Binary gender roles really aren't kind to anyone. Remaining hairless from the eyelashes down while supplying your whole family with emotional support is about as fun as not being allowed to cry as you crumble under the expectation of financially providing for an entire household. As we continue to put gender to task, many people have realized that these strict expectations really don't serve us.
And yet, proposing remains as gendered as it ever was. A 2017 study conducted by wedding planning website The Knot found that an average of one percent of marriage proposals in straight couples are made by women. Last week, after reading a Reddit thread posing the question, "Men who have been proposed to by their girlfriends, how did you feel about it?" I began to see the beauty in a relationship where the pressure to propose doesn't fall on anyone at all, but especially not due to their gender. Intrigued by this idea, I talked to some men whose girlfriends proposed to them about how it went down and how being proposed to made them feel.
I have learned that leaving the proposing to whoever feels compelled to do it first allows for more spontaneity, agency, and creativity in a gesture that is supposed to signify spending the rest of your life with someone—you know, if you're into that sort of thing.
BROADLY: How did your girlfriend propose?
MATT: Josey and I went camping in the Adirondacks. It was peak fall and we had never been there for that and it was just shockingly glorious. So we’re driving to the hike, and Josey is acting actually annoyed that I made us late, which was different.
We hiked Cascade. It’s the smallest of the high peaks, but it’s a great hike, and a fantastic view. We get to the peak and it’s glorious, and I’m hovering around the edge taking photos. Josey pulls me aside like she wants to talk to me. My first thought is that she doesn’t like that I get too close to high edges, and that she’s going to ask me to stop doing that. Then she starts getting emotional. Then she’s fucking asking me to marry her. Josey made it clear early on in our relationship that marriage was never happening for her, and while I thought I could probably wear her down within a decade, it was not on my radar. The first words out of my mouth were, "you’re an idiot," and everyone laughed at me and pretended I was bad. And then she asked again and I said yes, and it was like both of us were filled up with something different and new. Her brother Gregory Roberts is a photographer in Columbus, OH, and he was ready with the camera, and I realized that all this was a big proposal. We all made Josey take a knee, because she wasn’t sure whether she was going to, and she asked me and I said yes, and it was beautiful and right. She gave me a plastic compass temporary engagement ring that has since been replaced with a ring befitting my demands but will be treated as sacred forever. She also gave me a leather cuff for my Apple Watch (that’s a meaningful gift for someone like me) with "will you marry me?" imprinted on it.
Did you ever think she would propose?
I was absolutely not ever expecting her to propose. I definitely did want to get married, but when she was like "no way," I asked myself why it was so important to me, and I couldn’t really come up with an answer. We were essentially married anyway. My family had long ago resigned themselves to the idea that I would never get married, so that didn’t matter.
How did it make you feel? I know that some women worry that their partner may find the experience emasculating, was that true for you?
It was a dizzying kind of surreal joy the likes of which I’ve never felt before. I certainly didn’t feel emasculated—I don’t care about that stuff. I mean, yeah, I was raised in western Pennsylvania in the 1980s, so I definitely have that man thing inside of me, but there just came a point long ago where (often with the help of the people in my life) I started looking inward, and if I found something that I thought didn’t make sense, or if I noticed myself saying things that were messed up—like those subtle, insidious notions that men have about women that they don’t even realize are unfair—I just stopped saying and, more importantly, thinking those things. Although the other day I ordered a gold Apple Watch 4, and the only band I could get with it had to be pink, and I was surprised that I felt kind of insecure like I was buying a girls’ watch or something. But hey, self-improvement is a marathon. At the same time, I do embody a number of traditional male values, just not the ones that would make me a jackass.
As a man was there a certain pressure to propose? Do you think proposals will one day become an entirely non-gendered thing?
For me, no, there was no pressure, but when I imagined the possibility of Josey and I getting engaged, it was always within the framework of me proposing to her. I think that a lot of men, and likely the vast majority, still do think of proposing as something they should do. And the same goes for a lot of women…I think it’s all about the relationship you have. My brother proposed to my sister-in-law, and that was the right thing for them. Josey proposed to me and it’s the same. I am certainly hopeful for a world in which gender-based pressure and expectations are nonexistent in every respect. At the same time, a lot of the men and women who think a man should propose are also probably not gonna be receptive, in the immediate sense, to any notion that includes the phrase "non-gendered." But I am certainly hopeful that the more people defy gender norms, and the more that sort of thing shows up in the lives and social feeds of the people who don’t, that those people will eventually soften to these ideas that seem alien to them now.
What were the reactions you got from people you told?
