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Michelle Rosenthal

social worker, Dr Susan Smith McKinney Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

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Should heterosexual women propose marriage or even broach the topic first or should they passively wait for the man to ask first?

Do you think women should take the risk of proposing marriage more often or should that tradition be left for the men to initiate the marriage proposal as it has been for many years in many cultures?

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  • Nov 18 2011: Is this a real question? If a woman knows what she wants then why should she wait for approval? Any man afraid of a strong woman is not truly a man.
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    Nov 18 2011: I got a call the other night from the long term boyfriend (can't think of a more proper term for a 50 year old guy who has been dating a friend for almost 5 years) of my best friend. He is devastated that she has broken up with him. A few months ago, she wanted to move the relationship forward and so she proposed. He seemed thrilled at the time but nothing happened. No ring (was offered- I do not know but assume one was expected), no marriage date was set and no future was explicitly discussed. Things just kept going along. She finally decided that this is not what she wants for her life. She decided that she needs someone more responsive and more romantic with values more closely aligned to hers.

    In his hurt and pain, he is now saying that in his world view it is for a man to propose not a woman.

    Here is my take. If a man wants to propose he will. As a mother of four sons and one daughter with an MA in Psych who does not believe herself to be particularyly insightful into the male mind, I have a sense that men do things and make commitments when they are good and ready. It is one thing if, as a couple you are both discussing things, moving closer and you know that you are both on the marriage track and one of you says "let's go it". It is one thing if you know that is even what this man would consider a path he would like to take but for a woman to unilaterally decide to propose with no idea of how a guy will react is relationship suicide in my estimation.

    In truth, the very best long lasting relationships that I have ever seen were where the guy was absolutely the smitten one who could not wait to get married. We may live in the 2000 but male bonding is still a very primative (in the sense of deeply rooted since ancient times) thing. Men, in general, like to make the choices for their own lives.
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      Nov 18 2011: What you said can be easily flipped, the point being that springing that type of proposal on either gender is risky. A woman could just as easily react the same way. It may happen a few percentage points less often, but it happens. Neither gender should step into this until they are good and ready.
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      Nov 24 2011: I agree that "the very best long lasting relationships are where the guy is absolutely the smitten one who could not wait to get married."

      And all said and done.. we'll never know what is in the chocolate until we bite into it. :-) :-)
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    Dec 16 2011: Hi Michelle,

    Of course women should be able to propose marriage. The idea that a woman should "passively wait" for something which she desires is sexist in my opinion, and any man who would expect a woman to do this sounds like a knucklehead!

    Historically, women have been taught that they are passive, but I don't think even essentialist arguments can defend that one.
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    Nov 17 2011: I think heterosexual women should definitely propose, but I think there are a few challenges facing the brave couple that dares have the woman initiate marriage. Here's the problem with women proposing: when a man says "will you marry me?" he offers a ring, and it plays a central symbolic role in the engagement process. The engagement ring is such an important symbol in our capitalistic society (American or otherwise) that in order for both man and woman to be validated within their families/friends/etc, the gift of the ring is imperative. So if a woman proposes, the man may read this as "now you gotta buy me a ring", which is massively inconvenient for obvious reasons.

    On the other hand, looking at it from this capitalist/materialistic perspective that I'm proposing, the family of the bride pays for the wedding, so arguably it should be the woman's prerogative since the biggest expenditure is coming from her family's pocket. The ring, however, remains a much more important symbol in the ritual of the wedding than who paid for the reception, in fact the latter custom is rather outdated.

    I think this question is good because it reveals the subtle sexism that exist within really well established capitalistic traditions. In a society where the wedding and marriage do not revolve around materialism then I see no problems at all with women proposing. A short term solution for this problem? Engagement rings for men. How's that for a business idea?

