The off-white envelope arrived. You and your long-term girlfriend checked the "will attend" box on the RSVP postcard. Later, you hear her on the phone talking to the fiancée: "I still can't believe it's happening," she says with delight. "I'm so happy for you!"
That's when the uneasiness starts, an anxiousness that will only grow in the coming months until you are seated at the ceremony next to your glowing gal, watching a grown man seal his fate.
When the minister asks him, "Do you take this woman to be the only woman you will ever sleep with for the rest of your life?" the first bead of sweat rolls down your forehead. Your girlfriend glances at you lovingly as she squeezes your hand. That's when it comes on: wedding-induced stress disorder.
I haven't personally suffered from this specific form of anxiety, but I can relate. Several years ago, when my then-long-term-girlfriend-now-ex-wife and I attended our first wedding together, I had already decided I was going to ask for her hand in marriage, but that was only after many months of proposal paralysis. I kept waiting to have that feeling I was ready to be a husband, waiting for that elusive sense of 100 per cent certainty, but it never came.
After six years of being together, before I'd decided I was going to pop the question, I went to my stepfather.
"I'm thinking of asking her to marry me," I told him, less as a statement than a request for reassurance.
"Well, are you sure you've waited long enough?" was his sarcastic reply. He'd proposed to his first wife after only a couple months, though he admits that was back when "living in sin" was not used just tongue-in-cheek, and a certain biological urge made the decision for him.
A study that hit the papers late last year showed that a predilection for monogamy in men comes down to the absence of Allele 334, the so-called Infidelity Gene. Maybe the reluctance to settle down is that simple, but I'd venture to say that all variants of the human male find making a commitment somewhat frightening.
I think all of us really want to find a lifetime partner, but that doesn't stop us from hearing, when our girlfriends ask, "Hey honey, would you mind grabbing me a piece of wedding cake," something that sounds like, "Hey honey, would you mind now being responsible not just for yourself, but also me - forever?"
Psychologist Neil Rector, director of research in the department of psychiatry at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, ran the anxiety clinic at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health for 12 years and he agrees that stress around big decisions can lead to misinterpretations.
"It's a natural part of the anxiety response," he says, "to essentially get tunnel vision towards the things that are of concern and it makes it much harder to pay attention and encode information accurately."
In other words, while you're freaking out that everything she's saying is a secret message pressuring you to propose, maybe she really just wants some cake and her feet are killing her.
As for commitmentphobia, Dr. Rector isn't buying it. "It's not a real diagnostic entity," he informs me.
However, he does agree that I'm onto something with the quasi-traumatic symptoms of what I've dubbed "wedding-induced stress disorder."
"One can fall into a trap of obsessive doubting," Dr. Rector says, explaining that a persistent inability to make decisions in one's life - including one's love life - is a real and serious clinical condition.
"People in general will go through the advantages and disadvantages of the partner they're choosing, but for some people it may be that they never get that click, that real sense of certainty that they know what they should do."
I wondered how women manage to avoid commitment anxiety, so I called up Alison McGill, the editor of Weddingbells magazine, to get the female point of view. According to her, that stereotype is no longer the case. Ms. McGill says that women, who these days are often marrying later in life when they've already established careers and social networks, also fear a loss of independence.
"They think: Will I not be able to go out for manicures and pedicures? What about my Sex and the City weekend in New York? Is that over because I'm married now?"
And, to drive the knife a little deeper into the old idea that women are only there to stand by their men, Ms. McGill says women will actually celebrate when their husbands go away. "Woohoo! A man-free day. We're going shopping!" she hollers. "Yeah, it's gone full circle. Men are the new ball and chains."
As for wedding-induced stress disorder, Ms. McGill's position as the editor of a wedding resource for women doesn't mean she's naive.
"Weddings are supposed to be a happy time and are supposed to be fun, but there are so many negative things that get tied onto them because they're just prime for drama," she says. "That's why a wedding is always such a great subject for a movie."
So there you go: The proposal-paralyzed can at least be happy that their hand-wringing is providing a nice obstacle plot point in the comedy of their life.
Since we all like to see a happy ending, here's Dr. Rector's advice on what to do about the incessant assessing of whether one has really found The One: "My take on it would be do some of that work, but what might be even more helpful is to really embrace the idea of risk and try to work on tolerating uncertainty."
So wipe off that sweat, get your sweetheart a piece of cake, and, if you're up for a little adventure, throw a ring in it too. Just cross your fingers that she says yes.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in April, 2010.Report Typo/Error