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John, will you marry me? When women propose

The holidays have traditionally been an occasion for marriage proposals, even sometimes occurring on Christmas morning itself. And with that day only two weeks away, that means some of you out there are making preparations to get down on one knee, nervously stutter some words about your undying love, and then pop the question. Of course, when I say "some of you," I'm not just referring to guys.

The "reverse proposal," as I've heard it called, in which a woman asks a man for his big, hairy hand in marriage, is still unusual, but appears to be a growing trend. A couple of weeks back, rumours were spread (and later denied) that Britney Spears proposed to her boyfriend and was turned down. And I recently read a survey - run by a jewellery company promoting male engagement rings, so take it with a grain of diamond-encrusted salt - found that one in three people know a woman who proposed to her man. Over half the respondents to the survey said they thought the practice was becoming more common. I believe it. I know a couple of reverse proposers myself.

Last year, when a friend told me she had popped the question to her boyfriend over the weekend, I found myself having a strangely conservative gut response. I was happy for her, but my first reaction was also to wonder why she had done it. Was he not going to propose to her? It didn't take me long, however, to kick myself and come up with this hypothesis: She did it because she loves him and wants to spend the rest of her life with him. Same reason a guy does it. Duh.

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Thankfully, his immediate response, he says, was: "Yes, yes, yes!"

"From a guy's perspective, it was fantastic," he told me. "And all my guy friends were jealous. They thought, finally a woman asks a man to marry her. She got a lot of respect for it, especially from men."

I figured my own initial reaction was probably the tip of the iceberg to the resistance some men may feel about the idea of the reverse proposal, so I contacted Michael Kimmel, a sociologist and editor of the book Men and Masculinities , to figure out where that might have come from. "I think it has to do with the ideology that we have of marriage as being something she wants and that he has to be nagged into," Dr. Kimmel said. "She has to calculate and strategize how to get him to commit to her. Then when he proposes, that's her moment of triumph."

The story he presented did sound familiar, ingrained into my head by a lifetime of bad Hollywood comedies that the reverse proposal doesn't mesh with. Or does it?

Interestingly, when I spoke to my friend's now-husband, he says he was the one in the relationship who was ready for marriage first, but sensing she still needed time, was holding off making a move. "I think her initiating and proposing made the whole idea of marriage that much more solid with us," he says. "Had I proposed at that point, I might have always had a little niggling doubt that she wasn't ready and I was rushing her along." So, in a way, it was his triumph when she proposed, just a turnaround of the same old story.

The apparent increase of women proposing marriage is connected, I think, to another modern trend, which is no proposal at all. Another friend told me about her proposal, which was really more of a discussion than a point-blank query: One morning in bed she turned over to her boyfriend and said, nonchalantly, "Let's get married this summer." His initial response: "Don't we need money to do that?" She admits it wasn't the most romantic reply in the world, but I think it highlights the fact that, after five years together, marriage was already assumed and it was just a matter of timing.

"Marriages used to be arranged, so proposals then were a business negotiation between families," says Elizabeth Abbott, author of the forthcoming History of Marriage . "When we developed to the point of individuals choosing their own partners, then how marriage got negotiated usually reflected the fact that we're a patriarchal society and men would tend to propose." Dr. Abbott guesses that the trend of women proposing ramped up after the 1960s, at the same time they were achieving other forms of equality, and that now the proposal is often done away with entirely. In fact, because of its modern-day irrelevance, Dr. Abbott likened the marriage proposal to a form of theatre - "theatrical foreplay," she called it - leading to the main event of the wedding.

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Part of the Britney Spears rumour, as reported by MTV Australia, was that her boyfriend turned her down only because he wanted to propose to her so she could "feel special for once." In the end, my friend who proposed to her husband acknowledged she did feel a certain loss. "I had a serious heart-to-heart with myself before doing it," she said. "By doing this, I told myself, it means you will never be proposed to. Ever. And no matter how independent women seem, I bet you almost all of them have daydreamed of the day the question is popped. So that was sad, but then I realized: If I didn't do it, he will never be proposed to either. So I basically opted to take one for the team and give him that experience instead of waiting for it to be given to me."

It's a heartwarming tale for Christmas if there ever was one. Hollywood should definitely get on that.

Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.

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