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Q: I am days away from my wedding, and I am seriously thinking of calling it off.  How do I know if I am doing the right thing?

Recently, Hugh Heffner, the founder of "Playboy" Magazine, was left at the altar. Usually, we hear about women being left, but regardless of who does the fleeing, it's not easy to call it off. The social embarrassment and expense are tough enough to weather  Many people who decide to say "I don't" instead of "I do" must also experience the pain of self-doubt. 

Wedding doubt makes you shake and quake. It leaves you sleepless and obsessing: Is this person right for me? Should I go through with it?

Deciding to call it quits when you are days or even hours away from going down the aisle is an agonizing experience that doesn't merit the smirking we do when we hear about a runaway bride. Marriage is a big decision-despite the commonplace of divorce. 

Marriage is both a legal and emotional state of mind. It most definitely is not "just a piece of paper." If it were, then it wouldn't make any difference one way or the other if co-habiting couples got married or stayed single.  But don't just trust me. Try this: The next time one of your living-together friends says that he or she believes marriage is just a piece of paper, then tell them you'd be happy to be their witness at their just-a-piece-of-paper wedding at City Hall.

It is precisely because marriage is such a big deal that distinguishing between wedding "jitters" and serious wedding misgivings is so difficult. Naturally, every situation is unique in details. Here is a guide to use as a springboard for determining whether and how you should walk away.

1. Put social embarrassment and family obligation aside for the moment. You won't be the first or last person to call it quits at the last minute. The awkwardness of cancelling a wedding is a small dose of emotional and financial pain compared to what you would experience with a divorce.

2. Go to a safe and quiet place and chart your reasons. Make a list of all the things that are upsetting you and causing you doubts about your pending marriage. Brainstorm, write as quickly as possible and don't filter what you put on the list. 

Add to the list:

  • My trusted and loving friends and family don't approve.
  • There are slaps, hits, throwing of objects at me, cuts, and hard pushes.
  • I no longer am in charge of my own finances or I don't have access to our mutual accounts.
  • I am criticized, kept away from my friends and told what to do.
  • We don't share any interests or values in common.
  • My partner doesn't make me feel "safe and warm."
  • I don't trust my partner.
  • I am good at making people feel loved, and I think I can fix my partner's past hurts.

3. Rate your problems and doubts. Review your list, including the items I've listed above. On a scale of one to ten, with ten the highest, assign a number that indicates how serious and troublesome you regard the problem.

4. Review your most recent heated fights. Write down the answer the following questions about your latest hot arguments: How long have we really been fighting and not getting long? How much have my feelings for my intended taken a nose dive since we got engaged? How many nights do I go to sleep sad, in tears or in doubt? 

Fights are rarely about the subject matter such as what kind of flowers to have as centerpieces, who should give toasts or what color to paint the bedroom walls. Ask yourself:  Deep down inside, underneath all the words, what do I think we were really fighting about?

5. Get some objectivity.  Now step back in your mind and pretend that, before you review your rated lists and answers to the questions, you are reading the responses of someone else.  What advice would you give this person?

Now imagine that one of those television news magazine shows such as "Dateline" or "20/20" is telling your story. What do you think the audience is thinking? Is it a happy ending-or not?  Would they tell the person to stay or leave?

6. Talk it out with your partner-but only if there has been NO sign at all of control, criticism, verbal or physical abuse, isolation from friends, family and funds. If your partner is safe and sane, then call an emergency meeting and talk out your serious doubts.  Do not downplay them.

7. Talk to a trusted and caring friend, family member and professional counselor.  You can either talk alone or with your partner.  Don't hold back.  Many pastors, priests and mental health centers will see you right away if you explain that it is an emergency.

Usually, if you have taken all or most of these steps, the answer will come. 

If you have nowhere to go, call a Women's Shelter, a mental health center, the YMCA, Salvation Army or your religious establishment for help with recommendations and information.

Be clear, be strong and informed so you can make the right call.

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, ED.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in relationships.  For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com. Also on her website, if you donate $5 to Habitat for Humanity-Sarasota, Florida, you can receive a download of her relationship advice cartoon book for women, "The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie."