There’s an old Irish tradition dating back as early as the fifth century titled ‘The Ladies’ Privilege.’ As legend has it, every four laps around the sun when February 29 falls on the calendar, women are granted the—ahem—permission to propose to their boyfriends. It was the basis of the romantic comedy ‘Leap Year’ and for many couples, is a practice that’s still considered rather taboo.
But given the ongoing battle for equality in the workplace, the desire for many duos to have and foster a balanced partnership—why do men still feel the pressure to be the proposers? And why do women apply the heat instead of getting off of their own two feet, and down on a knee? Though many cultural beliefs and values are passed down through generations, it isn’t merely the notion of tradition that’s preventing a shift in gender roles. As psychologists explain, the root of the issue stems deeper. Here, a look at how romantic notions are transforming and how maybe—just maybe—you might see more females proposing in the years to come.
Photo by Jill Wachter
When you page through the archives of relationship habits and expectations from your grandmother and mother to your modern-day union, some differences are inherently obvious. Your partner likely doesn’t expect (or demand) dinner on the table. You might even have a strong opinion on keeping your last name instead of changing it. But as psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. explains, while some gender roles have changed and broadened over time, and even become more fluid as we currently stand—others have remained quite stationary. Some argue the concept of proposals hasn’t shifted because of the idea that men pursue women—and not the other way around. As psychologist Sarah Schewitz explains, in the animal kingdom, it is almost always the male who chases the female—whether for dating or in the roles of mammals, mating. To allow women the seemingly upper hand takes time and a mental shift for both parties. “Women still expect men to propose because they may believe that the man is supposed to take control of this situation and be proactive,” she explains. “Women often want and need the men to be in charge, assertive and strong in some ways so that the women can feel taken care of and protected. Women may feel more feminine, loved and valued by a man proposing to them.”
Part of this is due to perception of an over-the-top, rose-colored gesture. “The image of a man getting down on one knee and asking his significant other to marry him as he presents her with an engagement ring is still associated with how people get engaged even nowadays,” she continues. “Men and women often think that it is the man’s job to propose and the ‘manly’ thing to do.” But why is ‘proposing’ considered ‘masculine’… instead of assertive?
Dr. Thomas says as men become more comfortable with confident, brazen women who define and create their own paths, they will be challenged to stop viewing marriage proposals as the duty of a male, but rather, an equal opportunity, not determined by sex. Many decades ago, financial matters were tied to a proposal, when men were expected to purchase an expensive ring as a show of their place in society, according to Schewitz. With many women earning as much as—or surpassing—their partners, it isn’t quite as necessary today. This makes the onus on men to cough up the hard-earned cash less intense, opening the door for women to purchase a band—or propose sans-ring all together. The first step though, is both parties being open to the role reversal. “A man can let go and let the woman take the lead here if he doesn’t feel or think he is less of a man if the woman proposes. Instead, the man needs to recognize that someone is proposing to him because he is so loved and cherished that his significant other wants to marry him and spend the rest of her life with him,” Dr. Thomas explains. “A woman proposing to the man actually can be seen as a very flattering gesture towards the man if he can accept that and let it in.”
As more women consider popping the question to their could-be husbands, Dr. Thomas says they should ensure their relationship is in a very solid, secure—and balanced—place. This is the same mentality men analyze before asking their partner to become their wife, but a conversation is also encouraged to ensure both parties feel ready. “When a relationship is grounded with a stable foundation, there is less likelihood of either the man or the woman feeling resentful, inadequate, or unhappy if the woman proposes to the man since probably neither person will feel threatened or diminished by this reverse proposal,” she explains.
Do the experts believe more women will propose in the years to come? While Dr. Schewitz is unsure, Dr. Thomas sees a future where proposals are no longer dependent on the man. How come? As women get married later in life, push back the birthing age and fundamentally challenge outdated expectations, they’ll reconsider the concept of engagements, too. “I think this will happen since women are waiting longer in life to get married so they can finish college and/or to start their careers and they may want to be the ones to control when different milestones will happen in their lives, as well as not be forced when they should get married,” she explains. “By all intents and purposes, if the couple is working as a team and are feeling quite equal, they can decide together when it is best to propose and get engaged and who should be the one to do it.”
Written by Lindsay Tigar
Lindsay Tigar is an experienced travel and lifestyle journalist, content strategist and editor. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Vogue, USA Today, Fast Company and a myriad of other publications. Her clients include C-level executives, travel agents, dating sites and beyond.