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What Getting ‘Cold Feet’ Really Means

WWE wrestler Nikki Bella, who recently broke off her engagement to fiancé/actor/wrestler John Cena because she wants kids and he doesn’t, admitted that during the wedding planning, she’d given into getting married in his hometown so he wouldn’t get cold feet.

The couple is reportedly back together already, but this is exactly the sort of situation where having cold feet ought to be a red flag. The trouble is, we use the phrase too casually, making it extremely confusing for a person in a wedding context.

I was engaged once after dating someone for almost 8 years. Initial excitement quickly gave way to a deep, queasy sense of dread, with me flashing forward to an entire life exactly like the relationship. Six months later, we broke up. It’s weird to think of this as cold feet, the same phrase I’d use if I was just a little nervous about making a big decision.

Whether it’s jitters or five-alarm doom, cold feet is allegedly one of the most common feelings you can experience before getting married. Lifelong commitments are a big deal, the thinking goes, so wondering if you’re super-duper sure you’re making the right decision is normal. Who wouldn’t run through all your second thoughts before signing your life away?

It’s clear, though, that no one who gets cold feet knows exactly what to make of it. People with cold feet ask other married folks who had cold feet if they are happy they ignored it. They ask strangers to help them decide whether to go through with a wedding. Some experts say it’s totally okay to have cold feet before getting married, while others advise cold-feet-havers to run for the hills.

But a few years back, a study found that having cold feet is a clear predictor of divorce. Researchers discovered that at least one person in roughly two thirds of couples experience this phenomenon — 47 percent of grooms and 38 percent of brides. The uptick in divorce for those who had cold feet only happened when the woman felt the frosty draft, though. “This appeared to be less true for men,” researchers noted, “consistent with our prediction that women’s greater attunement toward relationship problems would render their doubts more diagnostic.”

In other words, when men get cold feet, they’re just being dudes, terrified of commitment, but it’s not necessarily any kind of insight or reflection of the actual quality of the relationship. When women get it, it must mean there is something really wrong.

This may be why there are joke socks for grooms that say, “In case you get cold feet.” But a news story of a lady getting cold feet, for instance, involved a 32-year-old Georgia woman who faked her own abduction to get out of her wedding.

The saying dates back at least to the late 1800s in a Stephen Crane novel and is used to indicate losing one’s courage. Its origin is still unclear, though some people think it’s a military reference to soldiers with frostbitten toes.

But we use it now for any kind of wedding related jitters whether it’s just classic nerves or an “I’m actually in love with someone else” scenario. In the royal wedding alone, Meghan Markle’s cold feet were described as her just being a “nervous wreck” over the scrutiny of a public wedding watched by millions, especially after learning her father wouldn’t attend. In other words, no doubt about Harry, just stressed out.

Markle’s dad was also described as having cold feet, however, this was used to describe him opting out of the wedding after being exposed for staging paparazzi photos. In other words, no doubts about their union, just too embarrassed to show his face.

Diana and Prince Charles, we were reminded, were both said to have had cold feet before getting hitched in 1981. Charles reportedly told an aide, “I can’t go through with it…I can’t do it,” while Diana said, “I can’t marry him, I can’t do this, this is absolutely unbelievable.” But here cold feet is a thousand percent appropriate: Charles was in love with Camilla Parker Bowles, and Lady Di knew it.

These are all wildly different scenarios that use the same expression, which is why we keep writing articles trying to figure out what’s really going on. Benedict Carey spoke to researchers in 2013 with this goal in mind. “Yet most big decisions prompt some nervous hesitation, and research suggests that it is the nature and source of those doubts that matter, not their mere presence,” Carey writes at the New York Times.

So it’s okay to have some doubts, but if you don’t really trust the person you’re with, or dislike their parents, or are in love with someone else, this is something you should probably sit with and think over rather than just dismiss. The trouble is, weddings are such a perfect storm of pressure and distractions, Carey explains, that it makes it really really hard to do this when it’s happening to you.

The distraction and high stakes of the big day lead many people to dismiss the doubts as “pre-wedding jitters,” one expert tells him. Another issue is that people tend to idealize the person they’re going to marry, so they make a concerted effort to ignore all their bad qualities, not realizing the suppressed doubts will absolutely resurface. People also set an incredibly high bar for happiness and perfection from their partner. So being too busy to address the feelings, while invested in an idealized version of your mate, pretty much guarantees cold feet will be misread and repackaged into normal stress.

There are things you can do: One, Carey writes, is to write down and write through the doubts, which will help you address the issues, and experience greater confidence in the choice you end up making. Another solution is to identify what kind of doubts you have. If you’re excited and nervous, clinical psychologist Anita Sanz told Slate, then talking through it with other married people will probably assuage it. “They can reassure you that it’s normal and that they felt that way, too,” she said.

“But if you’re talking about the cold feet that’s the kind of nagging gut feeling or intuition that something just isn’t right and you shouldn’t be going through with the wedding, that’s something else entirely,” she explains. Then you’re going to have to actually stop and figure out why you feel this way and whether it can be addressed. This hinges entirely on being honest with yourself though, which given the above pressures to sideline the dread, is probably very very difficult.

So to repeat: Cold-feet nerves are good. Cold-feet gut warning is bad. But hopefully by now you’re not in too deep to figure this out, much less pull the plug, so that faking your abduction seems tempting. Because even though wedding insurance will reimburse you for all the stuff you can’t control, it doesn’t cover changing your mind.