Public Marriage Proposals Must Die

No more Jumbotrons, billboards, or flash mobs. Proposals should be for two people, not two million.


“Don’t say no,” Jimmy Kimmel says to a woman about to be proposed to on his live show last week. Pretending to send her, a “random” audience member, on a Christmas scavenger hunt, Kimmel helped the woman’s boyfriend create a public spectacle on his massive show. Remember, this is a show that has a viewership of millions; even here in South Africa, we know who Kimmel is.

The woman said yes and there was much merriment. So, that’s great. I guess. The same can’t be said for the guy in China with his 99 iPhones, a little while back:

“One Guangzhou programmer … opted for 99 iPhone 6’s… He organized the phones in the shape of heart before proposing to his girlfriend in front of a sizeable crowd of friends and onlookers.

The phones reportedly cost the man over RMB 500,000 (about $82,000), or roughly the equivalent of two years’ salary.... Sadly, the grand gesture was lost on the woman, who rejected his proposal.”

Men aren’t the only one who do this, of course, but I struggled to find more stories of men being proposed to; but again and again the scenario appears to be mostly men proposing to women. It’d be great to see data that says otherwise, but I suspect it does not.

Regardless, I won’t focus here on the silliness of traditional gender roles. The issue is the move to being public; publicity for what is regarded as an important moment in a relationship between two—not two million—people. The scenario in which you are proposed to in public is very different to the one done in private.

In an otherwise strange piece, Daisy Buchanan notes:

“A friend of mine had the question delivered by singing passengers in a tube carriage. (And she admits: “When I realized something was going on, my first thought was, ‘I do hope this isn’t a proposal.’ I said yes, and we’re happily married. But I wish he’d just asked me over dinner.)”

Lucia Peters notes that in a survey of more than 2,000 people, 39 percent of those who had rejected a proposal say it occurred in public. David’s Bridal showed in a 2013 survey, out of 500 responses that, "Brides overwhelmingly prefer more personal, low-key proposals to those that are more elaborate. Eighty percent said they would scoff at a public Facebook proposal, and 63 percent wouldn't want their beau to propose on a Jumbotron. And despite their seeming popularity, 57 percent said they would not appreciate a flash mob proposal.”

Anyone, regardless of sexual or relationship preferences, can see the overarching problem here: the public spectacle being made of your private lives. Suddenly, your relationship is being put on a public platform, assessed by strangers and loved ones, looking on, expecting the obvious agreement with the traditional arc of relationships. You must emerge from the cocoon made of public onlookers as a gushing fiancée.

But what about rejection?

Putting someone on the spot is hard enough, but when you do that in public, you’re negating their options. No doubt, by proposing, you’ve already reached a conclusion this person will, in all likelihood, say yes. The idea of “other options” simply does not exist for you. And perhaps it says a lot that you’re so confident about your relationship that you can do it publically.

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But regardless of your confidence, you’re still dealing with another person. Confidence doesn’t equal truth or reality, only an assurance in your assessment of it—indeed, as the litany of “public marriage proposal fails” indicate, people really don’t understand their relationships. And that realization comes at the cost of severe, public embarrassment for many, including the victim/proposed. And with “public” comes “recorded,” since smartphones are our new third hands.

“The crowds booed and jeered as the embarrassing scene played out in front of them.”

“UCLA basketball player Jerime Anderson reportedly said [of a woman’s rejection]: ‘That's cold.’”

“It was uploaded to YouTube where it has been viewed by more than 42,000 people.”

That’s what happened to a couple when a guy proposed at a UCLA basketball game.

Public antagonism toward the person rejecting a marriage proposal must be considered by those initiating the proposal, but of course must be discounted if they carry on with it anyway. Here the audience is upset that the performance—because that’s what it is—isn’t playing out how they’d like. They know nothing about this relationship between two strangers. This is the anger over an actor missing his lines, not a show of solidarity with someone seeing their relationship possibly crumble. This “romantic gesture” seems part of a general attitude of dismissal we have regarding others’ preferences or sense of security.

So much of what is considered “romantic” is actually inappropriate, pressuring, or unnerving. Persistence in asking someone out is seen as a sign of strength, not creepy; determination is a measure of love, not entitlement; publically asking someone to put a most powerful seal of approval on your private lives is seen as grand and romantic, not inappropriate, embarrassing, and forceful. Our favorite films reinforce this, and almost all popular love songs contain lyrics that look like they were scrawled on a basement wall plastered with sticky pictures of people with their eyes cut out. (People, including myself until recently, couldn’t tell Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” wasn’t intended as a love song. They still don’t realize it’s about a stalker. That’s how blurred the lines are between romance and creepy.)

