Overcoming Fear of Making a Big Mistake: The Woman Who Was Afraid She Was Engaged to the Wrong Man

A fabulously bright and attractive young assistant professor—“Marilyn”--was engaged to be married. But--at what she believed ought to be the happiest time in her life, she was miserable. She was consumed with worry that her fiancé was not the right choice for her and that she should not go forward with the wedding that was scheduled to occur a year in the future. She had been struggling with this worry and doubt for many months and she had recently become so overwhelmed with fear that she simply felt unable to sort out how she felt, and so she sought treatment. 

This type of anxiety—even panic--about decision-making is common. A good formulation led to several useful interventions that, within a few weeks, helped Marilyn resolve her distress. 

Marilyn and her intended (“Peter”) were well-matched in many ways; they shared a number of joint interests and they cared a great deal about each other. They differed, however, in that she was intensely ambitious (she was spending all her time and energy doing research and writing papers so she could get tenure), whereas his greatest pleasure was spending time on his boat with friends and family (he was working as a social worker for the county). Marilyn worried that this value difference would make her unhappy down the road. A detailed assessment showed that Marilyn was spending at least an hour or two a day on what I suggested we label “worry behaviors.” These included time Marilyn spent agonizing about her dilemma and monitoring Peter’s behavior, her feelings, and their interactions and those of their family members, in order to evaluate, “How do I feel about him, How does he feel about me, Can I be happy with him? Do our families work well together?” and similar. In addition, whenever Peter did something that activated her worries, she initiated a discussion of it with him, and this type of discussion could last up to an hour several times a week. 

Marilyn and I developed the formulation that Marilyn’s worry behaviors were avoidance behaviors that served the function of allowing her to avoid the anxiety of making a full behavioral and emotional commitment to her decision to marry Peter. Her avoidance behaviors appeared to flow from the fear, “I can’t trust myself to make the right decision. If I move forward with this decision, I’ll find that I’m married to the “wrong” man and I’ll be unhappy.” Paradoxically, Marilyn’s disengaged (so to speak) stance actually caused quite a lot of anxiety and unhappiness. In the very apt words of Tom Borkovec, in his article published in the first 2002 issue of Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, Marilyn was living “Life in the Future versus Life in the Present.” Marilyn’s fears of future unhappiness were causing quite a bit of present unhappiness. The formulation also proposed that if Marilyn suspended her worry behaviors and engaged herself more fully in the relationship, she would collect, in a natural way, the information she needed in order to make a good decision. 

This formulation led to many intervention suggestions, and Marilyn agreed to them all. She agreed to stop the worry behaviors: to stop doing “on-line” monitoring and 

evaluation of the relationship, stop trying to figure out whether she could be happy with Peter, stop immediately attacking any and all glitches that came up with Peter, and instead to give the energy that she formerly gave to worrying being more fully engaged in the relationship. One helpful strategy here was that of behaving “as if” she had no doubts about the relationship. Instead of spending hours with her friends reviewing the relationship and trying to figure it out, Marilyn began telling her friends that things were going well with Peter. These behavior changes were difficult for Marilyn to carry out, and she was not always successful at them. Nevertheless, 5 or 6 weeks after adopting her new stance toward her decision, Marilyn came home from a wedding of a family member that she had attended with Peter, and had the clear realization that “I just can’t see me and Peter together at all of these family events. This relationship is not right for me and I’m going to break it off.” 

After deciding to break her engagement, Marilyn again found herself filled with doubts and worries—fearing that her decision was the wrong one and would lead to unhappiness. However, these doubts were much less intense than the original ones had been. To cope with them, Marilyn again used the strategy of limiting her worry time and striving to fully commit herself to her new decision. She found that she moved through her doubts relatively easily and came fairly quickly to a feeling of confidence that her decision to break off the engagement was the right one for her. 

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