On proposal expectations: The "why" is more important than the "how"

December 23 | Guest post by LikeGraceKelly

We talked about proposal shaming being a thing — now let's talk about the proposal expectations that set that up.

Photo by Dawn Frary
Photo by Dawn Frary

I will never forget the night when my partner proposed. I had just come out of the bathroom after brushing my teeth. I was wearing an enormous sleep shirt that said "I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie." He wrapped me in his arms and asked me if I would marry him. I said yes. It was magical.

However, in the following weeks, when one of us told the story, he would launch into what he meant to do that night: he meant to coordinate with the theater to propose during the most romantic song at the musical we saw that night. He meant to surprise me on my overseas work trip. He meant to pop the question after our college graduation. I was perplexed. I had in no way indicated that I was displeased with how he finally decided to propose.

Don't get me wrong, we all love a good flash mob, fancy restaurant, or scavenger hunt proposal. Even extravagant prom-posals are becoming a thing. But a proposal doesn't have to go viral for it to be special and romantic.

The age of YouTube and other social media sites has many people asking engaged couples how the proposal happened. When the media is oversaturated with hot air balloon ride proposals, skydiving proposals, and proposals made while in cosplay at comic conventions, anything else can seem like a bit of a let-down. It's not the fault of the propose-er, it's that expectations are set too high.

There's no denying that a proposal is a special moment and should be treated as such, but we all need to remember that the "why" for a proposal is more important than the "how."

"But don't you want a cute story to tell the grandchildren?" people squawk. I do have a cute story. I'm sorry it does not follow everyone's script of how a proposal "should" go. It's unfair to compare my low-key proposal story to a grand gesture in the same way it's unfair to compare a little doodle I did to the Mona Lisa.

Within the wedding world and outside of it, we often get so caught up in how the things we create will look to everyone that we forget how special they are to us. If the little doodle I drew is special to me, that's what matters. I can look at and appreciate the Mona Lisa, but that drawing is uniquely mine.

My fiancé and I are not characters in a romantic comedy who have writers feeding us romantic lines. We're not celebrities with unlimited resources. We're us. We already have dozens of cute stories to tell the grandchildren, and now the proposal is one of them.

Our marriage will be about creating hundreds more (stories, not grandchildren, unless that's just how our children roll).

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  1. My husband asked me to marry him when he got home from work when he was working night shift. It was supposed to be on 14 Feb, but it ended up being 13 Feb. Back when he proposed to me I was "upset" it was not this romantic proposal. But looking back on it now it was romantic for "us" and did not need a romantic dinner or in Disney World, or what have you to make it special.

    5 agree
    • Not to put down anyone's proposal, because both small moments and fancy gestures are good, BUT we live near Disney World and go a lot…. last time we were at Magic Kingdom, we saw a proposal happening in Fantasyland. The park was mobbed and this poor guy was trying to propose in the middle of throngs of people. I'm sure it was super special for them, but I think I'd prefer your at home proposal 🙂

      13 agree
  2. Beautifully said, thank you for writing this! My boyfriend and I are talking about getting engaged and I've straight up told him that I don't care how he asks because the most important thing for me is that he's the one proposing.

    7 agree
  3. I've told boyfriend that I would like a 'big' proposal. Not necessarily expensive, but in front of other people. He's involved with local theater & we have a close-knit group of friends so it wouldn't be complicated for him to get a group together & make a 'to-do'. And I know it may seem silly, but we've already talked about spending the rest of our lives together. A wedding/engagement (for us) is really about celebrating with other people. I totally respect that it isn't that way for every couple. And I think it's silly that there is any kind of 'expectation' set up, the only people who should have a say in the proposal is the couple themselves.

    4 agree
    • One thing I didn't mention in my original writing of this piece was that my fiancé LOVES grand gestures, and it's in his personality to plan one (we both have theater backgrounds, too), so some friends and family thought his low-key proposal was "out of character" for him. But, like you said, to each his or her own. Expectations are all in our heads.

