Altar Falter: What's next when the bride or groom says "I don't"?

By: Alia Hoyt
Breaking off an engagement isn't easy for anyone.  See pictures of engagement rings.
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He bought the ring, got down on one knee and asked you to be his bride forevermore. So, why on Earth is he (or she, for the left-behind grooms who are reading this) suddenly turning his back on your relationship and calling off the wedding that the two of you planned with so much care?

Anyone who's ever been through a break-up has a tiny inkling of the pain, disappointment and even embarrassment that comes hand-in-hand with being left at the altar. One minute you're planning your nuptials and getting ready for the happily ever after. The next thing you know, the rug is pulled out from under your entire future, and in front of everyone you know, to make matters worse. Certainly, such a slight can't be an easy thing to recover from, although scores of men and women are living proof that there is a light at the end of the broken engagement tunnel.


Keep reading to learn how to handle both the initial shock and long-term implications of a cancelled wedding in the healthiest way possible.

What Happened?

Going through with a marriage you're uncertain about is way worse than skipping the "I dos," no matter how many people you've invited to the wedding.
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It would be great if all engagement-breakers could be cast as moustache-twirling villains, but that's not always the case. Sure, there are plenty of guys and gals who just get spooked by "forever" as it approaches, but often the situation isn't that clear-cut. Sometimes, major issues come to light after engagements are made, like a disagreement on whether or not to have children, causing major relationship friction. In other cases, the engagement was initiated or accepted because it seemed like the right thing to do. This can be caused by anything from an unplanned pregnancy to the belief that marriage is the natural next step in a long-term relationship.

Consider the pre-wedding plight of Danielle (name changed for obvious reasons), who thought about cancelling her nuptials more than 10 years ago at age 21. Barely out of college at the time, Danielle consulted her mother, who expressed embarrassment about cancelling bridal showers and the lavish event. Danielle ended up going through with the wedding despite the fact that she was regularly waking up in cold sweats in apprehension of her impending vows.


"Even my body was telling me to wait!" said Danielle. "So, I would say it would be better to break off an engagement when you're 21 and just out of college and not ready to settle down yet, as opposed to following someone else's dreams and being miserable for a while. I would have hated to have left him at the altar, though, since it would have been awful for him."

Although she's currently happy in her union, Danielle's decision to go through with her wedding hasn't come without a price. Despite a decade of marriage and a couple of beautiful kids, she still wishes that she'd held off on getting so serious at such a young age.


Come to Grips

Some people commend the person who breaks off an engagement, rather than getting married unwillingly and dealing with divorce later. Others (your parents, in particular) would prefer to tar and feather the offender, their logic being that he or she should've ended things earlier or not gotten engaged at all. Honestly, either attitude isn't going to do anyone a whole lot of good.

Let's face it -- an overly positive outlook isn't realistic, and near-murderous anger isn't healthy either.


Instead, take a deep breath (or 20) and allow yourself the time necessary to properly grieve the relationship. Many psychologists liken being left at the altar or breaking off an engagement to enduring a loved one's death. All three scenarios mark the end of a pivotal relationship and completely recast your future.

It won't happen quickly, but you'll make your way through the stages of grief commonly experienced by someone suffering a major loss. In fact, it's a good idea to seek help from a mental health professional who can guide you through the process, particularly if any of the hallmark signs of depression linger for too long after the break-up. Record your feelings in a journal, and be aware of symptoms like persistent sadness, changes in appetite and difficulty sleeping, to name a few. In the meantime, lean on your friends and family for support. That's what they're there for!


Make the Announcement

Get some help spreading the news.

I know it's tempting to bury your head in the sand and pretend like the whole debacle isn't really happening. It's worth it to fight the urge, however, unless you want everyone to show up at the wedding chapel in their Sunday best and figure it out on their own.

In the case of last-minute cancellations, a willing officiant, relative or bridal party member can make an announcement at the ceremony site. Of course, invited guests who were unable to attend should also be informed (and as soon as possible) to minimize awkward situations down the road.


If the wedding is called off just a few days before the ceremony, gather your nerves (at least temporarily) and start calling guests, especially those who are planning to travel to the event. Don't worry about making 300 calls all by your lonesome, though. If ever there was a job for willing bridesmaids, this is it.

A printed announcement can take some of the edge off of the process if the engagement is called off well in advance of the wedding. You can keep the wording formal and to the point; best of all, you won't have to suffer through uncomfortable small talk or hear everyone's repeated condolences and wishes for your future ad nauseam.


Tie Up Loose Ends

Insult, meet injury. It's not enough that your wedding got called off. Now, you have to deal with all of the other annoying tasks that must be addressed. Your wedding might not have happened, but chances are your vendors still need to be paid, often in full for services they were prepared to provide. So, unless you're lucky enough to have an extra-sympathetic caterer, it's time to whip out the old checkbook and settle your bills. Often, the person who did the cancelling will chip in most or all of the cost, if he or she is nice enough and can afford it. If not, you'll need to work through a payment plan that both of you can live with.

Remember that pricey kitchen mixer that you and your then-fiancé were so delighted to receive? Wedding etiquette dictates that all gifts need to go back, pronto, although many guests won't expect them yesterday. They know you've been thrown for a loop, so they won't begrudge you a kitchen appliance or two. Still, the right thing to do is make arrangements to return all wedding gifts as soon as possible (again, those bridesmaids can come in very handy).


Move On: Literally

The sooner you physically move on, the sooner you'll start to emotionally heal.

For cohabitating couples, the days following a cancelled wedding are where it really gets ugly. Obviously, someone's going to have to vacate the premises, but it's not always clear-cut as to who that person should be. For example, let's say the groom called off the wedding. In theory, he should be forced out of the abode and into a hotel, but if the property is in his name, he has every legal right to stay.

Whatever the scenario, make an effort to physically move on as quickly as possible, rather than crashing in the guest room indefinitely. Sticking around will only prolong the inevitable and make it that much harder to let go. If you're hesitant to jump into signing a lease right away, fill up a storage unit with your stuff and shack up with a friend or family member for the time being. You'll probably need the company for awhile, anyway, as you work through your post break-up issues.


Move On: Emotionally

As with all matters of the heart, there's simply no set timeline to dictate when and how to move on from a painful break-up. If the thought of dating, let alone having a relationship with another person makes you queasy, it's probably best to hold off for a little bit longer. Once you've worked through your emotions regarding the failed engagement and feel more comfortable with the social scene, by all means, get back in the dating game.

Who knows? It could be easier than you expected to get over your former flame. You might even thank your ex when you meet that Brad Pitt lookalike with the beach house, fancy car and penchant for sending you fresh flowers and candy. A girl can dream, right?


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Colenso, Maria. "How Depression Works." HowStuffWorks. May 12, 2008. (March 23, 2011).
  • Hoyt, Alia. "How Grief Works." HowStuffWorks. July 14, 2008. (March 23, 2011).
  • Post, Peggy. "Broken Engagement: Who Keeps the Ring?" Good Housekeeping. (March 23, 2011).
  • Sachs, Andrea. "What Happens When You Get Left at the Altar?" Time. March 10, 2009. (March 23, 2011).,8599,1883968,00.html