A Simple Fix for a Better Marriage Proposal

One partner—any partner—proposes. Later, the other one does too.

A photograph of one hand holding another hand that's wearing an engagement ring
Roy Hsu / Getty

This article was featured in One Story to Read Today, a newsletter in which our editors recommend a single must-read from The Atlantic, Monday through Friday. Sign up for it here.    

Tatiana Caicedo’s job is to help people plan their marriage proposals. Secrecy is important in her line of work—the business she co-owns is called Proposal 007—but sometimes her clients’ partners figure out what’s going on.

And when that happens, there might be a counter-proposal. For instance, after one woman proposed in a park with musical accompaniment, her partner—who was touched but not exactly surprised—led the woman to another part of the park, where she’d arranged roses in the shape of a heart, and proposed right back. Caicedo told me that the counter-proposal is especially common with clients who are in same-sex relationships; another operation that she helped plan in a restaurant culminated, to her surprise, in two men presenting rings to each other, taking turns getting down on one knee.

These couples’ mutual proposals are lovely reactions to the American engagement tradition, in which a man proposes to a woman, presenting her with a ring while down on one knee. This archaic and one-sided custom could use an update, or maybe a wholesale revision. “It can be an absolutely charming ritual,” Stephanie Coontz, the author of Marriage, a History, told me, but also one that promotes the ideas that “men are the agentic people in society” and that a woman is being “too pushy” if she asks for what she wants.

The question-and-answer format of a proposal is also a peculiar sort of playacting: The decision has usually already been made, and the question is hardly a surprise. According to survey data from the wedding website The Knot, approximately three-quarters of people who receive a proposal had a role in selecting their ring. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of couples explicitly talk about their preferences for how the proposal will play out—in private or in public, involving family or not, and so on.

In fact, a proposal that’s truly a surprise—when the question of marriage arrives without any previous discussion—is generally not a good thing. In an analysis of first-person accounts of proposals on online forums, Lisa Hoplock, who got her Ph.D. in psychology at Canada’s University of Victoria, and Danu Anthony Stinson, who is a psychology professor there, found that stories of accepted proposals were far more likely than stories of rejected proposals to have included talking about marriage in advance.

Nonetheless, Coontz said, sometime in the 20th century, there arose a cultural ideal that the moment of a proposal should be surprising—picture a man presenting a ring to a woman whose mouth is agape and whose hands are on her cheeks. Coontz hasn’t nailed down precisely when this image was popularized, but she suspects it emerged from silent movies’ depictions of proposals. (These days, social media has made the pressure to have a dramatic, perfectly staged proposal far more intense.)

One reason this notion of a surprise gained and maintained popularity, suggests Ellen Lamont, a sociologist at Appalachian State University and the author of The Mating Game: How Gender Still Shapes How We Date, might be that it plays up the role of passion, rather than pragmatism, in the story of a marriage—that narrative being important in an era when people marry for love and personal fulfillment. Further, a ritual that has a man orchestrate a dramatic display of love avoids the supposedly embarrassing suggestion that a woman is desperate to be asked or that a man is being dragged into a stepped-up commitment. In her research on proposals, Lamont told me, many women said that a surprise (or, as one interviewee put it, “surprise-ish”) proposal made them feel “chosen and special,” even if the male-led ritual that produced that feeling is in tension with the egalitarian relationship that many couples say they want.

To be clear, laying out the problems with the American proposal tradition is not intended to scold anyone who follows it; as Coontz said, proposals can be genuinely endearing. But at the same time, if American culture were to have an engagement ritual that was just as romantic and distinctive, but less regressive and gender-anxious—all while assuming that many couples will discuss their engagement in advance—what would that look like?

I recently put that question to sociologists and historians who study marriage and dating. One of them, Tamara Sniezek at California State University at Stanislaus, noted that the couples most likely to alter the rituals of marriage might just skip them and cohabitate, which—fair point. But one line of thinking I heard from others was to tinker with the conventions of the current ritual to make it more egalitarian: for example, have both partners present a ring (or a gift) and have them both sit or stand so that one is not above the other. Along these lines, one creative idea for couples who have already decided on marriage, from Amanda Miller, a sociologist at the University of Indianapolis, was to space out the proposal and the response to it. Instead of saying “yes” right away, the proposed-to partner would plan an equally romantic acceptance at a later date, giving both parties an opportunity to engineer a special moment.

These ideas are a good start, though they don’t resolve the underlying problem of the initiation of the ritual falling along gender lines. Another category of ideas I heard recommended replacing the current ritual with … nothing. Just “throw out the proposal ritual entirely,” Miller suggested, “and instead start calling a couple engaged from the time they have the mutual conversation and agree, ‘Yes, we should get married.’” (For what it’s worth, this is what many of the experts I surveyed mentioned doing in their own lives.)

Not every important moment in life must be dramatic or Instagrammable—not least a considered joint decision to embark on a lifelong commitment—but not having any ritual could feel a bit anticlimactic. The solution that some experts came up with was to throw an engagement party. This shifts the emphasis of the ritual from the theater of “popping the question” to the thrill of sharing your joyful news with loved ones. An engagement party might not feel incredibly different from a wedding celebration, but are you really going to argue against having another party?

Another way of revising the current ritual is to alter the mechanism of the question and answer altogether. Cate Denial, a historian at Knox College, brought up the concept of “handfasting,” a broad term for “the clasping of hands and a promise to marry.” Its origins are unclear (it might be Celtic, Scandinavian, or something else) and it takes different forms (you can hold hands, shake hands, tie them together). But Denial noted that there are historical examples of couples using it to get married without an officiant—a powerful symbol of self-determination that might make for a nice, mutual engagement mechanism.

Ultimately, the most satisfying alternative I came across was to do as the proposal planner Caicedo’s clients did and make the traditional one-sided ritual two-sided. The innovation of having each partner propose is more common in LGBTQ relationships—per The Knot, 9 percent of same-sex couples have “joint proposals,” while only 1 percent of different-sex couples do. Mutual proposals manage to make engagements more egalitarian without getting rid of the parts of proposals that many people love: Couples still get a story-worthy moment (two, in fact), as much surprise as they care to have, and a well-defined procedure that is legible as a marker of a new life stage.

Agreeing on this protocol beforehand could introduce some awkward logistical questions, but one couple profiled in The Guardian devised a clever system: Once they decided that they wanted to get engaged, they entered a stretch of time they called “the period,” during which either partner could propose; they wouldn’t consider the engagement complete—and they wouldn’t tell anyone else about it—until both partners had done so.

Another advantage of proposing mutually during something like “the period” is that it doesn’t come with an intuitive norm about whether, in different-sex couples, the man or the woman should go first, because both proposals serve the vital role of either starting or finishing the process. Also, a mutual proposal does away with the tired narratives of the proactive man and the sought-after woman. It makes surprise—and elaborate displays of love—equal-opportunity.

People who don’t like the idea of a mutual proposal should perhaps consider how little of a departure it is from the way things actually work now. Sniezek, from Cal State Stanislaus, told me that in her research, it was “almost always” the woman who initiated the “where is this relationship heading?” conversation, and only after the couple decided they’d get married did the man come up with a plan to propose. If you squint at this sequence of events, it almost looks like the woman is the one doing the actual proposal, just indirectly. Proposing mutually would bring this hidden female half of the conversation into public view.

David Schweingruber, a sociologist at Iowa State University, told me that the current proposal ritual is effective because it produces two clear pieces of evidence that a couple is engaged: “a story and a ring.” With mutual proposals, couples would double their joy and get two of each.