ATLANTA – On the surface, Jennifer Wilbanks (search) was a happy bride-to-be who showed no sign to friends or family that she wanted to call off her extravagant wedding.
But underneath, as she would later tell police after running away to New Mexico (search), Wilbanks was scared and not sure she wanted to go through with her big day.
Marriage counselors say Wilbanks' actions are an extreme but understandable reaction to the stress of the wedding and the fear of disappointing others by backing out.
"Sometimes it's like being stuck in a river getting whisked over a waterfall," said Dr. Charles Raison, a psychiatrist and Emory University (search) instructor who has counseled people about marital concerns. "The current is so strong, you can't fight it."
Shame about canceling a wedding at the last minute can lead to feelings of helplessness, counselors say.
"They've committed themselves out there in public, to their partner, their minister, their community, their friends while they've been perhaps nursing some ambivalence, mixed feelings and they feel isolated without being able to share it with anyone," said marriage counselor Andrew Gee. "It's like they've committed themselves to a course of action they're not comfortable with. That would be a nightmare to me."
Police say Wilbanks cut her hair to disguise her appearance so no one would recognize her during her bus trip west. She left her identification, credit cards and diamond ring behind. There was no note, and, for four days, no call home.
Raison said the size of the wedding — as many as 600 guests and 14 bridesmaids — may have overcome Wilbanks.
"Weddings are terrible stresses on people," he said. "They really try people's relationships, especially when they're one of these big productions."
Dr. Joan Miller, a marriage counselor in Marietta, Ga., said Wilbanks' case of second thoughts before marriage is common, though people don't always react to their situations the same way.
"She had everything planned and had an effective way to address the situation," Miller said. "It's hard to understand what's going on in her head because we're not in her situation."
Gee said some brides-to-be are open with their families about their jitters, while others keep the feelings bottled up.
Running away "seems a little extreme," Gee said. "But it feels extreme if you feel like you're about to break a commitment or you can't break a commitment. So, she resorted to extreme measures it seems."