What has happened to surprise marriage proposals?

by on May 6, 2010 at 6:55 am in Economics | Permalink

"You do not propose to a woman without absolute assurance that she'll say yes," says Ethan, and Mr. Brentan agrees.

There is broader context:

In 1972, on a park bench in Birmingham, Ala., Garner Lee Green's father proposed to her mother. The proposal came out of the blue. She said yes.

"That doesn't happen to people anymore," says Ms. Green, who is 30. And it certainly wasn't the way her husband asked her to marry him several years ago. The two of them talked for a long time about how and when the proposal would happen. "I was ready before he was, so we had to come to a meeting of the minds about a time frame. The negotiations lasted about six months," Ms. Green says.

So what are the economics?  Presumably a proposal "out of the blue" is more likely to be accepted, and offered, when there is potential disagreement about the correct "market prices" of various potential partners.  A lower status man might try to snare a higher-quality woman, perhaps by catching her off-guard, or he might be trying to signal, with his daring and panache, that he is higher status after all.

The most likely ones to accept such proposals are women who are unsure of their "quality," either on the mating market or in unmarried life.  Accepting the proposal takes on one kind of risk but relieves the woman of another.

Overall it seems that women are today more certain about the utility value of their alternatives to a surprise marriage proposal and that means they turn them down.  The proposals may seem like harmless "cheap talk" (propose to lots of women above your station in life and thus the custom persists, even if it rarely succeeds), but Google-savvy, credential-savvy women can evaluate men better than ever before and the lower status guys don't get close enough to them to try a shock proposal, much less make it stick.

Is it a prediction that rapid, surprise proposals are more common in societies where male high achievers are hard to identify in advance?  How important is inequality of income and volatility/uncertainty of income?

Perhaps for aesthetic reasons, I find the decline of the surprise proposal slightly sad (though in part reflective of some positive societal developments), and I am pleased to reaffirm that I do not believe in the consultative approach.

I thank Daniel Lippman for the pointer.

Tomasz Wegrzanowski May 6, 2010 at 7:37 am

These marriage proposals seems like a highly American concept. Few people make a big deal out of them in Poland, and I’d expect the same to be true pretty much everywhere except States.

So it’s just a random drift of culture, not any result of economic equilibrium.

Maddy May 6, 2010 at 7:50 am

Surprise proposal sounds like the way to go. Would the analysis still hold when women propose to men?

anonymous May 6, 2010 at 8:04 am

Surprise marriage proposals have been replaced by surprise propositions for sex.

T. Shaw May 6, 2010 at 8:34 am

YOU may as well be miserable like the rest of us.

Ask yourself these questions – before it’s too late.

Why should I be happy?

Have I become bored with “sex”?

Hope and chains.

C Palsson May 6, 2010 at 9:06 am

The divorce rate likely has an effect on surprise proposals. I imagine the idea that the marriage might not work out would deter many from making a hasty decision.

SueSimp May 6, 2010 at 9:21 am

Marriage is no longer as monolithic of an institution as it once was. People can now decide for themselves what they want “marriage” to mean, and what their idea of a marriage relationship looks like. And because there are now a variety of possible marriage contracts, you had better know for sure which one is being offered to you before you decide whether to accept.

So the “surprise proposal” is declining because, in the case of a spontaneous proposal, it can no longer be precisely clear what exactly it is that a proposer is asking to a proposee. Couples have to actually talk these things out ahead of time, and make sure they have reached a meeting of the minds as to what the terms of the proposal are.

It has nothing to do with whether the qualities of the male are hard to identify in advance, and everything to do with the fact that, for both parties, what the other party’s idea of marriage is cannot be ascertained without consultation.(And, by the way, I love your implication here that female “quality” is the sort that can be identified immediately without reference to background checks!)

babar May 6, 2010 at 9:29 am

the person responding with the next comment: will you marry me?

William May 6, 2010 at 9:42 am

It will be a good era for humanity when women propose roughly half of marriage proposals.

Henry May 6, 2010 at 9:56 am

My impression (perhaps wrong) is that people rarely take a long time (i.e. more than a few minutes) to decide on “Yes” or “No”, when they would be unlikely to do the same for other major decisions. Is that just a social custom (that is, it’s rude to say “I’ll have an answer by next Friday at 2:00pm”) or do people usually know their answer right away? Perhaps it’s a bad signal to say yes if it’s not immediate (who wants to marry someone who might have cold feet?). Or maybe it’s because of what Ethan says about only proposing when you’re sure of a yes. Seems like there’s some inefficiency here – there may be many couples who could have been happily married a long time ago if only both parties were aware of the other one’s intentions. Maybe there’s a possible market for an actuary/private investigator combination who works out the probability of your partner accepting a proposal.

