For the fourth time in my life last night, I was present for an extremely public, ornately orchestrated marriage proposal. It was sickeningly sweet, like a Peep covered in powdered sugar and rolled in Pop Rocks. Something about it was so…forced.
Although it could never have compared to the time I sat at an Orioles game directly next to a woman who was proposed to on a Jumbotron. I was overwhelmed with the most bizarre sense of voyeurism; why was I privvy to this moment, to the intimacy of these people I don’t know? She seemed embarrassed, flattered, excited, nervous–all the things I would imagine you would feel if the most personal decision of your life was made in front of thousands of strangers. (I did get on the big screen, though, so no complaints here).
Anyway, something about public proposals (even on a lesser scale, like in the middle of a crowded restaurant) have always freaked me out. Aside from the obvious feeling of “you can’t reject me now, all these people would forever think you a heinous bitch” pressure, there is a certain degree of insincerity to the idea that a moment that is supposed to be exclusively between the two of you, that a moment in which you join hands and face your future together would be fodder for public cooing. You have the rest of your lives to spread your happiness around, why not save this one little moment for your own?
The proposal in film that’s always stuck out to me as the most romantic was in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where Ian proposes to Toula while they are in bed, naked, enjoying each others company. He asks her without even presenting a ring, telling her upon her tearful “yes!” that it works out well, as she can now wear it (he pulls it out from its little hiding place, the tears flow). The idea that the question alone, not even accompanied by the obligatory rock, would be enough to send her into ecstatic weeping is a beautiful one. The fact that he presents it to her afterward, like the cherry on the sundae that it is (and not the star of the show) speaks volumes. I know it’s just a silly romantic comedy, but I found it truly touching.
Marriage has been made, in our culture, such an absurd spectacle with hundreds of opportunities at every turn to make it entertaining, publicly funded, and about everyone but the two people coming together. It’s nice to think that there can be a moment where the whole world can calm down and one person can ask another, in all calmness and sincerity, to be with them for life.
I have friends now entering the age bracket of marriage (a bracket I’m staring down myself) who are already subtly putting the pressure on their live-in boyfriends to make things official. One was telling me about a vacation they were taking together, and that she had a nagging feeling that “this was it.” I couldn’t think of a scenario that would make me more uncomfortable. The idea that you are expecting something so dramatic, so fundamentally important from someone who is blissfully unaware of your mounting impatience would be hard to top in terms of emotional risk. Is he to understand that if they have a beautiful, romantic vacation that doesn’t end with an expensive engagement, that she will be disappointed and resentful, regardless of how magical the trip was otherwise? Combined with the fact that she has always wanted a big, beautiful ring and a dramatic proposal–I think her boyfriend probably falls asleep at night counting the ways he could fail her.
It would be ridiculous for me to say that I would reject a public, dramatic proposal on principle–but I certainly would question how well he knows me, or what his motivation is in including all of these witnesses we’ll never see again. Mine is the only consideration that matters in this situation, why all of the prying eyes? Especially if it were on the tails of the subtle, barely vocalized but unmistakable ultimatums that I see being placed on men like cinder blocks before a nice swim, I would have serious fears that the proposal came from anything resembling honest desire.
With all of the pomp and circumstance already surrounding marriage (often ridiculous, given the ensuing divorce rate), it’s hard to take seriously someone’s demands for anything BUT simple commitment and openness when it comes to asking to start a life together. What does the approval of strangers or the incredibly expensive piece of jewelry add to your compatibility? What could having an audience do to make his words more profound? What could be a more flattering offer than simply the rest of your life with someone you love?