Are Marriage Proposals Stupid?

The grand gesture may put undue pressure on women in making an important life decision.


Caroline Kitchener argues, “Marriage Proposals Are Stupid.”

Her initial critique is only mildly interesting:

Since the second wave of the feminist movement crested in the 1970s, almost every antiquated gender tradition in the United States has been seriously challenged. But not the proposal. “It’s been extremely resistant to change,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of marriage and family history at Evergreen State College. In 95 percent of proposals between heterosexual couples, it’s still the man who asks the question, according to a study conducted by the Associated Press and GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. “He makes this over-the-top attempt to show the woman that, even if we play things equally from here on out, in this, we will be traditional,” Coontz adds. There is no time to pause, discuss, call friends for their advice, and think it over. You just have to know.

In some ways, proposals do seem to be changing, but in the opposite direction. They’re becoming less egalitarian: less conversation-like and more elaborate and fantastical. Ellen Lamont, assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University, interviewed 105 people about their proposals. “The women needed a story to tell their friends,” Lamont said. “There was more interest in the proposal being a public spectacle. If it was more of a conversation, it didn’t have the same impact.”

She attributes this to social media. Now, when a couple gets engaged, the Facebook or Instagram post is an essential part of the process. “Women want that perfect picture—him down on one knee; her, hand on cheek, surprised.” Lamont says that most of the men in her study, on the other hand, professed to not caring about the details. “They were like, ‘Whatever, I was going to propose anyway. If this is what makes her happy, I’m going to do it.'” For gay couples, these norms—and the larger, gendered roles partners are expected to enact in their relationships—are in flux.

But embedded in that is the more important one:

But responsible decisions aren’t made in the moment. They’re the product of dialogue and careful, measured consideration. Even if a couple is already living together, marriage is a big step. There are important questions to ask: How will finances work? Would you move across the country for a job? Will we have children, and if we do, will you change the diapers? When he’s down on one knee, with friends hiding in the bushes, there is no time to get answers or air doubts. And, while most couples probably won’t admit it, facing this particular milestone, doubts are normal. They don’t mean you love your partner any less.

Because elaborate proposals inhibit conversation, they pressure the person being asked to say yes. If the subject of marriage comes outside the context of a proposal, Coontz says, a woman is free to tell her partner she isn’t ready. “But when the actual proposal comes,” she told me, “it’s still so wrapped up in the old tradition of males taking initiative and females being delighted that it’s very painful for everyone if it doesn’t go the way we expect—for the women who has to say no, for the man who feels humiliated, and for any public audience.”

Today some couples will try to have both: the conversation, and the show. They’ll make sure they’re on the same page about marriage, and then the woman will wait for the man to pick the perfect time and place. While this approach certainly helps, these conversations may be somewhat suffocated by the knowledge that a proposal is looming, and a desire to preserve some element of surprise for the big moment. (When I proposed to my boyfriend, we had already talked beforehand. The proposal was lovely, but I still wonder if it was really necessary.)

But many couples do not have these conversations, and the proposal really is when the decision gets made—sometimes poorly. A few women in Lamont’s study admitted that they said yes even though they really didn’t want to get married. Faced with an extravagant proposal, realizing how much work must have gone into it, they felt they had to choose between an engagement and a breakup. “I felt like it would be saying no to the relationship, rather than just saying no to the proposal,” one woman told Lamont. “I didn’t think we could come back from that.” As my colleague Megan Garber has written, women—more so than men—aggressively avoid awkward situations. Cultural forces, she writes, “demand that they be accommodating. That they be pleasing. That they capitulate to the feelings of others, and maintain a kind of sunny status quo.” Just go with the flow, these forces suggest. Be chill. Get married.

The interplay between on-the-spot nature of the event and pressure women face to be accommodating never really occurred to me. It’s a strong point.

I’ve never given the issue all that much thought because “over-the-top” and “public spectacle” has never been my style. When I’m in a dating relationship that’s serious enough that a long-term future seems plausible—and, frankly, I tend to end things quickly if it doesn’t—I just naturally have the sort of conversations Kitchener describes as desirable.

Indeed, it surprises me that a lot of people seemingly get married without discussing obvious issues like whether they want to have kids or whether they’ll co-mingle finances. By the time I finally proposed to my late wife, we’d not only talked about the whether but how many and what their names would be. Then again, we were both absurdly practical about most relationship matters, whether by nature or simply as a function of being older. We’d already bought her ring by the time I “asked,” making the answer something of a foregone conclusion.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I “proposed” while sitting on the stove. It was actually just a discussion of whether we should formalize our relationship or not. My thinking was that if we weren’t married the union would get my pension if I died unexpectedly and I figured if she was going to put up with me she had earned at least that much.

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  2. Scott says:

    There is a lot of pressure on the guys also to pull off an elaborate proposal. So it is unfair to both sides. BTW, this starts in high school. The asking to the prom business is totally out of hand.

    Another way of looking at this is through Darwin and his concept of sexual selection. Aren’t we just animals going through elaborate dance and courtship rituals to attract the mate?

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Scott: Yeah, my girlfriend’s son is 17 and he just went through the whole “prom-posal” ordeal. It’s nuts.

