Sunday 21 January 2018

Just do it -- ask your guy to get married

For some, the idea of a woman popping the question is a refreshing break from tradition; for others it's almost a taboo. Medb Ruane investigates and Tanya Sweeney speaks to two women who took the initiative

In The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, a gallant knight kisses his lady's arm so sweetly she almost swoons. A deliciously romantic painting, it hangs near the chamber in Dublin's Registry Office where thousands of people marry each year.

The rules of engagement were different when Frederic Burton RHA painted it in 1864. Men always did the proposing, preferably on bended knee. The etiquette wasn't negotiable. He was the seeker, she was the sought. The tradition reflected male and female roles, but it also hinted at power -- and how the lovers' sexual relationship should unfold.

"Nothing but the deepest love will induce me into matrimony," Elizabeth Bennett said in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Truth was, women didn't have much choice. Marriage was a social and economic transaction, with strict gender, class and religious divides. He had to prove he was able to support a wife and she had to make being married her sole career.

Times change, but there's still a resistance to the idea of a woman asking a man for his hand. Women are more economically independent and, anyways, all genders can have sexual relationships without getting married, if that's what they choose. Yet many men and women think the man should do the asking, even when they believe that marriage is a relationship between equals. What's that about?

Stereotypes claim that women of a certain age are so desperate to marry they'll do whatever it takes to get him to pop the question, but the reality is that men at a certain age start thinking about marriage too. It's a question of mutual timing.

If the relationship is going well, both partners will have some sense of what the other wants and whether they'd like to move the relationship on. Getting a mortgage together (or trying to) is one sign of mutual commitment, but it has nothing like the symbolic power of proposing.

Proposing is about voicing the wish to be life partners. It speaks of wanting and being wanted, not just for a sexual or economic relationship but for the human connection a lifelong commitment takes. It's a high note in the art of courtship, and anyone who enjoys the game will eventually develop the skills to nudge their partner in the desired direction.

For Elizabeth Bennett, it was about deepest love. Or as Beyoncé sings in Single Ladies, "Don't treat me to the things of this world, I'm not that kind of girl. Your love is what I prefer".

Whoever takes the initiative is taking a risk. They may be rejected upfront or asked to wait indefinitely, so they don't know if they're reading the relationship correctly or living on the same page.

Proposals came fast and furious in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth was mortified when the obsequious Mr Collins invited her to marry him, after asking her father for permission. Her refusal had such style it became a textbook example of how to say 'no'.

"Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me," she said. "I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than decline them.''

Proposing, then, is a key moment in a couple's story. It's the big chapter between falling in love and believing the love will last. It's a line in the sand, a personal sonnet that will be told to children, even grandchildren, when they ask how the love started that brought them into the world.

It's a style statement, too, whether you're hopeless romantics or too practical to fuss over soppy stuff. Get it right and happy-ever-after may happen. Get it wrong and, even if she or he says 'yes', you could stand accused of having pushed for marriage and being responsible when things go wrong.

Elizabeth eventually accepted Mr Darcy's proposal, although she rejected him once. She wanted to know she was loved. Women aren't as shackled by marriage as in Austen's day, but even in the 21st century some women wait until a Leap Year to ask the question.

Confidence and lacking it could explain why, but there are other possible reasons. All the physical and psychological evidence suggests that marriage is better for men than for women, even if women are supposed to want it more.

Men lose some freedoms, but not as many as women. This may be why many women want men to do the asking. They need to know they're wanted and that he is committed for the long and, hopefully, happy haul.

Irish Independent

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