So entering into a culture that struggles to clarify romance, when toxic ideas are reinforced as struggles to be overcome, it’s more important than ever to reconsider making your relationship dynamic public.

Consider, too, that in this digital age, making something public is not only easier but has greater reach. We can’t stop people recording and storing a sensitive moment in a relationship that will live on, seemingly forever. Fleeting moments are captured and stored, whether we want them to be or not. To thrust someone into the spotlight and force them to react won’t result in a loved one’s reaction but a performer’s response, a victim’s nervous nod.

Of course there exist cases where the person loved the effort, but to treat those as anything other than exceptions and/or the result of long-term understanding would be a mistake.

But even interrogating successful proposals leads to unsatisfactory reasoning. At CNN, Jake Bronstein explained why he proposed publically:

“When it came time to ask her to be my wife, saying it quietly as I slipped a ring across a candle-lit table wasn't going to do. Not for me, anyway. I'm sure it would have been just as meaningful, and we'd have gotten married just the same, but I wanted a spectacle so she would know how serious I was about the idea.”

He admits it would’ve been as meaningful, but decided to accept the dangers of public responses anyway. And notice the dangers don’t just affect him, but the person he wanted to marry. She had no say in it, but now is being forced to deal with an already challenging situation in front of strangers.

What I struggle to understand is this idea of wanting to show how “serious” we are, as Bronstein says—that we have to make grand but useless gestures to “prove” the depth of our relationship. It’s an idea I’ve not understood, since writing about the bizarre fortunes non-millionaires spend on engagement rings. While nobody disputes being generous to your partner(s) is a good thing, it seems baffling to dig deep into your wallets for romantic gestures, instead of essential ones. That with our and our families’ finite cash, we spend huge amounts on rings, billboards, Jumbotron proposals, weddings—instead of pouring all of it into savings, investments, and other targets that not only show how “serious” we are, but also help us live.

But aside from the poor reasoning, there is another worrying issue: You’ve not asked for the other person’s consent, since that removes the surprise. You’ve put them into a scenario where choice is removed, if they want to avoid embarrassment. Removing choice is bullying and seems a horrid basis on which to anchor your relationship.

Even relationship experts, like Harris “Dr. Nerdlove” O’Malley, agree. He tells me, via email:

“I’m of the general impression that the more over-the-top the proposal, the shorter the marriage. Past a certain point, it’s no longer about the couple and much more about getting featured on The Huffington Post or Gawker with headlines about how awesome you are for this pageant you put on to celebrate your love for someone.

Even the classic Jumbotron proposals or the billboards or whatever—those strike me as being as much about other people’s reactions than one’s significant other. And to be perfectly honest, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s kind of like trying to bully someone into saying ‘yes.’”

Worse still is how much of this is being made into performance. Discussing Michele Velazquez’s public marriage proposal business, the Heart Bandits, Megan McDonough notes:

“For many, [having an organised public marriage proposal is] about having a fun story to tell when, inevitably, they are asked by friends and family about the proposal. ‘You don’t want to tell them that he proposed over KFC,’ Velazquez joked.

More like half-joked, since “their clients generally spend between $3,000 and $5,000 on their big moment. The cost can surpass $10,000 with special add-ons and upgrades, including photographers, videographers and musicians.” Infinite cash must be nice.

Again, it’s about being able to tell a story, about not appearing in anything less than Hugh Grant-starring romance. In other words: a performance. But for whom? Why do these people care so much what others think of their relationship? What is it they think will happen if they’re not judged romantic enough?

For many of us, what shows seriousness and depth and meaning is what already occurs in a relationship: Not a ring or marching band, but what you do for each other every day. This need to constantly “prove” your love, to bully your alleged loved one, to be able to tell a story, is heavy, useless baggage that seems insulting, juvenile, and dripping in Hollywood fantasy.

The risks are too high to warrant supporting public marriage proposals. They, by definition, obtain no consent from the person being proposed to; they make a public spectacle of an important decision that the person might not be ready to make; they will be recorded by strangers and judged as performance, not a meaningful relationship. Added to this: so many are indicating they do not want them at all.

Public marriage proposals are yet more additions to the long list of “romantic” gestures and actions we should be squinting at—alongside complimenting strangers’ looks, buying engagement rings and, indeed, getting married in general.

“Don’t say no,” Jimmy Kimmel joked to a strange women being proposed to. And he spoke for an entire nation as they watched a woman, who we’ll probably never see again, being forced to make a life-changing decision on the spot. This isn’t romance. It’s bullying.