      1 agrees
  4. Now don't get me wrong, I love seeing those extravagant proposals, but I didn't have one of my own of that variety. But like you, there wasn't anything I didn't love about it–except maybe how my face looked crying lol. We were at home lounging, watching TV in our pajamas. He excused himself to use the restroom and when he came back he had a little box and got down on one knee. Later he told me that he was planning a fancy dinner when we went out of town to San Francisco to propose but he couldn't wait any longer! I still feel those big proposals are nice, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with a proposal without all the fanfare. As long as I am concerned, it is a special moment between two people, not the whole world.

    4 agree
  5. I was expecting a low-key proposal, but my fiance ended up doing something sort of big and surprising (although it was very personalized to me/us and not very public, which I appreciated). My proposal was awesome and amazing and we love telling the story when people ask, but you know what? People still ask me if I cried and seem surprised that I didn't. People still ask exactly what he said and look disappointed when I tell them he just asked me to marry him without an accompanying speech. All this is to say that no proposal is going to be perfect if you are judging perfection by the collective standards of friends, family and acquaintances. But any proposal can be perfect in the eyes of the people it actually matters to. And even if someone isn't wild about their proposal story, the great thing about getting engaged is that you are committing to making so many more romantic stories with that person. Besides, about a month after getting engaged, everyone has heard how it happened so you don't have to keep talking about it 🙂

    5 agree
  6. When I was planning the proposal for my FH, I originally gravitated towards big flashy ideas involving a local con we attend. Once I came to my senses, however, I remembered he's not a flashy person and would not appreciate these efforts the same way I would. In fact, he would've been REALLY upset if there were people, even strangers watching. He HATES being the center of attention. So I scaled things back and planned stuff out for our anniversary: dinner at a family-style Italian place, seeing Muppets Most Wanted, going for ice cream, and returning to the room to find a number of pixel-heart cards quietly asking him to marry me. I still have the cute story, and it's a little elaborate, but it was still a private, intimate moment between the two of us.

    The problem people have with this story is instead "wait, YOU proposed to HIM? How do you know he actually WANTS to marry you if he didn't ask?" lol Luckily I only get that from a few old aunties…

    4 agree
  7. My Husband proposed while we were watching 128 hours naked on my couch, it was beautiful as were his words and so totally us.

    4 agree
  8. My fiance proposed to me after I had just spent a long weekend at a seminar, sort of in pain since the seminar was just after I had had a procedure done on my varicose veins in my leg. It was just the two of us. He drove me home from the seminar and upon arrival at my apartment, I immediately went to change my clothes but the damned support stocking was stuck and I had no more energy to pull it off. He came and helped me. I was in the schlubbiest clothing and just wanted to sit on my couch with my feet up. He got down on one knee, and had a whole speech prepared, he hid the ring box in his sock since he wasn't sure if he'd propose to me in the hotel after the seminar or at my house. He had that ring box in his sock for a few hours. It was the sweetest thing, both of us nearly cried. I felt gross in my schlubby clothing, but a man who will still propose when you feel like a slob is a man to keep forever.

    11 agree
  9. My fiancé recently proposed to me by 1) placing a magnet on our fridge of the Abbott from The Princess Bride on it saying "MAWAGE is wot bwings us togeder tooday" and 2) having a figurine in our figure display case hold the actual ring (which took him like an hour to set up), and then he waited for me to find these things and get the hint. These things meant more to me than any public declaration of love because these things are essentially US and he worked them into a way of saying "hey you wanna keep doing this for the long run BUT WITH LEGAL DOCUMENTS?".

    9 agree
  10. My fiance proposed while we were at Stonehenge, he managed to keep it a private moment though and that was really important to me. Even though we were there with hundreds of other tourists, no one knew he had just proposed.

    2 agree
  11. A bird pooped on my fiance's head while he was proposing to me, and I laughed so hard I nearly fell into the Arkansas River. Then I counter-proposed with a custom made guitar pick I'd had engraved to say "I pick you forever" (he's a musician) that I'd been secretly carrying around for weeks, because I refused to let this be a one-sided question. The whole thing was 100% us and I could not have asked for a better proposal.

    10 agree
  12. My fiancé proposed after my trying to refuse to go out on a windy cold night by brining me to the canal we spent our second date at. He sat down with me on the steps beside the canal, and asked me to spend my life with him. Nothing flashy, no tourists around(for once because of the weather) and that made it that much more special, that it was just me and him.

