It’s not the smartest thing in the world to question a growing tide within conventional wisdom. Yet sometimes, it’s just too hard to resist. And it’s especially dangerous to a writer’s health to poke a stick in the eye of the hopeless romantics of the world.
All this said; excuse me while I go find my stick.
I’m not bringing this up just because it’s the Valentine’s season, although this is a time of the year that often sees a lot of engagement rings slipping from one person’s pocket to another person’s finger. Popping the big question happens year round. But because love is on a lot of people’s minds right now, and I’ve been watching this particular trend grow, I figured what the heck. If you’re going to be suddenly despised, why not at such a romantic time of year.
Let’s cut to the chase. I think public marriage proposals are really stupid. I’m not talking about private marriage proposals that happen to be done in a public place. I’m talking about marriage proposals that invite the public into its privacy. These are bad ideas. I’d go so far as to suggest that the kind of thinking that would draw someone to the conclusion that they’d like to be on either the giving or receiving side of a public marriage proposal is fraught with issues that will most likely raise their ugly heads in the marriage that ultimately follows.
If you haven’t seen one of these, you’ve at least heard of them. Someone uses the Jumbo-tron at the big game, or an airport concourse with conscripted participants, or some public focus of attention taken out of context (like an in-session college classroom, the PA system at a crowded shopping mall, a room filled with on-looking family & friends, or a church sermon—to name a few) to draw enormous focus from otherwise non-participants to one of the most serious moments of a couple’s marital journey. It might sound romantic in its conception and even epic in its planning, but it stands—by itself—as a contradictory context for what is actually supposed to be taking place.
One (1) person is requesting the honor of one (1) other person’s company inside the inner shrines of both persons’ hearts—for the rest of their lives. This is a very personal matter—not a public one.
For a lot of couples, the reason these marriage proposals are turned into a piece of entertainment for strangers is because they are pretty much a joke anyways. The couple has been living together with complete disregard for the seriousness and sanctity of a truly committed love, to the point that the marriage proposal that ultimately comes along is little more than a cliché.
But these are not the biggest issue; just some of several of the bigger ones.
Let’s discuss the biggest issue. A proposal isn’t about the proposal or even the romantic touches within it—it’s about what’s supposed to follow the proposal—a life-long marriage commitment. A proposal isn’t an announcement; it’s a question. And a proposal isn’t for the entertainment of the one making the proposal (or the people watching the proposal) but for the consideration of the one receiving it.
Darcy and I raised two daughters and two sons. I told my sons that once they discovered in their heart the woman they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with, they must NEVER ask for her heart in marriage in a public-grandstanding way; but in a way that is just between the two of them. Likewise, I told my girls, NEVER let a man propose marriage to them in a publically spectated manner. If he tries it, simply say, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t the right setting for this kind of question. Once we’re in a more private setting, I’ll be able to respond to your question.”
Why would I instruct my kids this way? Drum roll please: It is absolutely VITAL that a person being asked for their hand and heart in marriage feels that they are FREE to say … “No.” They’ve got to feel comfortable enough to know that they have the option to turn you down. For the record, a disappointing outcome to a proposal is exceedingly easier to recover from than the heartbreak of a divorce.
Listen, the good news is that the primary answer to most marriage proposal questions is “Yes.” But, it’s got to be a “Yes” that comes from the heart rather than from coercion orchestrated by the setting.
Public marriage proposals add all kinds of emotional expectations to the person being asked that have nothing to do with the moment. But these added expectations clearly put the person being asked in an extremely awkward position. It’s no longer singularly about a woman responding to a man’s question; it’s about the added concern for not hurting or humiliating him. Her answer is NOT being prompted from the proper regions of her heart. These moments are imbedded with guilt, out-of-context pressure, and toxic force.
We’re not supposed to ambush, coerce, or manipulate someone into marrying us. And if we do, like I said earlier, it points to all kinds of issues regarding how one person goes about getting another person to submit to their wishes. It’s high-control. It’s setting a scene in advance that almost guarantees the response. Last time I checked, only one person’s love gets to thrive in this kind of a context.
And while I’m raining on everyone’s romantic plans, (or throwing a wet blanket over what has already transpired – for which I am truly sorry) let me at least draw attention to what I think is often the source of this well-intended but misguided move towards public marriage proposals—competition. The growth of social media and digital communication has also brought with it a great sense of rivalry among women for how a man is supposed to propose. The emphasis moves from the marriage proposal as a gateway to a life-long relationship to a marriage proposal as a free-standing and graded event. The substance of the moment is over-shadowed by the symbol of the moment. A girl sees how her friends were proposed to and gets certain expectations in her heart for her big moment. She decides that the priority is not so much “that” her boyfriend asks her to marry him, but “how” he does it. The pressure on the man to make it perfect for her often holds the whole point of the event hostage.
And I’m certainly not putting all the blame at the feet of one particular gender that might have a tendency of getting too enamored with ceremonies over significance. There’re plenty of guys out there who can slip over the line and in the process turn a marriage proposal into something more about their ego than their girlfriend’s best interests. This isn’t so much a gender issue on either person’s part as it is a priority issue.
I’m just one man, and so far, I’ve never heard anyone else speak about this. But with love in the air at this time of the year, I really think somebody needs to remind us that we’ve got to keep the main thing the main thing when it comes to proposals and the marriages that follow. This is about a man and a woman making an extremely important decision. Sure, there are people to consult, and even people to help participate in making the event special—but they need to participate in the shadows, out of the conversation, detached from the final decision.
Remember, these unwitting participants at public marriage proposals aren’t going to come alongside you on those lonely nights when you’re so mad at each other that neither can seem to roll over in bed and ask forgiveness. They won’t be there for you when you don’t have enough money for the mortgage. They certainly won’t stop by to pull an all night vigil for a sick baby so that you can get some sleep. So, why invite them to that moment when you’re trying to start this whole love story in motion?
Listen, I obviously believe that a man should put forethought into making a marriage proposal something tender, special, and memorable for this woman he loves so much; but not at the expense of her freewill. When we rank symbols over the substance of what those symbols represent, we sully outcomes. It doesn’t need to be. Perhaps with a little common sense more people can be spared having to be hijacked into participating in a moment that is otherwise … none of their business.
Let’s save the public celebrations with our friends for those special anniversaries that speak for themselves about the proven love you have for each other and the depth of your commitment for better and for worse.
© Dr. Tim Kimmel 2012 All Rights Reserved