Runaway Bride
Credit: ©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

There is a reason why we refer to a wedding as "your most special day." It's special because it marks both the end of your bachelor/ette days and the beginning of a new chapter in your life—one that will last a lifetime. And that's a scary thought for some people. Nowadays, it's so easy to dispose of things that we don't need or want anymore and instead move to something else that the notion of being with someone forever might be hard to accept.

So when you are about to commit the rest of your days to one person, it's normal to start having doubts about it. It's also normal to be scared and confused. Let's make it clear from the very beginning: getting "cold feet" before your nuptials, or even right after you get engaged, is common. You're not alone, and this is not something you should be ashamed of.

New York-based psychotherapist Rachel Sussman says the reason people often seek her help is because they don't know if they are experiencing "just cold feet" or if there is really something wrong that needs to be addressed. We talked to her about how to learn to differentiate between the two, and what to do if you experience marriage-related anxiety.

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InStyle: How do you know if you're having "cold feet"?

Rachel Sussman: Some people, all of a sudden, they start getting really nervous, and they start saying: "Oh my god, this is forever. Oh my god, my parents are spending all this money. Oh my god, maybe I didn’t date enough, maybe there is someone else out there."

And I think that it’s normal to have those thoughts. It’s normal to have some kind of those thoughts. Some people do have them but they are also able to talk themselves off the ledge. Or say, hey this is a great guy, and they start thinking about all the reasons why you should be together, all the reasons why this really is the right relationship for you.

InStyle: How can you tell the difference between having cold feet and a real problem?

RS: You have to take a little bit of time and ask yourself: why am I having second thoughts, what’s going on here? You have to examine what are the thoughts that are making you anxious.

For instance, if you’ve got a real problem and all of a sudden it’s manifesting itself—maybe you’ve got a sex problem, or maybe you don’t think your partner is as ambitious as he should be—you start telling yourself: "Wow, these are real problems that I think I’ve been pretending for a long time that they don’t exist because I wanted to get married so badly."

If you have a problem with drugs or alcohol, emotional or physical abuse, financial impropriety, lying, wanting different things from life, career problems, these are real problems. If you’re fighting about the same things over and over again and you have terrible communication skills. These are problems that are just going to get worse over time.

Normal cold feet is: "Oh my god am I sure I want to do this? Am I ready to get married?" Normal cold feet is when you still pretty much feel that the person you are engaged to is a good person and you love them. Normal cold feet is not so much about the relationship or the person, it’s more about, "Am I sure I want to do this? Am I ready for this? Am I ready to walk away from being a single person, to close this chapter, and go to the next stage of my life?"

InStyle: And is it a good idea to talk to your S.O. about it?

RS: Yes, I have found that it’s always helpful to talk to them. Of course, you don’t want to upset the other person. If you think that maybe this isn’t cold feet, there’s truly a problem in our relationship and we need to work this out before I get married, you have to speak to your partner about it.

But if you think that it’s just cold feet, then you want to talk to a friend first. You might want to talk to a therapist, a mentor, or someone who’s important in your world and tell them what’s going through your mind and have that person help you decide whether it’s cold feet or whether this is a problem.

I can usually tell after meeting with a person once or twice. The person having cold feet is talking more in generalities. When I ask them about the relationship, they say mostly nice things. But the person that has a problem, they immediately start telling me about the problems in their relationship.

InStyle: What if it happens on the day of the wedding?

RS: If it happens on the day of, you can pretty much rest assured that it’s just cold feet—and it probably isn’t even about the [other] person. You might find that someone’s nervous about [things like] "What happens if I fall walking down the aisle?" or "All these people are going to be looking at me," and it’s usually more about that.