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The Surprise Marriage Proposal - An Antiquated Tradition

Updated on June 18, 2011

Will You Marry Me?

Everyone remembers the episode of the television series Friends: The One With The Proposal Part 2 where Chandler is so into the wedding proposal being a surprise that he almost chases Monica into someone else’s arms. Of course this was a TV sitcom and all's well that ends well. But we have seen this scenario many times, on the tube and in real life.

It’s a long-standing tradition. The guy proposes, and it’s supposed to be a surprise.

It might be old fashioned and romantic, but it’s outdated. And here’s why.

Long Ago...

When George Bailey proposed to Mary in It's a Wonderful Life, it was a different world. Men were in control of the decision to marry. Men had the money to procure a ring. Men didn’t have to consider her career or her finances. The man’s gift of a proposal was completely his to give.

Women had a much more submissive role in romance. When a woman met the man she wanted, she had little control over the fate of her love. Whatever life she had for herself she’d surrender instantly when someone proposed. It was a different time, and the factors that went into two people joining their lives were much simpler.

Today the woman is not Donna Reed career housewife and mother. Today the woman is a politician, a lawyer, a banker, a doctor, a mechanic. She’s a barrister or a small business owner. She’s a construction worker or a nurse. She has a house or an apartment, she has roommates or children, she has car payments and students loans, she has credit card debt and a 401K. She has joint custody of an adopted child from a previous relationship. She has a shot at making partner at her firm. She has an elderly relative living with her. She had to move back in with her parents so she could start her own tech solutions business.

A proposal of marriage can not be a surprise for her. It’s not something she is sitting home waiting to receive as a gift like the lottery. She can’t wait around for a man to decide he wants to marry her. Instead, she has become a person, created a life for herself. She has commitments and responsibilities, dreams and goals, problems and hindrances.

Back Then, A Man Married The Woman He Was Courting

Years ago, relationships themselves were different. When a man and a woman started dating, it meant it would wind up in marriage. It was not common for a man to court a woman for a few months, let alone a year or more, and then move on. Once at “marrying age” a man married the lady in his life.

It’s not that way today. A man may date a woman for weeks months, or years, and never marry her. He may move from relationship to relationship, he may enjoy many different relationships all at once. Marriage is no longer the logical, common and assumed conclusion to a courting period.

See how the whole surprise proposal worked out back then? Way back when, a man dated a woman, it never crossed either of their minds that courtship would not result in marriage, he surprised her with a proposal when he was ready to pay for everything, the woman accepted, he had the job, they bought a house, she cooked and cleaned, she raised the kids, ... it was all very pre-planned and standard. So there was no big project to getting married.

Today Nothing Is Assumed

Today, obviously it’s not that way. Careers have to be considered. Finances are often kept separate.

Couples decide whether ornot to have children, and how to handle the children from past relationships into custody and visitation agreements. There are tons of things that need to be agreed upon and worked through. There are no givens.

Oddly, as marriage has evolved from an old fashioned normal step two people take, into the complicated agreement that sometimes happens today, the proposal didn’t evolve at all. Despite the fact that the pending marriage can’t possibly be a surprise, men insist that the proposal still be a surprise.

Today, a woman can not assume the guy she's dating is intending to marry her.

Today, the guy can not possibly assume his girl can figure out what the hell is going on in his head..

Most people today realize you can’t enter into a marriage contract lightly or quickly. Like it or not, it is just not that simpler time. A woman knows that just because a guy is courting her, doesn’t mean he is going to marry her. She knows that even if he says he’s serious, or wants a commitment, or even children, that there is no guarantee that he will marry her. She knows she has to have her own career, and money, and place to live, and independence. So, how the hell can she possibly NOT be allowed to know a proposal is coming?


People want to say that this is just not romantic. Let me explain something: The romance in your relationship should involve intimacy, and affection, and sensuality, and poetry. It should not have to involve security and a lack of planning for the future. Surprises in your relationship should involve roses, and weekend trips, and cooking one’s favorite meal. It should not involve prenuptial contracts, joint checking, joining households or custody arrangements.

Marriage is a serious and hopefully life-long commitment involving the past, present and future of two viable individuals. How is it possible that it could be a surprise for one of them and not the other?

I have received so many emails and comments to articles regarding this topic. Most of them involve the woman freaking out because she has no idea whether she is coming or going. And some of them are from the men, childishly saying they want to propose but refuse to until it can be a surprise.

None of these women are writing saying how badly they want to be surprised. None. Not one. Not one has ever even said it was remotely possible for them to consider marriage if it was actually a surprise. They are all writing saying how scared they are. How unsafe they feel. How they are trying to plan their lives and feel like they can’t while they wait for the man they love to figure out what he wants.

The notes from the guys are usually not very marriage minded. They aren’t responsible and mature, asking how to give the woman they love the secure feeling she should have in his arms. Instead, they are about how to trick her and fool her into thinking he won’t marry her so he can surprise her. I’m constantly dumbfounded by how ridiculous and hurtful that is.

The pretend surprise is a "cute" idea, if that’s the game you want to play. Guys love to play games. Women are usually a little more apt to wanting their mate to feel safe and secure. But guys, making your girl feel insecure in your relationship is not romantic or old fashioned. It’s cruel and immature. It's extremely one sided. You need to tell her straight out that your intentions are clearly to propose marriage within a certain time period. Then you may ask that she trust you and relax because you want the proposal to be a surprise.


