In an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Hannah Seligson longs for days of yore. The piece is called “How the Marriage Proposal Became a Negotiation: The question, like the ring, used to be a surprise.” It seems to be a given that this is fairly tragic. Seligson writes: “We’ve gone from popping the question to a long conversation, hammering out the details of when and how the engagement will happen.” Seligson even hints that this new negotiation-style is emasculating men and eroding gender norms, which seem to be understood as an uncommon good: “So how is all this bargaining affecting gender dynamics?” Seligson asks. She also writes: “the gender dance is still being worked out” and notes that one man felt cheated that his proposal wasn’t an out-of-the-blue popping of the question.
Seligson concludes, as if to allay WSJ readers fears that all that is sacred and holy and separate-spherical about traditional gender roles has been dismantled:
“Even so, do not mistake this for a level playing field. While there is more negotiation and compromise about the marriage timetable, Ms. Miller says her research showed that the man still holds the power to shut down the marriage conversation. Men in their 20s and 30s don’t seem to view the backroom negotiation as emasculating or ceding their turf to a generation of empowered women either. On the contrary—all this talking may have simply eliminated the only scary aspect of a proposal for a man: that the woman will say no.”
Yay! The men still have the majority of the power!
Seriously though, I think any couple looking to get married should be having conversations about marriage and what they want in a marriage and what they want out of life with someone else along for the ride long before anyone goes shopping for a ring. Divorce is too big of a possibility not to talk about marriage and figure out if your expectations are compatible before a proposal.
In my own relationship, Jon and I had been dating for three years by the time we got engaged. After about year one, I said to him over dinner, “You know, I just want you to know that I wouldn’t still be with you if I couldn’t see myself marrying you one day, and I hope you feel the same.” We both knew we were headed toward marriage, and we took steps to see if it was the right thing for us to do. We bought a book called 101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged, and we’d take it on walks to a park, sit down, and have 20 minute conversations about finances or division of household labor or even thoughts on sex. (Note: the book is Christian in nature, but I think non-religious couples could skip the more faith-based questions and still get something good out of the book.)
After we became pretty sure we wanted to get married, we talked about when would be a good time. Jon asked me if I’d want him to talk to my parents first (I said yes, but only to ask for their blessing, not to ask for their permission), and if I’d want to pick out my own ring (No, but I gave him some guidelines as to what I like and suggested he take my mom or sister with him to help. He ended up taking both parents and got me a gorgeous ring* from a family friend’s jewelry business.), and if I’d want the proposal to be a surprise (Yes, to the extent the hows and whens were up to him). And so, on April 2, 2006, he proposed to me at the summer camp where we first met, and we got engaged and began our whirlwind 4 months of wedding planning before our July 29th wedding. We went into the marriage knowing that we had shared goals and expectations for what our marriage would look like, and nearly 4 years later, we’re still happy as little clams in goofy disgusting love.
I’m sure plenty at the WSJ would think poor Jon emasculated to be married to a feministy harping shrew like me, but I’m pretty sure he never felt cheated that getting married was a foregone conclusion by the time he proposed (though I guess he knew I was a feministy harping shrew at the time that he proposed, so you can’t say he wasn’t warned). If you ask me, any guy who feels cheated because he and his intended discussed marriage before the proposal isn’t worth marrying anyway.
*Jon and I both agree that if we had it to do over again, we’d make sure my ring was a conflict-free diamond, most likely going the vintage or Canadian route. It’s our only regret about the whole thing, though I do love my beautiful ring.