    1 agrees
  13. I actually hated Bee's proposal. I suspected he might propose on my birthday and I kinda sorta tried to go to bed before he could do it. He called me out into the living room at midnight, in the house that we were trying to escape (2yrs no heat, 1yr no gas, 9mos no water, windows falling out of the house, frame and all, after a flooded basement took out a support beam. The struggle is real!), and I had surgery scheduled just hours away. He had me close my eyes and gave me a ring made by our glassblower friend, even though I had been showing him cheap-ish rings I liked for months. I felt like he didn't listen to my aesthetics and didn't care that I hated the place it was in. I went to bed and cried. BUT, the ring eventually grew on me, and we talked about my feelings. Yeah, the proposal can be a big deal, but I did say yes, because it's just a moment in our lives. It's not the cornerstone, just a moment, and I knew I wanted to marry him for years. And if I can't handle a bad proposal how could I handle our marriage? Now we live in a tiny place with our pups and giant cat and still love each other like crazy. We make it work.

    Tl;dr: we had a bad proposal, but it's just a bad moment. Our life together is way more important.

    2 agree
  14. Beautifully stated! I feel really bad for the men in traditional couples who suddenly have to plan an elaborate Disney proposal (So much pressure!) My boyfriend and I love to plan. A lot. To the point that when we talk about getting married we see it in the grand scheme of that year. When my friends or family ask how I think he will propose I say, "He won't. We'll just agree that this year or that year would work best." I get a lot of "that's so unromantic!" from them but to us that is what we like about each other. It is romantic to me because we are truly partners in everything.

    4 agree
    • Knowing each other and working together is romantic. Romantic isn't a 'one size fits all' concept! It cracks me up sometimes that so many people think it is.

      We were actually fighting when he decided to propose. We were fighting about big gestures. He thought they were expected from him and I was trying to communicate to him that I didn't want or need big gestures. Partly because he sucks at them and partly because I genuinely don't like them! He left the room, wrote 'will you marry me?' in his neatest writing on a glass vase, put all the money in his wallet into the vase (the beginning of our ring fund!) and gave it to me. It was romantic to me, because it meant he heard me and he had listened to me, through all the noise in his head. It wasn't 'perfect'. It was exactly the way we needed it to happen and I wouldn't change it for the world.

      3 agree
    • We decided to get married sitting in out hammocks in the yard. It wasn't the first time we had talked about it but it was the time we decided that we were getting on that path. He said (dubiously) "so do we start telling people we're engaged?" And I said "no, I think there's value in the ritual." So we took some time bouncing ideas back and forth and settled on a mutual engagement that was fun and momentous for us, including spending the night away. I have to say, after 6 antsy weeks of being "engaged to be engaged," I was shocked at how big our totally unsurprising proposals to each other felt. It had great meaning to both of us, injected some big romance into our lives, and gave us an occasion to celebrate. Having had that moment of commitment that was "just for us" is something special I keep in my back pocket as we plan the wedding and try to balance budgets and expectations and demands on us. (There are pics and a description of the wedding on my linked website if anyone is curious)

      1 agrees
  15. My FH surprised me by proposing on Christmas Eve, in front of my family! We got quite the story out of it because I scared most everyone in the room (excluding my dad) when I finally "bought a clue" and figured out what was happening. ("WHAAAAAT?" Yeah, I kinda sounded like a minion from Despicable Me for a moment.) Afterwards, he admitted that he wanted to propose to me at Lambeau Field, during a Packer game, while we were in the stands (we went to 2 games the year we got engaged). It didn't happen the first game because of how the game went, and the second game was so cold and snowy he was afraid of dropping the ring!

    To be honest, I wouldn't change how he proposed for anything. We knew that we'd be getting married someday, but it took a bit to get there. Sometimes, it's more about the journey than the destination.

  16. As a stage manager, I have helped/had to deal with a few proposals as part of shows… all very sweet, but I warned my now Husband Elect that a proposal during a performance or curtain call was the one situation where I would say no: disrupting a performance and making me the center of attention? No thanks. Although he threatened to do something big and dramatic, he ended up proposing with a plastic dinosaur ring he had just won playing skee-ball, sitting by ourselves on a bench, with the words "So, you wanna?" For some people, a big romantic proposal is right. For others, a quiet impulsive moment with a $.75 ring is perfect.