The story of a friend of my husband’s comes to mind. After dating his girlfriend for 4 years he finally proposed. She was surprised.

While she showed people the ring and said things like, “We’re finally getting married, I’m going to spend my life with him,”

-he was saying things like, “I totally fooled her! She had no idea!” It was as if his goal was only to win this imaginary game he was playing in his head of surprise. He was not as verbal or happy about the woman he loved committing her self to him, as he was verbal and happy of being able to trick her.

Men love to say women are all about the wedding instead of the marriage. Well, newsflash: men are all about the proposal.

Men, unless you are living in a world where it is automatic that you will marry the woman you’re dating, and that she’s Donna Reed, free of a life of her own just waiting at home for you to pop the question, then allow your ideas about proposing to evolve. Be a responsible person and life partner, not a trixter.

Ladies, is this happening to you? Communicate honestly. And give him this link ;)

This Hub Was Written

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All text is original content by Veronica.

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Submit a Comment

  • Veronica profile image

    Veronica 7 years ago from NY

    Thanks Lindsey. It was a wonderful romantic tradition, when it worked, when the world was different.

  • profile image

    Lindsey 7 years ago

    Love this article Veronica. I read it a while back, which I'm glad I did because this very issue came between my bf and me. And now I'm sending him this link so he can read how you've so eloquently explained the woman's side of things --- about how the surprise is so overrated, at best, and cruel at worst. Love it! (I'll let you know what the bf thinks).

  • profile image

    NJC 8 years ago

    Very interesting article. I never saw it form this perspective. I have to say though I really like the idea of a surprise proposal :) taking these things into consideration...maybe the guy can kind of give the girl hints for a while and indirectly make her aware of his plans? hard to do tho!

  • Solorya profile image

    Solorya 8 years ago from Oklahoma

    Interesting perspective. I agree a woman should become her whole complete self--when I got engaged I was making more than my fiancé, didn't wait to buy my own furniture as suggested by my family, certainly did not live with him and was definitely not waiting around for a ring.

    However, I knew if he ever asked I would marry him without the slightest hesitation. From the beginning of our relationship he was intentional about everything--if we weren't going to be headed towards marriage there was no reason to stay together. I never had reason to doubt his heart, because he never left and he has too much integrity to lead me on.

    I'm one who LOVES surprises, and my now husband knows me well enough to know that. One night after work I went to my car to find a note from him that led me on a scavenger hunt to all the important places we had been together. I was like a fat kid in a candy store--I had never had so much fun!Eventually we met up, he took me to a nice dinner, then to the place where we had our first date and proposed on his knees in the sand on Coronado Island. Five months later we were married.

    We've been together five years, have moved 1,300 miles, switched careers, been through our share of trials and are still loving each other more every day. Marriage is different than dating--but for people who live together and "play house," its not much more than a legal document that's binding (unless you get a divorce which, honestly, isn't that hard). People sleep around, go in and out of relationships like they were tunnels in a roller coaster, and wonder how their lives got so screwed up and complicated. Perhaps the proposal isn't the problem, but the lives leading up to it.

  • Veronica profile image

    Veronica 8 years ago from NY


    I'm so glad you shared your sad tale here. i hope you're moving forward and doing OK.

  • profile image

    sushified 8 years ago

    I think it's terrible that my now-ex couldn't realize what you wrote in this article. I had spent two years living with him in his home country with the premise that I love him and I thought we were going to be together. After a while I realized he wasn't going to propose and I was planning my life to be with someone who I no relationship security with. So I decided to leave and move back to the US to my family, to start university and do something else with my life.

    Anyway I didn't find out until after the fact, through his friend, but he had been planning on proposing. He had already bought the ring and had 'hidden' it at his parent's house. And the night he was going to propose I said I was leaving him. What a waste of time and sadness that could have been prevented if he had just got his act together a lot earlier and had not wanted to make it a surprise but had told me he wanted to make everything official and marry me.

    I know I can't blame everything on him, but I do think that any men out there who are planning on proposing but your girlfriend seems to be drifting away, do it before it's too late and make sure she feels more secure about her situation.

  • Nemingha profile image

    Nemingha 8 years ago

    A few years ago I did a course that involved the study of evolution. It seems (and this is not just my opinion but that of scientists, archaeologists and paleantologists as well) that women have evolved greatly - physically as well as emotionally, and are far removed from the first females to stand and walk on two feet.

    Men, however, have not changed at all and appear to be less capable of adapting to change.

    Good hub.

  • Veronica profile image

    Veronica 8 years ago from NY


    Thanks so much for sharing a bit about what you've been through with this. I know you are not alone. i hoped explaining the evolution of marriage would help explain why the proposal should have evolved too.

    Best of luck to you

  • profile image

    steph 8 years ago

    Veronica- I LOVED this one! I hear it all the way around. I belong to a few message boards devoted to women waiting for engagement and weddings.

    I'm all about being traditional and letting the guy being the one to propose, but dragging things out forever just to surprise someone is cruel.

    My boyfriend and I have gone back and forth about the marriage thing (as you know from my blog and emails) and have decided on a timeline. I'm still going crazy not knowing exactly what day it will happen, but i'm so much more at ease now that I know we're looking at the same schedule!