It’s Time to Change the Way We Get Engaged

It’s the 21st century, y’all. Why are we still acting like it’s 1917?

woman in yellow sweater and grey dress wearing an engagement ring holds hands with man in grey striped sweater and jeans, in a green field with golden light

Think about how much has changed in the last hundred years, especially for women. While we take it for granted now, a hundred years ago, none of us could even vote. Now we can have careers, live on our own, conduct our finances without a man’s permission, and even wear pants. Yet when it comes to heterosexual relationships—the ones that have the most cultural expectations attached to them—the standard method for getting engaged is not changing at the same pace.

it gets better…ish

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the man asks the woman to marry him. It’s probably a surprise, and there’s likely a shiny diamond involved.

Or, at least, that’s how it seems a lot of the time.

When I was getting engaged in 2014, I couldn’t fathom any other way of becoming engaged. Instinctually, I wanted another way, but I couldn’t find any examples of what that would look like. I’ve known no other couples before or since that have become engaged by any other method than the man proposing to the woman.

Then a few months into being engaged, I happened upon a post from the blog Cup of Jo about a “new way to get engaged.” The author writes about how a friend of hers—Nora—recently became engaged in a way that is “revolutionary.” On a trip to Vermont, Nora and her boyfriend organically but beautifully stumbled into a conversation about getting married. Nora writes:

So, one afternoon, we were lying around and I said, “You know what I’ve been thinking about?” And he said, “Tell me.” And I said, “I’d really like to get engaged, I love you and want to spend my life with you.” And he said, “Me, too!” And we started kissing and crying, and it was so romantic. And the whole rest of the weekend turned into a very chatty weekend. We talked about what marriage meant to us, the religion of our future children, when we would want to have kids…

Nobody proposed; not Nora or her boyfriend. They became engaged through conversation. What could be more relevant to the beginning of a marriage than a conversation? If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a year and a half of being married, it’s that a thriving marriage requires willingness to learn how to communicate well. And clearly this conversation was still very romantic.

After Nora and her partner got back from Vermont, they had dinner with their loved ones and announced their intentions to wed. They designed a ring together. “There was never any moment where I was waiting or wondering or anxious or analyzing,” Nora said, “I was never in the dark. I was just happy and calm every single step… We decided together, and we moved through it together.”

Should this be a revolutionary act? Not even a little bit.

the revolution will not be proposed to

The tradition of the man proposing to the woman comes from a time when women had practically no autonomy. Which, thankfully, isn’t the case anymore. Now, we support ourselves. Yet so many of us still wait for men to ask, dropping hints and saving engagement ring photos. And it seems that many men still assume it is their job to steer the engagement ship without any further navigational input from their lady beyond timing and the type of ring she’d like have. Why do we do this, when so often it is neither fair to either party, nor is it a reflection of how many of us want our marriages to look?

It should similarly not be revolutionary for a woman to ask a man for his hand in marriage. Maybe for some couples that is the best fit. And maybe for others “deciding together,” or “conversation-based engagement” like Nora’s is a way that levels the playing field. Maybe in an ideal world, no one person has more control over the situation than the other and a decision is made in a moment of calm, intimate clarity.

i don’t need no permission, did i mention?

So where does this leave other outdated traditions like asking your father or male guardian for your hand in marriage? Is there a way to still ask for support from your elders, without buying into more traditions that treat women like property? After all, marriage isn’t easy; it can be good to have a couple who knows what it’s like support you in that new chapter.

If you want your parents involved, or your partner’s parents, or an older couple that is not your relation but important in your life, then there are ways to ask for support that are beneficial to your relationship and don’t undermine your autonomy. Maybe calling it a blessing is more fitting than permission. It also doesn’t necessarily have to happen before you become engaged. But mothers need to be brought into this conversation. (Why should the father get preferential treatment?) In fact, a friend of mine asked his now-wife’s entire family and friend group for their support.

This is the beginning of the rest of your life

Becoming engaged can push you deeper into commitment and intimacy with another human. That is the most important thing about it. Period. Full stop. For couples choosing to become engaged, know where your heart is. Are you pursuing your engagement with the same intention, groundedness and equality with which you hope to see in your marriage?

An engagement is the beginning of a new chapter in the wild, wonderful story of your life. Live it accordingly.

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