up to her. if your reading this ….. please wish me luck. My wife deserve it.

  10. Just read this after searching for people stories on cancelling weddings. I cancelled mine 16 weeks before the big day.. It was not my HTB’s fault at all. I love him and want to b with him but his family ruined everything. My furture ‘out laws’ took over, decided my whole wedding for me, stopped talking to me if I disagreed with anything they wanted for the big day, they snubbed my mum, and I eventually cracked under the stress and heartache n pressure they put on me.. N I camncelled it.. It is the hardest thing I have eva done but the day was ruined before it even started, it was neva mine and my HTB’s day.. It was his mothers and sisters day, I was merely a porn piece to the hugh chess game them played. We are still together just,but we no longer live together, I have moved back to my home town after the violence n vile threats etc I received from his family.. I had no one where I lived so moved back to be near my own family.

  11. I just found this post on your blog. It brought back a flood of memories, one of which reminded me that your family history may have strengthened your resolve to follow the path you knew to be right.

    Your dear father summoned the courage to walk away from a marriage that he knew in his heart was a mistake…just days before the large event that had been months in the planning and involved dozens if not hundreds of people. He told me once that taking that action was one of most difficult things he had done in his life up to that time.

    I always respected him enormously for having that courage, and it was the first thing I thought of when you (or was it your Mom?) called me to cancel your wedding.

  12. What a fabulous piece, Johanna. Thank you for sharing your amazing story.

  13. Oh, Sweetie…what a wonderful, revelatory story. I recall the time very clearly, I recall the heyday of your relationship with Mark that preceded it, I recall your mom's kind & diplomatic phone call explaining your decision to reverse the wedding plans. I wondered about it, but felt it HAD to be the right action for you, & never doubted how hard that must've been or how courageous it was to pull it off. Your beautifully written article filled in so many gaps for me.

    Brava! Love you, Johanna…