She had asked my parents for permission, so it was just total jubilation there. There were a couple of people on social who made jokes, and a couple who supported us but didn’t understand how I could be okay with it. Our friend Olivia Locher who blew up with her “I Fought the Law” series took our engagement photos, which were very well received by everyone in our lives, across the political spectrum, in the city and back home.
BROADLY: How did your girlfriend propose?
ANTHONY: Our first daughter just turned one and it had been a crazy year. My mother-in-law was babysitting at home, it was my birthday, and me and my (then) girlfriend were having a couple of drinks after work. Nothing fancy, but it was just wonderful to have some time together after this first year of parenting. We were talking about all kinds of stuff when all of a sudden from across the table, she starts really taking the time to tell me something. And then she didn’t really propose, she just suggested that we should get married and asked if I thought the same. Of course I did, and I was happy she asked, that she decided we were ready for this. It was a small moment, that fits us just right.
Did you ever expect that she would ask you to marry her? Had the two of you discussed it
We had a kid, we were in the process of buying our first house after renting for years, so we talked about it often. Also we’ve known each other for 12 years by then. So I was expecting this to come up eventually, just not in this exact moment. But because we’ve talked about it often it wasn’t a huge surprise.
How did you feel after she asked? Did you feel emasculated in any way?
Totally didn’t feel emasculated. We always have been equal to each other in our relationship so in that respect it shouldn’t matter who asked whom, just whoever would go first. Besides that, we both didn’t have any expectations about marriage. No white dress, no ceremony, no rings. We got married for free on a Monday morning at our city hall (every municipality is by law required to offer free marriages), it was a 10-minute thing. Our parents weren’t even there. A couple of months later, we threw a big party to celebrate, we both prepared a little speech because we did want to show that we love each other to our friends and family. But that was it, the rest of the evening was just a nice party.
Did you ever feel a certain a pressure to propose?
No, I never felt the pressure. I can imagine this is different for other people though. Although I wouldn’t say this is really a gender thing, I think it’s more because of the meaning that is given to the marriage ritual. There are so many expectations surrounding getting married that this puts a lot of pressure on a couple. You have to know what you get into before you propose. I would recommend anyone to don’t care about what others expect and think about what you really, really want for your SO and yourself. That’s all that matters in the end.
Dude S., 30
BROADLY: How did your significant other propose?
DUDE: She proposed to me on my golden birthday, at a very large music festival in the Midwest. Apparently, she made our whole camp privy to her plans as well, so they all knew. But I started that day out like any other birthday, partying as if my life were about to end. So when midday rolled around and her plan was ready to be set in motion, I was flying high. We sat under a laser-cut wooden geodesic dome and she got on one knee, and I started crying immediately. She told me how special I was, and on that special (golden birth)day she wanted to do something special, too, and asked me to marry her. There was a dude behind her blowing bubbles oblivious to the scene, and the guy sitting next to me was cheesing almost as hard as I was, they regaled in sharing such a special moment.
Were you expecting it at all?
I had no idea she was about to propose. She had grabbed my hand one morning after a night out, apparently to measure my finger, but I was so hungover I didn't really register what happened until much later, almost when we were going to have the actual wedding. Never discussed marriage with her at any point before it, either.
How did you feel about being proposed to?
Her being the one to do the proposing didn't make me feel anything. Our relationship was unusual from the start. She was the one to ask for my phone number, go in for the first kiss—none of it I minded. I kind of like a woman taking charge.
BROADLY: How did your girlfriend propose to you?
SEBASTIAN: On the day of my final exam she took me to our go-to record store. We looked at the record players in the window because we were looking for a new one anyway. She pointed at one and asked how I liked it. At closer look I saw a sign with my nickname on it. It also had the words "let’s face the music and dance" written on the player. I, of course, did not know what was happening. Probably a present for the passed exam, I thought. But she turned to me and said "Now that you are a technician I wanted to ask you if you also want to be my man?"
Were you surprised?
I was very much surprised, especially as my mind was [focused] on the successful exam. We talked about marriage before and were both quite into it. We never talked about who "had" to do it. I know that she waited for me to do it, but eventually didn’t want to wait any longer. She is quite spontaneous and felt like that it is just something she really wants, so why wait? In fact, I planned on asking one of her favorite musicians to do it for me while playing at the venue where I work.
How did the proposal make you feel? Did it tear down any conceptions you had about gender?
We pretty much don’t have this gender-roles strict kind of relationship. My mom was single and there are five more women in the family, raising me all together. The only man was my grandpa. I get around with women. She proposed, she earns more money, and I said from the beginning that I can also imagine being a stay-at-home dad one day. I didn’t feel emasculated but those are not categories that apply to us or our relationship anyway.