Why You Still Want a Surprise Proposal Even If You Know You’re Getting Married

Photo: Getty Images

A weeklong series dedicated to skewering the traditions, expectations, and psychodrama that surround wedding season.

When I tell people I’ve recently gotten engaged, they tend to ask the same questions: “How did he ask?” is one. “Can I see the ring?” is my favorite. But I also get this a lot: “Was it a surprise?”

The first two are easy to answer; the last, less so. It was a fake surprise. My now-fiancé, Andrew, and I had talked to death every detail about getting married, except for the official ask itself. Did I know we were going to spend the rest of our lives together? Yes. Did I know he would propose to me when he did? No. One weekend, Andrew surprised me with an overnight trip to Wallingford, Connecticut — one of several towns that are said to have inspired the cozy New England setting for Gilmore Girls — and asked me to marry him in the town freaking gazebo, which was all aglow in white twinkly lights like something out of Stars Hollow. It was corny, and it was thoughtful, and it was perfect.

But it was also a little surreal, even absurd, and in the moment it felt like we were actors playing out a scripted scene. Today, engagements are typically the result of much deliberate negotiation and planning between a couple; even the proposal itself isn’t a true surprise, but rather part of a carefully choreographed series of events. So why do we keep doing this? What does this ritual signify to us, and how might that explain why the “surprise” proposal has held on?

Ellen Lamont, a sociologist who is writing a book about modern courtship rituals, has found that the “fake surprise” proposal is pretty much standard practice when it comes to straight couples. Of the many heterosexual women she interviewed for a 2013 article published in Gender & Society, only a handful told stories of receiving proposals they weren’t expecting. “And those did not go well,” she said, adding that most of those eventually called off their engagements. I don’t know the details of the rejected Fenway Park proposal in May, but I would guess that was also an unwelcome actual surprise. The majority of the women featured in that paper said that their engagements came after careful consideration, like mine. “Most of the couples discussed marriage extensively before getting engaged, often going over how they envisioned their lives together, as this was considered pragmatic,” she writes. “After the couple decided when they wanted to get engaged, the man was expected to ‘surprise’ the woman with a proposal.”

One reason why the “surprise” proposal is valuable to us, Lamont suggested, has to do with concerns around gender roles. She pointed to a 2013 study, where psychology researchers surveyed a few hundred heterosexual college students about their attitudes on gender norms and marriage traditions, including the proposal. The title of the paper is essentially a spoiler for its findings: “Girls Don’t Propose! Ew.” Of the 277 undergrads they interviewed, about two-thirds — men and women — said proposing was “definitely” the guy’s role. The women in that study confided to the researchers that they would feel too “awkward” to propose, that it would seem like they were “coming on too strong.”

The “surprise proposal” narrative helps counter those insecurities, Lamont said. The guy is typically asking, which means he’s not being dragged into this; the woman is typically being asked, which means she’s not being overly pursuant. It’s a speculative, overgeneralized explanation, as Lamont only spoke with a few dozen heterosexual men and women for her research. But it’s an intriguing one, too.

As we chat, it’s clear that Lamont was amused by some of the people she spoke with in her research, and the way they threw their hearts into this odd surprise-that-isn’t ritual. But she’s also concerned with the way it implies a power imbalance within the relationship, one that betrays its true nature. The woman is involved in this decision to get married — obviously — and it troubles Lamont how the typical proposal story casts that part aside, for the sake of assuaging fears about gender roles.

She says the majority of her study participants expressed a desire for an equal partnership, and indeed most did seem to be in one, with both partners deciding together to take that next step. “[I]t isn’t as though there is necessarily one sole actor, even in cases where the man proposes to the woman,” the journalist Tracy Clark-Flory wrote of a 2010 study that drew similar conclusions to Lamont’s work. It’s just that the women’s part in that decision tends to get edited out of the official version of the story.

Instead, it happens behind the scenes. A woman named Caroline, for instance, told Lamont that her boyfriend initially proposed during a fight about why he hadn’t proposed yet. “I didn’t tell any of my friends what actually happened,” she said. “He proposed [again] three weeks later on a boat. That’s the story our friends know.”

Caroline, buddy, I hear you. The Gilmore Girls proposal was incredibly sweet, but it was on the heels of a ten-day trip to Berlin, and I’d been bewildered, and crushed, when he didn’t ask then. I don’t tend to tell that part. A woman named Holly, who lives in Chicago, recently told me she was so certain her boyfriend would propose on one of five specific dates that she enlisted five friends in a betting pool, each one wagering on a different day. Holly edits the bet out of her story. So many of us are telling half-truths about half-surprises, and by doing so we’re often accidentally reinforcing gender stereotypes neither half of the couple may actually believe.

There is only one correct way to get engaged, and it is this: Do whatever you want. A few of the LGBTQ couples Lamont interviewed for a not-yet-published paper told her that each partner planned a surprise proposal for the other, an incredibly sweet twist on the tradition. If you plan to get engaged soon, you could do that! But whatever you do, I just wish we could all be a little more honest in the telling. Did it happen while you were watching Netflix in your underwear? That I want to hear about. Did your much-younger sibling get engaged first, and is that why your boyfriend finally bought a ring? Tell me everything. If the research suggests that the behind-the-scenes parts often represent the woman’s role in the decision, then these are parts that seem worth hearing.

Why We Still Insist on the ‘Surprise’ Proposal