The marriage proposal is one of the most ritualized moments in modern American life. Growing up, many girls are instilled with a specific idea of how it should go: He’ll take us somewhere romantic—we’ll have no idea what’s happening—he’ll get down on one knee—we’ll start crying—he’ll pop the question—we’ll immediately say yes. It should be magical.
But for a lot of heterosexual couples, the proposal—as movies portray it, as many millennial women have internalized it—doesn’t reflect the kind of modern, egalitarian relationships many women want today. Whom to marry is among the most important decisions most people will ever make in their lives, and yet it’s not a choice made in the course of a conversation—the normal way two grown humans make big life decisions. Instead, it has to be a show, with a prefixed grand finale: “yes.”
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 the vast majority of proposals between heterosexual couples, it’s still the man who asks the question.* “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.
This particular conception of a proposal is solidified by American pop culture. There are hundreds of memorable proposal scenes in modern TV and movies, most of which follow a familiar script. Lamont says the opening scene of Sweet Home Alabama best encapsulates the “quintessential proposal:” Reese Witherspoon walks into Tiffany & Co., blindfolded—her boyfriend uncovers her eyes, reveals the dozens of jewelers standing at attention, and tells her to “pick one.” “Oh my god,” she says, mouth wide open, stunned. “Oh my god.”
When I asked why the proposal has been so slow to modernize, Lamont credited a phenomenon she calls “symbolic gendering.” “Now that we expect women to be equal to men, women are looking for ways to distinguish gender in their lives.” Within heterosexual romantic relationships, Lamont says, there is still a strong sense that women and men want different things and, by extension, should behave in different ways. As more women assume traditionally male roles at work, the traits that distinguish men and women in relationships become harder to see. “A symbolic act, like a proposal, is a way to reenact those differences.”
Of course, many couples perform this particular ritual because it’s fun and romantic. When a man plans an elaborate scheme to ask his girlfriend to marry him—when he builds a telescope, or rents out a stadium, or presents his partner with a seventeen-carat diamond hidden inside a Ring Pop—a person is going to feel special. While many of the men in Lamont’s study professed indifference to elaborate proposals, there’s reason to think they appeal to men, too. Several recent studies show that men, particularly young men, feel intense pressure to hide how they’re feeling. According to Judy Chu, a sociologist at Stanford who studies gender, young men today are so fixated on “being a man” that they “end up missing...what they each really want, which is just that closeness.” A proposal is an occasion when it’s socially acceptable, even encouraged, for men to be emotional—to lay it all on the line, and show their partner how much she means to them.
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.
A marriage is, ideally, a partnership. It’s two people, playing life as a team. The proposal sets the tone for that partnership: Will you make the biggest, most important life decisions together, or will you make them apart? Talking about the kind of future you want to build, agreeing that it’s time take the next step, imagining where you’ll be, as a couple, 50 years down the road—that’s romantic. I’d take that conversation over a grand gesture, any day.
*This article initially stated that men propose in 95 percent of proposals between heterosexual couples. We regret the error.