This originally appeared on The Daily Life. Republished here with permission.
My marriage proposal to my wife Kasey went something like this:
Kasey: ‘I just told Stephen that we want to have a baby and he asked when we were getting married.’
Kasey: ‘I told him that marriage was an antiquated institution that is set up to fail and that we hadn’t even discussed marriage.’
Kasey: ‘You don’t want to get married do you?’
Me: ‘Well actually, yes, I would love to marry you.’
Kasey: ‘What? Huh?’
No skywriting, no poetry, no bruised knee on the grungy tiled floor of the Vietnamese restaurant in my marriage proposal. In fact, as far as proposals go, it wasn’t. It was more a mutual, candid conversation between two adults agreeing to marry one another.
I’m not likely to be a nominee for most romantic guy of the year, but nonetheless it’s amazing to discover how wedded (no pun intended) people still are to the traditional marriage proposal—the one where the man asks the woman.
A recent survey of 277 heterosexual undergraduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz to be published in the Journal of Adolescent Research, for example, found that two-thirds of respondents—both male and female—“definitely” want the man to propose marriage in their relationship.
Not a single man wanted the woman to propose and not a single male or female student said that they’d “definitely” want a woman to propose. Not one.
The nearest the students came to equality when it comes to marriage proposals was a tiny confetti-sized 2.8% of women who said that they’d “kind of” want to propose.
I’m not one to trash traditions for the sake of it. There is, after all, a reason why traditions persist, especially around social rites of passage, where individuals negotiate a transition from one state—singledom to engagement and marriage, for example—to another. Pretty well every society has rules, rituals, and prescribed roles around dating and mating behaviors and it would be churlish to say all of them are hooey.
But at the same time, those rules, rituals, and roles frequently come loaded with more baggage than an Airbus A380 bound for a honeymoon destination. This particular baggage comes labeled with tags like “Men are Agents and Women are Passive.” Or, more romantically, but just as constricting, “Princesses must wait silently and compliantly for their prince to come along and rescue them.”
And if you think that’s reading too much into what might seem to be an otherwise harmless tradition, consider that one man said that he’d “feel emasculated” if he wasn’t the one popping the question.
If a guy feels emasculated by a woman saying she wants to spend the rest of her life with him, then imagine how he’s going to feel if she wants to be the primary breadwinner or if she asks him to take responsibility for looking after the kids or even if she insists he picks up his dirty socks?
Women taking the initiative to pop the question may in fact be a really good way to test just how equal the marriage is going to be. If a man turns down a marriage proposal from a woman simply because she initiated the conversation, then she probably just dodged a bullet.
But it’s worth noting that most women are not only willing to concede the power of engagement to the man, they insist on it. One woman, for example, said that it would be “very awkward” if she proposed.
I obviously can’t speak for all men, but I would have been thrilled and flattered if my wife had proposed to me. (Come to think of it, on the rare occasions women have asked me out on dates, the last thing I felt was emasculated.)
And given that most of us aspire to a society where women don’t have to concede power and men don’t have to insist on such concession, then isn’t it time to rewrite the rules of engagement?
Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University and is a co-founder of www.upstart.net.au, the site for emerging journalists.