Rebekah Kendall, a New York City public school teacher, used her February 2021 break to do something few women ever get to do: she proposed to her boyfriend, Bilig Bayar, an assistant principal at a different New York City school, on a beach at a resort in Jamaica. "I got down on one knee, did the whole thing," says Kendall.
She had scoped the perfect spot while Bayar was at the gym, set up her phone to take pictures under the pretense she wanted vacation snaps, and bought a fancy watch to give him instead of a ring. "I really had the element of surprise on my side," she says. "He had no expectation of it and he was just shocked and so elated and it was really special and really fun." (He said yes.)
She shared her plans with her friends beforehand, and their reaction was muted. "They didn't try to talk me out of it, but they definitely didn't have the reaction that I would have liked," says Kendall. "They were like, 'That's ... that's so you!' Like, 'Good for you!'" She told her mother in advance but not her father: "I didn't really know the protocol on how to ask you for my own hand in marriage to give to someone else," she told him.
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The process by which men and women meet, mate, and manufacture more humans is undergoing a radical realignment. Half a century ago two-thirds of Americans ages 25 to 50 were living with a spouse and a smattering of offspring. Today, that fraction is closer to one-third. Whereas marriage used to be an institution widely adopted across all socioeconomic levels, today it is much more prevalent among people who are wealthy and educated. About one in a hundred marriages in the U.S. are between people of the same sex. An unknown but growing fraction of them, including the former Mayor of New York City's, are openly nonmonogamous.
But plenty of things about the process of getting married have remained stubbornly unchanged. Men still buy women expensive engagement rings, even when a couple already shares expenses. American women married to men continue to take their husband's last names, at a rate of 80:20. After a lull during the pandemic, the wedding industry is back in the black or, um, white. And the overwhelming number of proposals are still made by men.
Data on how many women propose is not robust. But Michele Velazquez, who helps plan proposals with her company The Heart Bandits, says she has seen no increase in the number of women proposing in the 13 years she has been in business. She estimates that only three women from heterosexual couples contact her per year.
Read More: The Case Against Engagement Rings
The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau say that there are only 90 unmarried men for every 100 unmarried women. More women than ever are earning money of their own and thus less reliant on men for financial stability. And most women are already living with the men they are going to marry before any proposal is plotted. These market conditions—an undersupply of men, an ability to provide, and the willing presence of a local candidate—would seem to clear the way for women to do the asking. Yet they don't.
What prevents a woman who wishes to marry her partner from proposing to him? Is it mortification, the suggestion that a woman had to force the issue because she was not desirable enough to be chosen? Is it the unspoken prohibition on any act that whiffs of female aggression or ambition? Does it seem forward and loose, as if these women were throwing themselves at men? "Sometimes women are embarrassed to admit they proposed," says Julie Gottman, co-founder of The Gottman Institute and co-author of the marriage-advice staple, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. "It makes them seem pushy and controlling, and perhaps not loved enough to receive a proposal."
She points to the mesmerizing effect of years of saturation in romantic fairy tales. "As much as we’ve tried to establish new, more egalitarian standards for ourselves, those images and their influence have seeped into our bones," says Gottman. "It’s nice to be begged to marry. That’s really being wanted."
For Aaron Renn, a conservative thinker and writer at the American Reformer, the converse is also true. To ask someone to marry you is to risk being spurned. "I think men have traditionally always just had this understanding that they have to bear the risk of rejection," he says. Women hold the high ground in that encounter, and they may not wish to cede it. "Do you want to be the party that is in the position to decide: 'I accept or reject,'" asks Renn, "or do you want to be the party who is at risk of being accepted or rejected?"
When New Yorkers Amy Shack Egan and John Egan decided to get married in 2017, they opted for a third alternative. They both love sunsets, so they researched the best places to see the sun set and planned a covert trip to the Grand Canyon. They flew to Los Angeles, splurged on a convertible, and drove to their chosen spot where, as the sun went down, they each read something they'd written about why they wanted to spend their lives together.
"We drove up and I remember thinking: 'It's that very rare moment in your life when you know everything is different when you come back to this car,'" says Shack Egan. They each bought their own engagement rings (Shack Egan's was a chunky turquoise) and surprised each other with gifts. She bought him an outdoor couples' massage. He bought her a couples' skydive, because of the metaphorical leap they were taking and "because I've always wanted to go and he's terrified of heights." They had a week alone together before announcing the news to family and friends, who Shack Egan said were pleased, if a bit puzzled by the methodology.
Did she not want the surprise proposal? "I hear proposal stories every day, and the thing I hear the most is that it's never a total surprise," says Shack Egan, who runs the wedding-planning company Modern Rebel. "The conversation around marriage should never be a surprise. If it's a surprise, that's not a great sign." Couples who come to Modern Rebel, which calls its events "love parties," usually want to think outside the box when planning their nuptials, but she has noticed that a proposal from a guy has proved to be a hardy perennial.
Both Shack Egan and Kendall would call themselves feminists but say their motivation was to do something romantic and meaningful and fun rather than strike a blow for equality. Shack Egan told her partner that if he had always dreamed of proposing, she was happy to fulfill that dream. Bayar also surprised Kendall with a proposal of his own a few weeks later, by a waterfall. She says that Bayar had already told her in a hundred different ways that he'd like to spend his life with her, but having had divorce in her family of origin, she was the reluctant one. "I sort of came to the realization that it just is a weird thing that we expect that, like, because he, I don't know, has a penis, that he's meant to be the one to prostrate himself on one knee."
Rosemary Hopcroft, professor emeritus of sociology at University of North Carolina, Charlotte, thinks the male proposal has been deeply carved into society over millennia. Women want men to propose, with a ring, she says, because historically they needed a mate who could provide for them and their offspring. She points to studies that suggest that across different cultures, women value partners who are providers more than men do. "There's a psychological and emotional reason why women still want their husbands to provide and that doesn't seem to have changed," even as women have become financially independent, she says. "It's obviously not rational. There is no need for it. But we're not just rational actors. We're emotional."
Shack Egan sees couples every day who are rewriting the rules of weddings and she thinks that's healthy. "We still kind of hold fast to some bridal traditions," she says. "I think if most people stop to think about it, they might realize, 'Yeah, I want parts of this. I don't want parts of this.'"
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