Several weeks ago, Salon published an article that questioned why men still seem to bear the brunt of responsibility for initiating the proposal process (http://www.salon.com/2013/05/12/why_are_men_still_proposing/singleton/). I’ve been thinking about the article ever since. Stephanie Coontz, go-to historian for all things marriage-related, suggests that this “tradition,” with all that it symbolizes, is a “game we play,” as well as a time when men show their commitment by making themselves somewhat vulnerable as they expose and express their emotions to their partners.
I wonder about the nature of proposals and whether this tradition (whose propensity for grandness I would link to the post-WWII era) will remain. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that marital relationships, for as much as we speak about egalitarianism, should begin at the initiation of a single party. As author Tracy Clark-Flory notes in her reference to a 2010 study, women often play a role in “encouraging” their partners to move toward the proposal, but it seems as though they’re willing to defer to men on the when, the where, and the how. In the name of romance? I guess. But the study also notes that men were more confident of their partners’ desires to wed than were the women, and this suggests to me an uneven distribution of power rather than romance.
Beyond the power men wield in romantic relationships, I can’t help but think of the power of popular culture. Grand gestures, elaborate plans, and long-orchestrated surprises seem to be the stuff of fictional fantasy, which then translates to women’s very real expectations. Is it the moment itself that is so important? Or is it the desire for “the story”: how he was almost foiled, how she had no idea, how an over-eager family member almost ruined the surprise? Is there anticipation of one-day nostalgia? Without the story to look back on, will the memory be as good? In my forthcoming book, As Long as We Both Shall Love, I argue that American wedding traditions have retained their power because they lend themselves to evolution and personal interpretation. And while Clark-Flory’s article begins with the tale of her non-traditional proposal, there seems to be a great deal of “how it should be” guiding many couples in their approach to the proposal. Even as I believe couples can be fully committed well before the marital relationship begins (and that marriage itself isn’t a necessity), there seems to be evidence that couples are more comfortable tweaking and taking risks with tradition when they have a kind of emotional insurance that both parties are fully devoted to the direction their unions are taking.