    2 agree
  17. My fiancé proposed after we watched the Doctor Who episode "The Parting of the Ways". He went to his car, got the ring and got down on one knee, I promptly tackled him and the ring went flying. He'd been planning an elaborate proposal but something in the show struck a chord with him and he decided that he couldn't wait.

    I wouldn't want it any other way.

    4 agree
  18. My FH managed to surprise the heck out of me with his proposal. After getting through the entire month of October and Halloween (my fave holiday) thinking he might pop the question and not having it happen, I was stumped at what his intentions might be. On my birthday, I was painting in the living room of our fixer-upper we'd only been living in for a few months when he got home from work. He told me he had a birthday present for me but I had to stay there and keep my eyes closed while he went and got it. So I stood… When he came back in, he went behind me and moved as if he was about to put a necklace around my neck. When he said, "Open your eyes", I found instead that he was holding a ring box in front of me with the most mysterious-looking ring in it! Big and gold and twisting with a myriad of diamonds, like nothing I'd ever seen and certainly not like anything I'd shown him I would like as an engagement ring. Then he asked me to marry him! I looked over my shoulder and said, "Seriously??"! To this day he still says if he hadn't been so nervous he would have been a smart ass about that but instead he just assured me he WAS serious! I, of course, said YES!

    Was I a little disappointed that he proposed while I was covered in paint in the middle of our living room? As a lover of grand gestures, I'd be lying if I didn't say "maybe a little" – admittedly I just would have liked to see him down on one knee. But it was the best birthday present I've ever been given and it fits with his personality and ours as a couple and I wouldn't change it for a thing. He had told me right after he proposed that he knew the ring wasn't my taste (he knows I dislike gold-gold with a passion) and that I could change it, sell it, or have it redone, but while we are going to make a smaller, less conspicuous ring I can wear all the time from a couple of the diamonds in that ring, I've grown to love that thing so much! It is a one-of-a-kind family heirloom his grandmother had custom made with three generations of his family's diamonds so it will be treasured forever! Plus it is so unique and quirky that it really fits with my personality!

  19. My fiance` proposed while we were making love. Honestly, as soon as the thrill of "Holy crap he just did the thing!" wound down a little, I was hugely disappointed. He's spent the past four years of our lives making comments about how grand, how verbose and spectacular his proposal would be; I felt really let down. Was this not important enough for him to make a big deal out of it? What was I supposed to tell my family? It wasn't until I fully understood the "why" of how it happened, that I came not only to accept but to love the way he proposed. He didn't want to wait another moment not engaged to me. Our proposal was beautiful, and intimate, and spectacular in its own right. I wouldn't trade it for a flash-mob mountaintop musical elephant parade proposal. Our "official story" is that he dropped to one knee in the barn the next day.

    1 agrees
  20. I keep coming back to this post because sometimes people drive me crazy and this is a nice dose of reality. My FH's proposal wasn't flashy, public or even that romantic. He wanted to do the grand gesture at the place where we went on our first date, but getting there just never seemed feasible. I already knew he had bought the ring, he wanted my opinion. So one night after work, after we had changed into our pjs and sat down to eat a pizza, he brought out the ring and asked me to marry him. It wasn't overly sappy and I already knew it was coming, also there was some time spent protecting the pizza from the cat, but we were both happy and that's really all that matters. Every time I get that 'look' from people when they find out we got engaged over pizza after work I just want to scream. It feels like they are judging something that really, doesn't involve them at all. So this post has been one of my favourites on this site. Thank you.

    • I am engaged since March, but yesterday I saw a public engagement. I went to the market square to celebrate New Year Eve (you know, magical time for proposals). It was horrible. Me and my fiance were standing in the place where the scene was not even visible for us. People were throwing fireworks on the pavement (so we were frightened), it was all loud, crowded and stinky (because of the fireworks, all the alcohol and food etc.), we wanted to get out of there ASAP. They guy behind us proposed to a girl at midnight, friends were recording all of it. He couldn't even get onto his knee because of the people, she didn't hear what he's asking and after finally hearing "yes", his friends started to shake the champange and everybody was covered in it. For me there was nothing "magical" there.
      I honestly prefer your pizza engagement <3

  21. My fiance proposed to me at 5:30am by waking me from deep sleep, he was wearing his work gear (early shift) and said "I think we should get married, what do you think?", I said "If you want to." not at all understand what was going on. He pulled a ring box out of his pocket and said "That's good."

