For many women in the United States, a fairy tale persists: Meet guy, fall in love with guy, then anxiously await guy’s declaration of said love in a grand gesture — a spectacular marriage proposal — accompanied by an overpriced rock.
In an era of empowerment and broken glass ceilings, why do so many of us still want and wait for a glass slipper? Unlike many other male-female power dynamics, women haven’t just accepted that men will do the asking; we’ve gleefully perpetuated it.
My former boyfriend and I talked about marriage, but only in that dreamy way that many young couples do. The decisive moment was supposed to be a surprise, at least for me. Otherwise, he didn’t really love me! Romance, everywhere, would be dead!
When he did propose, I didn’t know what to say other than yes. He’s a wonderful man and I was in love; what other possible answer could there be to this romantic moment that I had dreamed of experiencing?
Dismayed by the prospect of planning a wedding, I suggested we drive to Las Vegas. Six hours later, we were married; six weeks later, the marriage was annulled. Having been swept up by passion rather than pragmatism, we quickly discovered it would never work.
Would honest, unsexy conversations about the details of building a life together have saved us heartache and embarrassment? Probably. Would I have considered such a practical sort of “proposal” at that point in my life? Probably not. I wanted a scene and story worthy of a rom-com.
I was not alone in that desire. The romantic proposal is so sought after that some women do all they can to shape it, while maintaining the fiction that the adoring and thoughtful man made it all happen.
Ellen Lamont, a professor of sociology at Appalachian State University who is writing a book about modern courtship, interviewed 38 straight, college-educated, Bay Area women — the sort who take command of their own lives in most regards — and found that nearly all of them had orchestrated their proposals yet told their friends it was a surprise.
Lamont says women yield to the cultural narrative that their fiance must choose them in a socially sanctioned way, fearing others will think their relationship if “less-than if it’s not performed correctly.”
Most heterosexual couples I know also painted the broad strokes of an engagement beforehand, but ultimately left the timeline up to the male. Lamont says this tradition reifies the continued disempowerment of women. “They’re not seen as valid drivers of their own desires,” she explains. “It reflects the idea that women should remain passive, that they should be chosen rather than be the choosers.”
Of course, perfectly planned proposals don’t necessarily spell doom; plenty of couples follow the prescribed meet-date-knee-wed process and still have strong marriages. But when a proposal fit for a romance novel is of such importance, couples can fall victim to planning the celebration but not the life together.
Stephanie Coontz, a marriage historian and author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage,” says the guy-asks-girl engagement finds its roots in economics. “Just as you don’t normally ask somebody to take you to dinner, you don’t ask somebody to support you for the rest of your life,” she explains. “That was the early sense: You can’t ask a man to marry you because you’re asking them to take on that responsibility.”
While she says that was always “baloney,” because women did ample work within the home, now there’s even less reason for the tradition, because many women earn money outside the home and come to the marriage as equals.
Coontz suggests that the proposal game reflects the “glacial weight” of gender stereotypes and the fact that “people are trying to find ways of accommodating the old stereotypes without necessarily living them.” She also notes that women haven’t had to face the risk of rejection — men traditionally are the ones who ask for a dance or a date — and may be savoring that luxury. Whatever the reason, she says, waiting for a man to prove something with a romantic proposal isn’t a good way “to start a modern, egalitarian relationship.”
And yet we wait. And then we peacock our rings and make predictions for our friends’ engagements — “I bet he’s going to do it in (insert exotic destination here)” — setting them up for disappointment if their partners don’t deliver.
I am no exception. I have participated in these rituals over and over — and will continue to do so, because I’m delighted for anyone who’s found love in the way they chose.
But last year, I told my current partner I wanted to talk about marriage. About what it would look like, when we’d do it, whether it was necessary. There was no drama and no diamond; just me and the man I love, talking. And then talking again. If we take the leap, there won’t be a ring or a bent knee. There will be a mutual decision free from the fanfare of an Instaworthy proposal.
While it might make for a boring rom-com, I’m hoping it will form the basis for a pretty good life.
Susan Shain is a freelance writer. She wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times.