The first time I thought about my own wedding was after I graduated business school. I’d just turned 30, and figured that I should start thinking about marriage. I had a boyfriend at the time, a nice guy who I liked a lot but didn’t love. Still, alone in my bedroom, I started visiting a wedding website to look at wedding gowns and bridesmaids dresses.
It seemed like harmless fantasy, so I made an account and started to save designs that I liked. Besides, I’d never really thought about my own wedding, so I rationalized that I’d need to use my research someday. Meanwhile, I spent more and more time each night looking at wedding attire and imagining how it would feel to walk down the aisle in a spectacular dress. The boyfriend didn’t last, but my penchant for wedding planning did.
In my next relationship with a man named Anthony*, we actually talked about marriage. At dinner one night, I drew him a picture of the ring I wanted. By then, I’d graduated from dresses to engagement rings, and I’d settled on a ring from Tiffany, the name and prices for which I’d memorized. I also started keeping a list of wedding songs on my phone, imagining that my boyfriend and I would enter the reception hall to one of our favorite songs, or at least one we’d danced to before.
At the time, I didn’t think I was getting ahead of myself — I finally had a reason to think about getting married! And a list of songs to be played at my erstwhile wedding would certainly be of use at any party. I dismissed the wedding planning as a fun pastime. Didn’t tons of women fantasize about getting married? In my case, the proposal never came and the relationship with Anthony ended. To ease the pain of the breakup, I returned to wedding planning, dreaming of a life in which I was happy and healthy and married to the man I loved, whoever that would be.
For months, I came home from work, sat on my couch, and compared the price per plate at various hotels and catering halls. I made a list of potential bridesmaids and spent hours every night combing the internet for dresses to suit my friends’ figures. Still, I didn’t tell even my best friend what I’d been doing with my time. I got a lot of pleasure from my wedding research, but I was ashamed that coming clean about it would make me look pathetic. A single, 35-year-old woman planning her own imaginary wedding didn’t sound like someone I wanted to be. I was also afraid that telling anyone about my pastime would take the pleasure away and I’d be left without an emotional escape. So my “hobby” stayed a secret.
I continued spending time on wedding, wedding dress, and hotel websites, believing that I needed to keep up with trends in the industry for when I got married. It sounded very rational inside my head, and I never questioned whether I should quit doing it. That is, until I started seeing Anthony again years later. Our second round relationship wasn’t exactly committed. We chatted every day, but only saw each other when he called me for sex. But I was happy to be with him in any way, and I assumed that we’d be back on the path towards marriage eventually.
One day, I was struck by the urge to go to the Tiffany flagship store on Fifth Avenue. My conscious mind told me that I could look for Anthony’s birthday present. My subconscious mind knew that I wanted to peruse the diamond engagement rings. It didn’t seem enough to look at rings on the internet; I needed the thrill of seeing them on my finger and daydreaming about my engagement. After looking at cufflinks and other men’s accessories, I returned to the main floor which held the wedding and engagement jewelry.
By this point, I’d downloaded a wedding planning app, created an event with both our names, and had a future wedding date. I’d chosen the color scheme and my gown, as well as the guest list and budget for the event. I’d researched planners and DJs and hotels where our families could stay. I was very deep in fantasy, and very deep in denial about the reality of my relationship, which was, at best, a friends with benefits situation. One in which I never mentioned that I was interested in rekindling our romantic relationship. I was afraid of being honest about my feelings because I suspected that Anthony wouldn’t feel the same. It was more emotionally satisfying and less frightening for me to imagine a perfect fantasy wedding than to deal with the reality of an imperfect relationship. So instead, I picked two friends that I wanted to sing at my wedding ceremony and comparison shopped for flowers.
Back at the Tiffany counter, I asked to see a few rings, slipping them onto my fingers and watching them wink in the light. I told the salesperson my pre-rehearsed story: we were close to engagement, but I needed to see what I liked before we came back to look together. When she left me alone to consider two outrageously expensive rings, I looked up at the sales counter to see numerous couples discussing cut and color, looking at each other with love in their hearts and forever on their minds. Those were real, loving relationships. And my relationship wasn’t real, only a dream I’d built to hide from depression and disappointment. And then I realized that I had a huge problem. Not only was I in a non-relationship afraid to talk about my feelings, I’d created a complex fantasy scenario that had nothing to do with my reality. As I realized what I was doing — what I’d been doing for years — my face got hot and tears welled up in my eyes. I left a $16,000 ring on the counter and headed to the nearest exit.
Years later, after the not-exactly-relationship with Anthony ended, I would go on to date a fellow fantasy addict. Fantasy addiction occurs when people frequently use romantic and sexual fantasies in order to escape negative feelings, and that those feelings often linger from childhood trauma or abandonment. It also involves projecting fantasies onto other people. I definitely found parallels between these descriptions and my obsession with wedding planning. But I learned something else. I realized the kind of relationship that I really wanted: the kind that would fulfill me emotionally so that I didn’t have to get my fulfillment from fantasy.
I also learned about what’s important to me in a wedding. Looking back with a clear head on the fantasy event I created and recreated over the years, none of the trappings seemed important. In all occasions, I like a pretty dress, good food and a big party with nice cocktails. That’s really all I need, as long as I have a groom who loves me and wants to be my partner for the rest of my life. So, in my most recent relationship, I haven't escaped my feelings by fantasizing about our wedding. I closed my accounts on wedding apps and websites. I — with the help of a good therapist – learned to focus instead on being present with my boyfriend and communicating honestly with him. It was hard, and it’s still hard, because I still get the urge to indulge in romantic fantasy. But connecting authentically in a romantic reality feels better to me than sinking into delusion.
Though I still keep the list of wedding songs, just in case.