    Also, I am using a western-centric, capitalistic perspective on this issue. I would love to hear how this question is answered from views around the world! What inherent cultural norms prevent or facilitate women to initiate marriage?
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      Nov 17 2011: Hi Ana, Thanks for your response. I never even thought of an engagement ring for men. I am sure that someone will start designing masculine looking engagement rings for men too. Possibly with a square shape diamond in a thick gold ring band. I guess just like both the men and women wear wedding rings it may be a good idea for them both to wear engagement rings. If the men wear an engagement ring it will let other women know that this man is engaged before initiating contact with him. I guess who ever proposes may come prepared with both rings of a matching set to let the world know they are engaged. But really I am sure if a woman proposes to a man or a man to a woman a ring is nice but not essential to the commitment.
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        Nov 17 2011: Absolutely! Noone needs any rings. I like the design ideas for engagement rings for men. I think we're onto something here.
    • Nov 18 2011: I think (even though I am not a material person) that a physical object such as a ring is important for a couple devoted for life. clearly the world agrees or we woulnd't have paper that represents our degrees or money, even with us becoming more digital a plastic card is used to prove it.
      • Nov 20 2011: Wow Zachary, I have to disagree. Ringing or pinning is in my opinion just another form of branding.
        • Nov 21 2011: why? is she forced to wear it? I'm a guy but, I wouldn't mind if I was "claimed" its no more branding than a title such as "Dr." A ring doesn't claim ownership, the point is that it is a circle representing their love (continuos(sp?) and unbroken). It also is a sign that neither of them are on "the market" persay(sp?). Other cultures would signify marrige with their clothes (be it colour, style, or what have you). It is simply a public symbol of their relationship(sp?). (I think i might be a horrible speller(is that even a word?))
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        Nov 22 2011: I think both men and women should wear "in relationship" rings. This way while in a serious relationship innocent singles won't be confused by them. This will avoid wasted time and emotions not to mention broken hearts. Of course all this works for honest people who actually don't need any symbol to remind them of their commitments. The more important question is what would ever keep "players" from playing?!!!
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      Nov 22 2011: The custom you describe is typical English and for countries that they influenced.
      Practice today as I observe around me is that if the woman doesn't mention marriage nothing much will happen.
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    Dec 16 2011: Awesome question, I like it!

    I think women have the right to do that, absolutely. BUT! In a relationship two people know each other very well. Just as in the most cases men actually know that their partner will say yes when they ask the question, women will know if asking THE question is appropriate in the particular relationship or not.

    I think a woman desiring to propose must be “extreme” in many other ways as well. I mean it is not conventional, it is against tradition, so I suppose the original setup of her relationship is shifted already. I am sure she needs a man who can tolerate her way of thinking – not tolerate, but love it actually!

    In this case then it can be perfectly OK for a woman to propose, it shouldn’t be a surprise for the partner.

    And...
    When a woman wants to marry, needs the comfort of a marriage and the man doesn’t – then of course it is the woman’s right to start a conversation about it. Implying or indicating her will makes men annoyed, that I know for sure – a conversation on the other hand can solve it. Communication is fun anyway. :)
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    Nov 24 2011: Michelle, I agree with Debra, especially if you are talking about people over 25. A woman can still give a clear if subtle signal that she is open to exploring a serious relationship by showing enthusiasm in shared interests or neutral subjects and save face for both parties and yet lead the dance. Yes I do know a very few men who are incredibly like Lil' Abner and one needs to use horse whisperer type techniques to get them to heel but they are the exception. The much larger number of immature commitment phobic "men" who will never voluntarily commit should never even be allowed to get to first base. Desmond Morris (author of the Naked Ape) lists 10 stages " of behavior ( in another of his books) that are foundational in bonding between couples in 60 different cultures, including ours. The last of these is what I refer to as reproductive behavior and that is a minimum of 90 days (even more than three years depending on the age of the couple when they started) into the process and comes after some kind of commitment. In 30 years of searching I have yet to find a happy couple who started their relationship with a "One Night stand" as in the Demi Moore movie "About last night" from decades ago. Such things are Hollywood Myths and Urban legends. The old saw " a man chases a woman until she catches him" has more than a little wisdom in it.
  • Nov 20 2011: In my opinion, marriage is a partnership. Wherin any subject can and should be put forth by either partner. If by saying one or the other partner should or shouldn't begin a conversation, then that elevates or lowers the status of one or the other partners. The outcome I feel, especially in such an early stage of the partership, is the eventual breakdown and decomposition of said partnership.
  • Nov 18 2011: I know that western women are as socialized as many other cultures to believe that the man should ask and choose.

    But, in most cases the marriage idea should have been discussed. No one at the "proposal" stage should be genuinely shocked and surprised. Perhaps by the timing and method of delivery, but if they are completely shocked there is something wrong. Woman can and do propose. Or usually they say "It's time to make a decision."

    Women can certainly ask. If they are afraid he'll think less of them perhaps they aren't as in tune with him as they should be for marriage anyway.