Who Should Put a Ring on It?

A Modest Proposal for Rethinking ‘Will You Marry Me?’—And What True Egalitarianism Might Look Like

Sociologist Amanda Jayne Miller studies engagements and marriages. Drawing on her research, she imagines what—in a world where heterosexual couples increasingly prefer egalitarian relationships—a truly equal marriage proposal might look like. Illustration by Be Boggs.

Over 20 years ago, I covered my face with my hands and shyly told my (now) husband, “I’m moving away for graduate school and I’d love you to go with me, but I want us to be married first.” After he agreed that it seemed like a great idea, we shopped together for an engagement ring before he chose one of the two I had liked best. He offered it to me from one knee a couple of months later in a “surprise” engagement. As a wife, I tell others he proposed. But as a social scientist who studies marriages and engagements, I’m not so sure.

Young, heterosexual adults increasingly prefer egalitarian relationships in which both partners work for pay and contribute equitably to childcare and domestic labor—even as they struggle to realize this balance. Equalizing the proposal—a single moment in time rather than an ever-changing, lifetime negotiation of labor—should be much easier. Still, the proposal process remains overwhelmingly a male responsibility—and privilege. The stubbornness of this seemingly last acceptable bastion of male control has a lot to tell us about gender, relationships, and the division of labor in 21st-century America.

Sociologist Sharon Sassler and I interviewed a number of cohabiting couples between the ages of 18 and 34 who were considering or in the process of discussing marriage with their partners. We explicitly asked them which partner should propose. We received a fair number of responses such as “Whomever wants,” especially from college-educated men and women. But when we changed the question slightly to “Who do YOU want to propose if the two of you get married?”, the response was overwhelmingly the male partner. And this remained true even among those who otherwise viewed their relationships as equal.

When we asked why, men and women alike expressed concerns that “flopping the question” would call into question long-established gender roles. “It’s just a manly job,” explained Terrell.* “It’s just natural.”

Nathan, who was committed to sharing the housework and financial responsibilities equally with his partner, Andrea, had just proposed. Although Andrea had been the one to initiate their move-in, he said of the wedding proposal: “I think it’s the guys’ job, not to be chauvinistic and old-fashioned. But I think I would have felt kind of like a putz if she would have proposed to me.”

It stands to reason that if the male partner is the only one who can move the couples’ union into marriage, the female partner has only two choices: wait to be asked or leave.

Many women felt the same way. Tara told us, “I said, ‘If you don’t do it by a certain time, I’m just going to do it.’ But I don’t mean that, because I don’t want to do it ’cause then I’ll feel like masculine, and I don’t want to feel masculine.” Asked to elaborate, Tara said, “I’ve definitely been the initiator in some of our other circumstances that are traditionally I think male roles. This is just a big one. And because everyone will ask, ‘How did it happen?’ And I don’t want to say, ‘Well I did it.’ I can’t. It would kill me I think.”

Female proposals were not entirely out of the question. Dawn had planned to propose to Eric, only to be dissuaded by both her mother and Eric’s wishes. She said, “I’ve threatened to propose to him a few times. He’s like, ‘No, the man does it.’ I think he would feel unmanly if he didn’t do it. Yeah, I know that sounds weird from a guy that’s really liberal, but I just feel like he wants to—he wants control of the situation.”

Eric’s explanation was simpler: “I just see it as the guy should propose—the classic way.”

All of this, for one simple question. But the power to propose is not merely picking out the right place or time to ask those four little words. It’s the ability to determine the pace of the entire relationship. It stands to reason that if the male partner is the only one who can move the couples’ union into marriage, the female partner has only two choices: wait to be asked or leave. In this way, the man’s timeline determines the seriousness of the relationship, with couples often scarcely realizing just how much control that affords him. In fact, this kind of “hidden power,” which makes certain gender roles seem natural or inevitable, can continually and insidiously reinforce patriarchal norms without ever really being questioned.

So what’s a modern straight couple to do? What might a more equal proposal look like?

Well, for one, heterosexual cis couples could certainly look to their gay and lesbian counterparts. They often leave the power of the proposal to a decision reached through discussion before the partner who most wants to advance the relationship or who prefers to stand on ceremony is the one to propose. However, such a change requires overcoming centuries of tradition and internalized sexism.

More recently, “dual proposals” have begun to make the rounds on social media. In this model, each partner proposes, and each (hopefully!) accepts. Though, of course, this is not without its own challenges: Need the proposals occur on the same day? Who goes first? And is the engagement official after the first “Yes”?

As the age of marriage has risen over time in the U.S. to just over 30 for men and 28 for women and the institution has become more economically elite, a third possibility for the “new proposal” seems apparent. Far from being the blushing bride and fresh-faced groom leaving the family home, today’s betrothed couples typically already have established their own households—most often living together and perhaps even with children of their own. The pomp and circumstance of the engagement period that were designed to help provide a young couple with the goods necessary for setting up a new household, like hope chests, engagement parties, and bridal showers, are no longer a major factor. Now, marriage is a pinnacle marker of adulthood rather than its beginning. After discussing whether they wish to marry, couples could simply decide that they are engaged, no proposal needed. In fact, rather than spending money renting out the jumbotron or hiring the skywriter, they might choose to host a party announcing their engagement and celebrating all who have supported them along the way.

Human beings have agency—and with that, the power to choose to modify or reject social norms. If our society continues to promote the proposal as a nearly unquestionable male right, we will continue to go through great lengths to reach true egalitarianism. Regardless of when our engagement became “official,” in the end, my husband and I are no less married. We have crafted a life full of mutual admiration, equal sharing, and a whole lot of fun. The question will be, is the conventional start to that life together—a male proposal—a tradition that heterosexual couples want to eschew?

Saying “yes” to an overhaul of the marriage proposal might be beneficial not only to our own relationships, but for generations to come.

Amanda Jayne Miller is a professor of sociology and director of faculty development at the University of Indianapolis and an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow. Her book (with co-author Sharon Sassler), Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class, and the Remaking of Relationships, won the 2018 William J. Goode Book Award for family sociology.

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