    Honestly? Not how I would have wanted it to happen, not how I ever pictured it happening and I do mourn the dream of seeing him get down on one knee, being able to do the 'hands over the mouth' moment and then a romantic kiss. I wish we had a special place we could return to and remember the proposal. I wish the story was worth telling. BUT I don't live in a rom-com, I didn't get to control my own proposal and if I'd orchestrated it all behind the scenes or coached him or told him what to do it wouldn't have been HIM asking ME. And he wants to marry me, and I want to marry him.

    And I'm getting to plan the wedding.

  22. I love telling the story of our proposal. It was sweet and understated and one that I will treasure forever. The week leading up to he'd started acting weird. Like weird enough to make me think we were about to break up. We'd planned a weekend away together in the country ages before so I did my ladies logic and decided that if we were really be about to saying goodbye and clicking next as it were – we'd hardly be going away for a weekend of romance before hand. We checked in and decided to soak up the last of the sun on the terrace with a glass of wine and he decided to go and find a recommendation for dinner. He was gone so long I had another glass of wine while I waited for him to return. He'd picked a beautiful restaurant not that far from where we were staying. Dinner hour came and a taxi came and got us and just like that he went quiet. Hmm. We got to the restaurant and I rabbited on much like I type, lots and lots of detail, and our entrees arrived. Mine was so beautiful I wanted to photograph it – it truly looked liked jewels on a plate (and I'm not a food photographing person at all) I couldn't find my phone so asked to borrow his and instead of a phone he passed me a little white box. I was so stunned I couldn't speak. (One of the few times I've been rendered speechless) I opened the little white box to discover the most beautiful white gold ring with a solitaire claw tiffany set diamond that caught the light from every angle and sent rainbows sparkling over the ceiling. It was beautiful. And then he asked me to marry him and I burst in to tears and accepted. See? Understated but perfect in every way. Our wedding day was magical also – understated, no doves, no magicians, beautiful weather, a few fairy lights and paper lanterns and room full of people we loved.

  23. According to all our mutual friends – and the boyfriend – he's been looking for a ring for the better part of a year. In October, I even followed an OBB post to Little Bird, and communicated with them… boyfriend knows about this, but is very stubborn and would like to try to do this on his own. We have actively debated the grand gesture (I kind of like this, as we're both actors and would match our rather movie-like meet-cute… and, well, we're actors, and I love being the center of attention…), whereas he has indicated he's thinking smaller-scale, romantic, and then announcing to a big group of family/friends.
    In the end… I just want him to propose. We've been together three and a half years, but I'm over six years older than him… and therein lies the rub. I've been engaged before, it ended badly and painfully (though it was so much better for me to get out), and this relationship is everything the last was not, in all the good ways. (Side: I would propose, but he has requested the honor, and so I have refrained.) He knows my answer, he knows that a fancy, expensive ring is about as important to me as the proverbial price of tea in China, but he has a stubborn, perfectionist streak.
    I have precisely one requirement: …we both be clothed during the proposal, so that we can relate the story to those who might not want to hear about our intimate life.
    On the other hand, he has a penchant for surprising me, and all our mutual friends are actors, so don't be surprised if I come back here in a few months talking about the huge, secret-surprise proposal.
    ..And I can't wait to discuss how we're going to incorporate a staged swordfight into a Catholic/pagan wedding with you all.

  24. My future husband proposed at home. It was our anniversary, we went to our favourite restaurant, ate DOZENS of great food and were full like dragons, but decided we still have some space to fill up with chocolate ice cream and wine. So we bought them on our way home and when I was eating the best ice cream in the galaxy he asked if I will marry him. I am really glad he didn't do this in the restaurant, I was afraid of people starring. We had our special private moment and we still have a story to tell. It will not beat the "How did we meet?" story (which is crazy), but it's still OUR story. And I definately know WHY he did it. Can't wait till I marry that guy in September!

    1 agrees

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