As Amanda Clark, 33, a caterer from Boston, walked down the aisle toward her fiancé, wearing a $15,000 gown and a 7-carat ring, she felt nothing but dread. I don't want to go through with this, she thought, with each step toward the altar.
Just two hours before the ceremony, Clark had gone for a dip in the ocean with her two sisters. When it was time to get ready, Clark wouldn't budge. "I couldn't get out of the water," she says. "It was like knowing you have a work meeting but you don't want to go."
Clark had dated a handsome businessman for four years before they got engaged, and although he didn't make her heart race, she still loved him. "We were best friends, and I thought he'd make a great husband and father, even though I wasn't 'in love,'" she says. "I walked down the aisle thinking, What the hell? During my vows, I wasn't making eye contact with my fiancé."
Five years and two kids later, their sex life nonexistent, Clark wanted out. "I'd often wish he would cheat," she says. Finally, her husband, sensing her unhappiness, ended it.
Clark is hardly the first woman to say "I do" when her heart wasn't in it. According to recent research conducted by Jennifer Gauvain, a therapist in Denver, 30 percent of now-divorced women say they knew in their gut they were making a mistake as they walked down the aisle — and kept walking anyway. Only a handful backed out. The obvious question: If you know you're marrying the wrong guy, why do it?
For starters, blame Cinderella. "Women are raised with an unrealistic impression of what love is supposed to look like," says Gauvain. "Girls read fairy tales where the woman gets saved by the prince, and when they're older, the same message is enforced through romantic comedies where love always prevails, despite impossible scenarios. So women learn that love can always work, even when it's unhealthy."
Then there's the usual suspect: the biological clock. Clark's was ticking and she was ready to start a family. "The number 30 reads like an expiration date for unmarried women," says Gauvain. Not only are your baby-making years racing by, but you're leaving behind your 20s — a decade of experimentation, one-night stands, and making mistakes, professionally and personally. In the next decade, you're seen as an adult and can't do those things."
And the unspoken bum's rush to the altar makes things worse. "Although women won't say it aloud, there's often a huge sigh of relief once they get their ring," says Gauvain. "Getting engaged can be a triumph, and if he's the wrong guy, the high from the attention of the engagement can minimize that fact."
And finally, there's the rise of Wedding Fever, now a $40-billion-a-year business. Proposals are getting more elaborate and showy; YouTube yields hundreds of videos featuring proposals during activities like skydiving or scuba diving. These wacky proposals fuel pressure to follow up with a fantastic wedding ceremony — and if the couple can't pull it off, they may feel they've failed, says Gauvain. And it's no wonder: The latest slew of reality shows like Say Yes to the Dress, My Fair Wedding, and Shedding for the Wedding place more weight on the tiny details of the ceremony than the relationship. "But being so busy planning an over-the-top fete can overshadow a couple's incompatibility," says wedding planner Mark Kingsdorf.
Just ask Christine Bereitschaft. Midway through her engagement, Bereitschaft started grappling with trust issues. Her fiancé was strangely private about his job, and her friends and family had been warning her not to marry him. She had a gut feeling that something wasn't right, but she had no interest in listening to her gut — she had more important matters to tend to. "I was busy planning my dream wedding," she says. Yet on the big day, she felt strangely hollow inside. "My mind was blank," she says. "And during my vows, I realized that I didn't mean them," she says. "I wasn't thinking what married life would be like." Five months after the ceremony, she filed for divorce.
"Women often forget that marriage isn't just about a big wedding," says Allison Moir-Smith, author of Emotionally Engaged. "It's also about evolving from being single to married. That's a big thing to deal with."
But how do you distinguish between jitters and genuine cold feet? "Nerves are about anxiety over the event — will the best man get drunk? Will the flowers wilt?" says Gauvain. "Cold feet are about doubting the relationship." So if you think things like, Am I settling? Things will improve after the wedding. Marriage makes sense — we've been dating forever!, you may be rightfully doubting the union.
Chastity Castle-White, 33, had a five-year rocky relationship with her now-husband before he proposed. Despite feeling neglected by him — hurt that he rarely made time for the two of them — she squashed her doubts and said yes. But one hour before the ceremony, the then-24-year-old started scrambling for reasons to back out. "I was in tears," she says. Castle-White marched down the aisle anyway, and now, nine years later, is in the process of dissolving that marriage. "Listen to your instincts," she says. "I should have paid attention to the signs it wasn't right."
Did you marry the wrong guy? Take our quiz to find out at marieclaire.com/marriagequiz.