Marriage Proposals Under Pressure

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 ‘yes?’ ‘What if she says ‘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

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About Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs

Kate McCombs, MPH is a NYC-based sex educator + blogger. She's the founder of Sex Geekdom, a global community for sex educators, researchers, and other folks who love having geeky conversations about sex.

  • Pgmccombs

    As always, a very insightful post.

  • Heather B. H.

    I am a huge fan of ceremony/ritual in life and feel we have far too little of it because of people’s fear around mixing spirituality or religion with ANYTHING else.
    This being said, I am actually in a long-term-loving relationship with man whom I have been committed to and adored for 5 years on Halloween (we met in costume:).
    Things have not always been perfect, (who’s relationship has?) but we are grateful to each other that we are both good communicators (for the most part).
    Thus – we have had many, probably TOO many, in depth conversations about marriage. We are finally to a point where we see eye to eye and are truly ready. I think I put a lot of pressure on him to be UBER romantic in his eventual proposal early on in our relationship, and now I’ve told him “seriously, just put a bandaid on my finger and mean what you say and that will be enough!”. But the truth is I do have a desire for it to be well-thought out and special, full of intention and meaning. So, somewhere in between the bandaid and knight-in-shining-armor proposal, and after much thoughtful discussion, lies the proposal of my dreams.
    And he knows, without a doubt, that the answer will be “YES”.
    I will give him a ring as well and take the same ‘risk’ in asking him to be the love-of-my-life for the rest of my life.
    So you are right, it’s the where and when that will be the sweet surprise.

  • Anonymous

    The bridge anecdote is an excellent metaphor for the subject of this post. There’s lots of dialogue about the anticipation of the climb UP… and very little about what happens if you make the long climb DOWN.

    This discussion is not only relevant to proposers in traditional relationships (i.e. the male partner), but also to the “proposees” (i.e. the female partner). How does the latter feel about making such an important life decision under the clear, present public pressure to comply? Is the institution of “popping the question” implicit in womens’ disempowerment?

    It’s an interesting segue to a discussion about female partner choice vs. the value placed on being “surprised” by an offer of committment under the perfect, fairy-tale circumstances… and which is more important than the other.