What has happened to surprise marriage proposals?

"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.


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