It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas when one person in a relationship asks for the other’s hand in marriage.
From the beginning of December through to Valentine’s Day in February about half of all marriage proposals made in a year will take place, with the most popular dates being Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Valentine’s Day.
Thanks to the countless romantic novels, movies and TV shows, those marriage proposals will follow a traditional script which has been etched into our minds.
He will take her somewhere romantic. She will have absolutely no idea what is about to happen. He will get down on one knee and pop the question. And she will reply instantly with an excited “yes, I will”.
As the question is popped another looms large: is the traditional marriage proposal past its best-before date?
The old-school way of proposing has a number of key ingredients.
The man does the planning for the event, has a ring to slide on the women’s finger and assumes the full risk of rejection.
The women’s role is to be totally surprised (or shocked) because she had no prior knowledge of the proposal. She has the added responsibilities for graciously accepting (or rejecting) the proposal and for being delighted (or mortified) with the choice of engagement ring.
Yet scratch the sparkling surface of the marriage proposal and you might begin to think the traditional approach is as broken as a dropped mirror.
The findings of a recent analysis of almost 400 written accounts of marriage proposals, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, have highlighted one of a number of hitches with popping the question the old-fashioned way — the woman has no sense that a proposal is on its way.
The study revealed that about 40 per cent of all rejected proposals involved couples who had never discussed marriage prior to the big event.
Those findings should not surprise. Responsible decisions are not made in the moment but the outcome of deep conversations.
Choosing a partner for marriage is among the most important decisions people ever make in their lives. Therefore, reducing that decision point to a staged, two-minute romantic rendezvous seems frivolous at best and irresponsible at worst.
Quite aside from blindsiding a prospective marriage partner with an unanticipated proposal, the traditional way of asking for a women’s hand in marriage is perhaps too one-sided for many to stomach and not reflective of today’s fairer, more egalitarian society.
It portrays men as taking the lead in matters of the heart and having the upper hand and women as grateful or passive recipients of any proposal that might happen to come their way.
On top of that, the traditional marriage proposal is completely out of kilter with contemporary views of who can legally wed. As a case in point, same-sex unions have broken the traditional marriage proposal mould.
And we simply cannot ignore that the traditional marriage proposal’s demise is partly attributable to the fact proposing has become more of a public spectacle than an act of personalised passion.
With social media now often an essential part of the process, some couples’ attempts to showcase a perfect, rom-com worthy wedding proposal have slaughtered the spontaneity once associated with popping the question the good old-fashioned way.
To be clear, picking holes in an age-old ritual is not intended to get anyone’s back up. After all, marriage proposals should be about personal preferences. Plus the traditional way of signalling one’s intention to get hitched seems to have served us well in years gone by.
Nonetheless there is growing dissatisfaction with the old-fashioned way of proposing — and changes are afoot.
Couples are increasingly discussing the broad strokes of an engagement but leaving the timeline up in the air. When the exact date of an engagement is not agreed, an element of “proposal surprise” is retained because either partner can initiate a proposal when they feel the time is right.
Some are taking matters even further by talking about tailoring their engagement experience to suit their personalities and discussing when and where the event should take place, and who ought to be present.
There is also the prospect of making the traditional one-sided proposal a two-sided affair so neither person in a relationship has the upper hand.
Called a double proposal, once a couple has confirmed their intentions to get married they enter a void period during which either partner can initiate a proposal. Once one partner proposes, the engagement is not confirmed until the other partner “returns” the proposal.
Some couples are even swapping the traditional “will you marry me?” with “I do, do you?”, “me and you forever together” and “put on the ring for ‘yes’, close the box for ‘no’”.
At some time in the last century, perhaps even in the century before, the idea was hatched that a marriage proposal should be a surprise, a male must initiate it and a female must joyously accept it.
It was a ritual based more on the peculiarities of the past rather than the practicalities of the present.
Men dropping down on one knee was thought to be a sign of chivalry. Presenting the bride-to-be with a whopping big diamond ring as the question was popped was a sign that a woman’s suitor was cashed up enough to financially support her.
The question today is whether the traditional marriage proposal is still fit for purpose.
And the answer is likely to be more complicated than “yes, I do”.
Professor Gary Martin is CEO with the Australian Institute of Management WA.