Justin Martyr May 6, 2010 at 9:56 am

I always enjoy the application of economic and logical thinking to everyday situations, but not everything is driven by structural factors. That is doubly true for culture which is driven by information cascades which may not be adaptive. Why can’t the answer to some of these questions simply be “that is a path dependent artifact of contemporary culture?”

Brian Moore May 6, 2010 at 10:18 am

“I am pleased to reaffirm that I do not believe in the consultative approach.”

I am highly offended by this statement! I made a very romantic powerpoint proposal. The pie charts were even pink, and the tax benefits were undeniable.

blades May 6, 2010 at 10:32 am

Cynic is right. However, my story: 25 years ago, I “popped the question” after secretely buying the ring, taking the girl out to intimate french restaurant, and getting her drunk on champagne (maybe only time in her life she had too much to drink). We had been going out fo 2-3 years but neither of us ever raised the marriage question. We had great relationship. To my shock, she didn’t accept…until the next day. Still married, now with 2 great kids.

It was a tremendous amount of fun to do it this way, and unforgettable memory.

Btw, I would not have considered asking for father’s permission. If ever that was common it was long gone by then.

Someone from the other side May 6, 2010 at 11:12 am

Brian, willing to share the presentation – sanitized, possibly?

Andrew May 6, 2010 at 11:30 am

Dogbert says that since unmarried men commit most violent crimes, they should be pre-emptively jailed.

I’ll add that you give them each a computer and if they can trick…I mean coax a woman to marry them they can be released back into society.

Brian May 6, 2010 at 11:50 am

I am highly offended by this statement! I made a very romantic powerpoint proposal. The pie charts were even pink, and the tax benefits were undeniable.

I was a fan of the patent attorney who encapsulated his proposal in a patent application. Unfortunately, some of the killjoys in the patent law community thought he should have been sanctioned for a frivolous filing.

Uncidentally, the application was rejected by the USPTO, accepted by the bride. But since applications generally take 18 months to publish, that must have been in the works for a long time.

LemmusLemmus May 6, 2010 at 11:55 am

Especially given that there’s a World Cup coming up, this threat wouldn’t be complete without a mention of French national soccer coach Raymond Domenech:

‘Unlike lesser coaches, who when asked whether they intended to resign after a humiliating loss to the Italians in the Euro Cup might use a press conference to, say, explain what happened, Domenech chose the moment to propose to his girlfriend, French TV personality Estelle Denis. “I have only one project,† he answered reporters, “to marry Estelle, which is what I’m asking her today.† Unsurprisingly, the French media pounced on the comments as inappropriate, but he was unapologetic. “Everything was so sad,† he later explained. “I thought life has some beautiful moments and you should tell people you love them. I wanted to show some emotion.†’

Naturally, Mme. Denis declined.


Larry May 6, 2010 at 12:34 pm

“two of them talked for a long time about how and when the proposal would happen. ‘I was ready before he was, so we had to come to a meeting of the minds about a time frame. The negotiations lasted about six months,’”

This sounds as if it could have been an ultimatum. If so, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon. John Molloy sent people out to local government offices in various parts of the country to ask the couples applying for marriage licenses a few questions, one of which was how they decided to get married. He was shocked at how many couples were getting married as a result of an ultimatum (marry me or we’re through).

bcg May 6, 2010 at 1:26 pm

“I was ready before he was, so we had to come to a meeting of the minds about a time frame. The negotiations lasted about six months,” Ms. Green says.

If there are guardian angels, I hope mine knows I consider it his job to protect me against things just like this.

TomB May 6, 2010 at 2:32 pm

I think most of you are totally missing the boat on this one, though my opinion is based mostly on anecdotal evidence as well.

Guys usually put off marriage as long as possible – no need to commit when you can just have a long term relationship with an exit option that is not divorce. Many women have a date before which they want to be married – can’t be too old before you have kids or can’t let yourself get too old for marriage. Like it or not, women need to have kids before a certain age. And like it or not, when younger women are available, as they usually are, men are less likely to be involved with an older woman.

So the guy puts off marriage as long as possible. He may not need an ultimatum from the woman, but he will wait until she starts putting some kind of pressure on him.

agnostic May 6, 2010 at 3:05 pm

What has happened to spontaneous and reckless youthful behavior in general? If this trend is real, it is part of a larger trend starting around 1991-92 where the entire culture becomes pacified, risk-averse, and boring.

