During my first trip to Sydney, I got to check one off the bucket list when I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. They give you these jumpsuits to wear, complete with a utility belt and mechanical ball that connects you the entire trip to thick metal rope that goes all the way up the bridge. The guide instructs you on how to use these things and the whole group linked together for about 3 hours.
I got to chatting with our guide about his best stories of the job: celebrities coming through, people freaking out at the height, and marriage proposals. With the latter, the result was not always so nice. He told me the story of how a man arranged for his girlfriend’s entire immediate family to come to the top with them and, after the 90-minute hike to the tallest point, he popped the question only to be brutally rejected. Ouch. I bet those were a long 90 minutes back.
The Age, one of Melbourne’s main newspapers, recently ran a story about how these big, public proposals are getting increasingly popular. While most of the stories mentioned were the happily-ever-after type, the article did mention the famous proposal FAIL at a Houston Rockets game (although there is some debate as to whether this was staged).
These stories reinforced something I’ve been thinking about lately: why are we, as a culture, so fixated on the dramatic, now-or-never marriage proposal? With the traditional, down-on-one-knee proposal, there is a lot of pressure. Did I buy the right ring? Is it big enough (giggedy)? Will she say â€˜yes?’ â€˜What if she says â€˜no?’ Would that mean the relationship is over? The list goes on.
What I find particularly puzzling is the proposal without prior marriage discussions. Modern marriage is a complicated institution and people’s expectations and desires vary so widely, it is difficult for me to imagine delivering a high-stakes proposal without a lot of earlier conversations. To their credit, I know many couples do this and it’s just the where-and-when of the proposal that’s a surprise.
I understand, from an anthropological perspective, that there is value in male risk taking (slaying the mammoth and such) and displaying the (usually, but not always) male partner’s wealth. I also understand that proposals are often incredibly joyful events and I try not to argue with things that bring consensual joy to adult couples on an individual level. I just think the institution needs to non-obligatory. I hear a lot of criticism about the expectation that women attach so much value to weddings. I know that many women find a great deal of joy in planning their weddings, but I know very few women who would like that role to be compulsory. Logically, wouldn’t it be fair to critically examine the expectation that men deliver a perfect proposal under just the right circumstances?
Are there ways to create excitement and romance in offering commitment, without undue pressure or obligation?
Photo of Sydney Harbour Bridge by Kate McCombs