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  4. James Pearce says:

    She attributes this to social media. Now, when a couple gets engaged, the Facebook or Instagram post is an essential part of the process.

    For some people…and, let’s be clear about something, those people are weird.

    Also, when I saw the headline, “Are Marriage Proposals Stupid?” I immediately thought of this scene from Bone Tomahawk.

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  5. Lynn says:

    I’ve always thought that the whole “popping the question” thing was pretty silly, and it’s become sillier as it’s become even more staged.

    It has always seemed to me that, if a couple is moving toward a more intimate, more committed relationship, there should be ongoing conversation about that. The idea of a surprise proposal or of the woman waiting for him to ask simply runs counter to my idea of intimacy.

    Of course, I don’t understand much of the hoopla around weddings … the big engagement ring, long engagement, huge wedding, greatest day of her life, etc. Add in “huneyfund.com and wedding blogs (for example, https://www.theknot.com/us/tanner-ferderer-and-sophia-kempf-jun-2017) and I’m really lost.

    I’ve been proposed to twice, and I’ve been married twice … but not to either of the men who proposed.

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  6. CSK says:

    @Lynn:

    Certain people want desperately to be “celebrities.” Staging this kind of three-ring circus is the only way they can manage it.

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  7. Slugger says:

    My marriage of now 47 years came about as a gradual evolution of our dating relationship. However, if people want to jazz up the process, it’s o.k. with me. None of us really know what we’ve getting into in life. There is no script. It is something you create as you go along. Mistakes will be made. Have some fun. Make your own way.

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  8. Lynn says:

    @CSK: “Certain people want desperately to be “celebrities.” Staging this kind of three-ring circus is the only way they can manage it.”

    The guy whose wedding blog I posted was my husband’s neurologist. Go figure.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    I find these proposals obnoxious in the extreme. They are displays of narcissism and have nothing to do with the survivability of the marriage.

    My wife and I got married soon after we got together so she could get on my health plan and so that she could not be forced to testify against me. We were well and truly baked, giggling like idiots before a Justice of the Peace in Annapolis, and had to draft some secretaries to act as witnesses. But the whole thing was irrelevant because neither of us cared about the ritual: we were us, Katherine and Michael, and knew we always would be, whatever words were recited.

    Marriage isn’t a show or a party with friends, it’s you and your spouse standing shoulder to shoulder in the shield wall. Mostly you’re battling trivia and nonsense, mountains of trivia and nonsense, year after year. But every now and then some outsider takes a shot at you and your shield maiden steps in and cuts their throat.

    We’ve been together almost 39 years. We were together when I was a fugitive, together when we were desperately poor, together as we succeeded. We have no idea what day we were married on, we count the day we met as our anniversary because the ritual is irrelevant. It’s not some extravagant proposal or a fifty thousand dollar wedding that keeps you together when all the bills are final warnings and you’re up to your neck in alligators.

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  10. Mikey says:

    @michael reynolds: My wife and I got married in my sister’s living room. We paid an authorized officiant $150 and the wedding music came out of a boom box. It’s what we could afford on E-4 pay. I wouldn’t go back and change a moment of it.

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  11. rachel says:

    @James Joyner: Oh, that sounds way too young.

  12. MarkedMan says:

    I really don’t have any opinion on whether fancy marriage proposals are “good” or “bad”. Depends entirely on the couple. About the only piece of advice I would give is don’t do it unless you already have clear confirmation that the answer will be yes. Exactly for the reasons cited above: the chance that someone will accept out of embarrassment and confusion. Or that someone will say no and you have just created a lifelong and public bad memory.

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  13. Davebo says:

    @Mikey: My wife and were married in the living room of our apartment the same way almost exactly 72 hours after getting the license (as required).

    Lasted 23 years and would still be going strong today if she were still here. Total cost, including rings, around $500.

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  14. Lynn says:

    @Mikey:

    We got married in my mother’s nursing home. She was a bit confused …

    That woman at your wedding, the one in white … who was she?

    She was the pastor.

    Oh … and that woman with her, who was that?

    That was her partner.

    Oh … life partner or business partner?

    Life partner.

    Oh … are they lesbians?

    Yes.

    Oh … who does the cooking?

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  15. grumpy realist says:

    @michael reynolds: Well, this is the standard complaint a lot of people make about weddings–that the couple–especially the bride–are so caught up in the planning for the wedding that they don’t plan for the marriage itself. (Come to think of it, it’s usually the bride and the bride’s MOTHER who are caught up in the Princess-for-a-Day fantasies. The groom at that point is nothing more than a convenient third wheel to stick up dressed in a tuxedo.)

    Unfortunately, dragging young people out of Disney fantasies and getting them to think of marriage as it actually is rather than an “and they lived happily ever after” process is pretty difficult. Young people will be dumb for whatever reasons.

    (And speaking of dumb, I DO trust that all of you here, especially those of you with any capital, have a will? And that it’s up to date? I’ve been dealing this last year with handling the estate of a close friend who died suddenly and intestate and lemme tell you the intestate aspect has made it far more expensive and complex than it had to be. We’re at the moment rushing to try to get everything done within the one year deadline so we don’t have more hassle with the posting of bonds and multi-year estate tax situations. So PLEASE, guys, if you don’t have one, go get a will done!)

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