Go back to the YRBS link I put in a comment somewhere yesterday and see for yourself. Sexual behavior, violence, reckless behavior while driving or riding a bike, drugs and alcohol (although that declined only by the late ’90s), etc. It’s at this level, after we’ve collected enough of a pattern, that the explanation must work — not thousands of ad hoc speculations about each piece in the pattern.

“I find this discussion distressingly heteronormative, and the gendered assumptions about who’s doing the proposing also bothersome.”

You’re so cute when you work yourself into a tiff over nothing.

Ryan Vann May 6, 2010 at 3:33 pm

“What has happened to spontaneous and reckless youthful behavior in general? If this trend is real, it is part of a larger trend starting around 1991-92 where the entire culture becomes pacified, risk-averse, and boring.”

Interesting perspective, and probably pretty explanative. Why, if there is a trend in physical risk aversion, does there seem to be elevated financial risk seeking though? Is there some sort of substitution effect going on?

Daniel May 6, 2010 at 3:35 pm

No-one has yet alluded to irrationality (or “passion”, if you prefer); it seems reasonable to think of some people proposing out of the blue out of sheer “animal spirits”, as opposed to a well-reasoned thought process. If one concedes that someone may propose in this manner, it seems easy to allow for the counterpart to agree in the same spirit.

It also seems that cohabitation and an increased focus (in the self-help bibliography and morning show circuit) on the “psychology” of relationships has made the public more aware of the complex issues involved in a marriage – a “de-romantization” of the decision process. Hence the shift from emotional to rational decisions.

dave May 6, 2010 at 3:51 pm

If a proposal is truly an unexpected surprise, either it is being made much too soon or it is being made to the wrong person entirely.

Jethro May 6, 2010 at 7:36 pm

I would be interested to know whether the length of the engagement following a surprise proposal is longer than a proposal which the couple has talked about beforehand. My intuition is that when the proposee says yes following a surprise proposal, it doesn’t necessarily mean “yes I want to marry you” but is really more like “I’m not ready to marry you yet, and I don’t want to end our relationship by saying no, so I’ll say yes and hope that in time I will become ready to marry you”.

Yancey Ward May 6, 2010 at 10:34 pm

I can’t wait to read Roissy’s response to this.

Texan99 May 7, 2010 at 9:00 am

People approached marriages proposals very differently before birth control and cohabitation became commonplace. It was understood to be a suggestion that the couple should consider producing and raising children together. It was, therefore, understood to be a proposal for a very serious, long-term, and mostly irreversible commitment to a huge change in the couple’s lives. A modern couple is more likely to see it as a suggestion to drift into a condition that’s only slightly different from long-term dating. The more important negotiation may occur when one or the other actually wants to start having children.

I have the impression, based on novels more than anything else, that couples in the former world not only understood the gravity of what they were undertaking but were prepared to face the choice clearly and take a leap. Sometimes that meant that the man popped the question to the woman’s surprise, but that she was able to make up her mind about it fairly quickly. That’s even easier to understand when you consider that they had few palatable choices outside of marriage: it would be hard for him to get sex any other way, or for her to support herself, or for either of them to obey their DNA’s insistent command to reproduce.

Right Wing-Nut May 7, 2010 at 1:17 pm

I think that “surprise is in the eye of the beholder” is an important observation. I’ve read more than one autobiography wherein the proposal comes as a complete surprise to the intended, but to no one else. Especially her father–who is NOT acting as a property owner, but as a loving, caring parent who wants his daughter to have a good life.

In any event, I am not about to accept claims about such trends absent detailed survey information. It’s way to easy to generalize from publicized events.

What is the actual percentage of cases where the intended is surprised by the proposal? By the circumstances of the proposal? What is the failure rate of surprise verse not-surprised engagements? What is the the length of engagements? How do the correlations compare?

Do we observe high-status females receiving more or fewer surprise offers? How does the acceptance rate correlate to factors such as age, status, and relative status (and in combination?)

Give me this data, and I will enter debates about the whys. We are far to diverse for insightful speculation without it.

acai max cleanse June 18, 2010 at 1:04 am

I am just asking because I was the one who put the question to my husband and I didn’t do it in a very romantic way.. well we still have a happy marriage and have been married 20 years now. I just wonder what it’s like to get a very imaginative, crazy, funny or utterly romantic proposal. I would be grateful for sharing your story with me about your proposal.. if you are a woman who proposed to her partner that’s fine also…Thanks

Ebanksmith smith July 28, 2010 at 7:42 am

I hope your wife will heal from this awful relationship with you. I’m praying that she will find someone who will love her and respect her.
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