Everyone loves a good wedding story. That’s why every other romantic comedy ends with two people saying "I do."
But probably the only thing people love more than a good wedding story is a wedding-that-didn’t-happen story.
Remember the real-life Runaway Bride? A media maelstrom surrounded Jennifer Wilbanks when she ditched her hubby-to-be back in April 2005. For weeks, experts commented on everything from her potential infidelity to the wide-eyed look on her face.
Cold feet stories make great fodder for fiction, too. Aside from the obvious — Julia Roberts’ 1999 “Runaway Bride” — the ditched-at-the-altar plot point pops up in so many movies and TV shows that it’s practically become a romantic comedy standby. Most recent example: Cristina leaving Burke at the altar just a few minutes too long on the season finale of "Grey's Anatomy."
So why do people love these stories so much?
“The reason I think it is so appealing is that there are very few times in a regular American life where everything comes down to a single moment — when there’s drama that focuses into a few seconds. There’s about as much tension and drama [in a wedding] as you can get and it all comes down to ... the uttering of two lines, neither one of which is more than two words long," said Syracuse University pop culture expert Robert Thompson.
And whether it’s meant to tug at our heartstrings or simply make us cringe, the plot point rarely fails to hit home.
“It’s just so easy to identify with,” said Thompson. “Even a 5-year-old who’s been a ring bearer can understand that if it ended right now, it would be very bad.”
From a writer's standpoint, it's also an easy device.
“All a comedy writer or a dramatist has to do is take this naturally highly charged thing and mess with it," Thompson added.
Often, a case of cold feet is used to set up a character’s defining wound. In 2001’s "The Wedding Planner," Jennifer Lopez’s character’s commitment phobia is a result of a long-ago jilting.
Debra Messing’s “The Wedding Date” (2005) opens with her character being dumped by a guy who was sleeping with her sister — the very thing that sends her seeking the high-priced hottie in the movie's title.
Other times, the jilt device is used along with the Right Guy Swooping in at the Last Minute mechanism. This usually involves the bride being saved from a marriage that everyone in the audience knows is a mistake.
“One of the great moments in the history of film is at the end of 'The Graduate' when Dustin Hoffman storms in,” said Thompson. “But in that case, the person who’s being jilted is someone we could care less about.”
"The Graduate," "The Wedding Singer," even "Shrek" all use this classic save-the-bride ending. Even Cristina's jilting by Burke in the season finale of "Grey’s Anatomy" had a subtle suggestion of both characters being saved from a loveless fate.
While in movies, the effect of being jilted is generally redemptive (it helped Messing’s character find true love with Dermot Mulroney’s gigolo with a heart of gold), getting ditched in real life has had slightly less promising results.
Remember poor Miss Havisham from "Great Expectations"? She was left scarred and mentally unstable when her groom decided to say “I don’t.”
And unfortunately, Dickens’ portrayal might best reflect the real repercussions of cold feet.
“There’s going to be a great sense of abandonment and loss. You’re about to publicly pronounce your love, and they leave you there at a very crucial ceremonial event. There also might be some humiliation over ‘How did I misread this person?’” said Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. Bill Hoppock.
But what causes people to back out of a wedding?
“I’m wondering if there may be a connection to a fear of intimacy,” said Hoppock. “Even in healthy relationships, there is some fear of surrendering emotionally to the other person.”
Whatever triggers the flight instinct, it is certainly more prevalent in the movies than it is in real life.
“By the time you get the altar, most people — if they’re gong to get cold feet — have managed to extricate themselves earlier than that moment," said Thompson.
“The number of weddings that end in a last-minute cancellation is significantly higher in the movies than it is in real life. Even if you decide at that moment [that it is wrong] rather than go through with the indignity of stopping everything, there’s something inside you that will probably say, ‘Let’s see, maybe I’m wrong,'" he added.
In other words, in real life, saying "I don't" isn't nearly as entertaining as it is on TV.