Over a glass of unsweetened iced tea one summer afternoon, my grandma told me stories of her long-forgotten dating life of the 1950s and sixties. As I listened to tales of her courting years, she revealed to me that she didn’t receive just one marriage proposal, or even two, but three. “The third one was from your grandpa,” she explained proudly.
“Wait, hold up—two other guys proposed to you, and you said no?” I really couldn’t believe that two grown men could be so clueless, so I asked her why her disinterest in an engagement never came up in conversation.
“I wouldn’t dream of talking about getting married until he actually proposed!” she said, shocked. Then she eased up, “But I suppose things are different now.”
Oh, yeah. Things are definitely different now, Grandma. Most men stay in a relationship for years without popping the question, sometimes driving some partners to become borderline neurotic. Nowadays, your average dude doesn’t propose just because he imagines a future with her. He proposes because you both have discussed the matter thoroughly, maybe even picked out a ring, and are confident that you have a future together.
It might not seem as romantic as the proposals we see popped, literally out of nowhere, at the end of movies. But there are three big reasons we think something less surprising isn’t a bad thing.
01. The surprise tactic clearly didn’t work for our grandparents.
“Marriage proposals are no longer the big shock they once were,” Anita Chlipala, LMFT, tells Verily. “More and more couples discuss engagement long before the question is popped.” Yet some women, despite understanding the importance of talking about marriage, are still apprehensive about bringing it up for fear of seeming annoying or desperate. “I don’t want to nag,” my friend Lizzy confesses to me. “But as things are getting pretty serious, I don’t want to ruin a potential surprise, either!”
Yet we can’t have modern expectations and play by the same rules our grandmothers did. The the world has evolved, and the relationships between men and women have evolved, too. Consequently, marriages aren’t as simple as they might have once been. Sure, we all love a good surprise proposal story, but a total surprise engagement—where neither the man nor woman has shared his or her marriage expectations—should make you wince almost as much as this surprise proposal-turned-wedding.
There was a dearth of relationship counselors when my grandma was going out on dates in her midi skirts, as there were drastically different expectations for marriage. Maybe there was no confusion about who was in charge of the pot roast that evening, but with the rise of divorce in the seventies and eighties, it was clear that the formula for happiness in marriage was changing and that many couples weren’t adequately prepared for those changes.
02. Research shows that shared goals and expectations for marriage increase your chances of lasting marital bliss.
After witnessing plummeting marital satisfaction amongst our grandparents’ and parents’ generations, various researchers, including The Gottman Institute, went to work to investigate the climbing divorce rates. And we’ve learned some things. One of the things we’ve discovered in the past few decades? You need to make sure you have compatible expectations. And yes, that requires an actual conversation before any type of ring is purchased.
Imagine you’ve started to build that business you’ve always wanted, and after years of working on your own, you meet the perfect potential business partner. The opportunities! The growth! The mutual benefit for both of you! However, you certainly wouldn’t jump right into business together (What would your investors say?) without checking your partner’s plan. It would take months of conversations, reviewing of negotiations, and some serious logistical planning for that to happen. No one would question your need to be on the same page.
In so many ways, marriage is far more important to your happiness than a business venture. It’s for life. So why would you leave your marriage up to chance for fear of ruining a surprise? At best, you are on the same page earlier. At worst, you scare away a guy who wouldn’t want to commit anyway.
03. You’ll need to get used to vulnerability and the tough conversations.
Look, we get it. Vulnerability is hard. But it’s also the real deal, and it’s imperative if you’re going to have a future where intimacy and honest conversations thrive. As vulnerability expert Brené Brown states in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
But these kinds of honest conversations are scary. You’re putting your heart out on the line, and your heart could get broken! What if you want different things? Yet the thing is, if there’s even a chance that any potential marriage will last, you’re going to need to lead with your heart, and you’ll need to master these types of vulnerable conversations. Moreover, how he responds will tell you a lot about not just where your relationship is headed but also what kind of person he is. As Brown explains, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” And if he makes you feel shame for bringing this up after you’ve been dating seriously for a while, that’s a sign you might not even want him to propose.
It takes two to make a marriage work, and it will take two to plan for a marriage. So don’t wait for a ring to start talking about an engagement. Of course, you need to be reasonable. Obviously, this isn’t something you want to bring up when you’re just starting out. But after your relationship reaches a certain level of maturity, and he hasn't brought it up on his own, you may want to find a low-key way to talk about it. Make sure he knows you’re broaching the topic because you love each other and you see a future together. A future that’s just as much yours as it is his.
When the day comes, sure, a delightful surprise about how it’s happening is welcome, but if you’re surprised that it’s actually happening—you may need to do a little backtracking to make sure marriage is really what you both want.