Expert Q&A: When Women Should Propose Marriage
Q: My boyfriend won't propose even though we've been dating for years. Should I take the initiative?
A: Let me just get it over with-I do not recommend that women propose marriage. I'll explain why a few paragraphs later, but first, here is the experience that sparked my deeper thinking about marriage proposals.
Not too long ago, when my husband and I were planning a vacation with another couple who lived together, as soon as the woman went to the restroom, the man asked us to suggest some memorable ways or places where he could "pop the question." Yes, that question: Will you marry me?
He was proud of his romantic side, and he wanted to create a special memory for both of them. He said that even though they had discussed marriage, "I wasn't ready and I spent too much time beating myself up about it. She's a strong woman, and, let me tell you, I was relieved that she didn't do the asking. See, my take on men is that we are slower to connect with feelings and partners. We need time to feel right, secure--in charge of our measly understanding of relationships."
Spot on. Couldn't have said it better. So, as I was basking in the glow from our friend's proposal planning, I began wondering whether women should propose. Is it old-fashioned to think that men should do it? And why are proposals so important?
I'll start with an overview of the importance of proposals.
Good proposals seem to tip the earth toward you for a bit. Gravity gives way, and life feels bigger, brighter, lighter yet more weighty and serious at the same time. Welcome to the world of hope and specialness, and the safety and excitement of having a partner in life.
If those words describe you, be happy and proud that you let those feelings flow. This reaction is not shallow, naive or outdated. In fact, well-planned proposals elevate the "attachment" hormone oxytocin in the brain and create new neural connections between pleasure, love, closeness, and the memories of these positive feelings.
Even though I've counseled more than 10,000 couples, I am still moved by this power of the proposal. When times are rough in marriages-and there are always difficult times in the happiest of marriages, romantic proposals are one of the key memories that warm the relationship and spurs appreciation for your partner. Half-hearted or unplanned proposals, no matter how happy the marriage, leave a permanent smudge-that, yes, gets recalled when stress challenges the bond.
But it's not just proposal setting and style that matter-it's who does the asking. Our friend's remarks about himself and men are on firm ground. The male brain has less neural connections and space for intimate relationships. Larger areas in the female brain evolved to benefit and strengthen the mother-child bond and care. It's not a joke that many men don't "hear" women, don't "get" them and feel "all thumbs" when it comes to talking about or understanding emotions. Men truly "aren't made that way." But biology is not destiny. Many husbands and partners are able to adapt and improve their interpersonal skills.
Men need to feel comfortable and unpressured in relationships. Their biological tendencies to want to take charge and "fix" problems or initiate key actions rather than discuss them makes men favor the decision-making of when, how, and why to propose--all the more reason to let men do the proposing. And even though men especially don't like rejection, they also don't like being caught off guard or put on the spot to say yes-most especially if they are unsure about the relationship or their readiness.
And, despite the economic and cultural gains of women, these successes do not weaken if women seem to prefer being on the receiving end of the proposal. In fact, since women's brains are generally more structured and wired for connection, it is arguably of more intimate value to the women to have the man propose. His proposal signals the women that he is ready to commit to marriage.
Of course, there are always exceptions. One of my women clients, in fact, said she knew that if she and her boyfriend were going to take the next step, she would have to start it. Her boyfriend was being deployed to Iraq, and she said that if she didn't tell him she wanted to get married, it might not have happened until much later. "I knew he felt guilty asking me-going away and making me worry. So, I thought it was important to let him know what I wanted." Still, her boyfriend dropped on one knee, and said, "Yes--let's get married."
Regardless of who proposes, here are some tips for a memorable proposal.
1. Know your relationship status beforehand. Usually, by the time someone proposes, both parties know that the relationship is a "go." Be sure you know your partner's values and views on marriage-and you!
2. Select a place that has meaning. Preferably, the setting will have meaning for both of you or, at least, for the partner on the receiving end. You might choose the place where you first met, kissed or said I love you.
3. Know your partner's fantasies. If your first meeting or kiss wasn't in a particularly great place, concentrate instead on what your partner has said to you about favorite places, cities or settings. One of my clients told her boyfriend that she always wanted to get engaged on a ski lift above the mountains. Another said that ever since she was a Girl Scout, she wanted to have a quiet proposal in the woods. There is no "right choice." But the wrong choice certainly is a location that doesn't resonate emotionally on any level with your partner or your relationship history.
4. Respect your partner's personality. If your partner is shy and private, a sky-written proposal might not be a good fit. Know your partner's style and preferences. For example, some people love surprise parties, others cringe just thinking about them.
5. Don't go overboard. You are not staging a movie or play. Too much can end up as too little. My client's misgivings about her boyfriend's insecurities came out in full force. His proposal came as a total surprise-and embarrassing shock.
First, he proposed to her without ever talking about marriage. And the proposal itself included a horse-drawn carriage at her house, followed by a ride to a restaurant where the wait-staff tossed rose petals at her and sang congratulations, and featured her boyfriend asking the restaurant for a drum roll while he bent down on one knee in the middle of the floor. He grabbed the microphone and said, "And if it doesn't go the way I want it, I'm taking the numbers of all the eligible women in the room tonight." My client said she felt trapped in a very bad "chick flick." She said yes-to save her boyfriend from looking like a fool, but she broke up with him the next week.
When love is mutually strong, dramatics aren't necessary.
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., MSS is a noted psychologist and lic.clinical social worker, specializing in relationships. For her book about women and love, she welcomes women to take her 17-20 minute online research survey at www.lovevictory.com.
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