Photo by Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York, Flickr CC

Even with gender-equality movements today, marriage proposals seem to be backtracking — becoming even more spontaneous, elaborate, and sensational. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Ellen Lamont and Judy Chu explain how marriage proposals often perpetuate traditional gender roles and may be a poor foundation for a stable marriage.

Lamont argues that traditional marriage proposals — where a man asks a woman to marry him — are symbolic acts that sustain particular gender norms.

“Now that we expect women to be equal to men, women [and men] are looking for ways to distinguish gender in their lives. Within heterosexual romantic relationships, there is still a strong sense that women and men want different things and, by extension, should behave in different ways. As more women assume traditionally male roles at work, the traits that distinguish men and women in relationships become harder to see. A symbolic act, like a proposal, is a way to reenact those differences.”

For men, Chu suggests that elaborate proposals may actually be a socially acceptable way for men to express profound feelings for their significant other — something that may be difficult in societies that do not value emotional expression from men.

Social media may also add to the need for elaborate proposals. During interviews, Lamont found that most women felt they “needed a story to tell their friends” about their engagement. In other words, elaborate proposals can provide the perfect proposal picture to post to Facebook or Instagram.

Regardless of why marriage proposals have failed to modernize, their consequences include tremendous social pressure and a potentially rocky foundation for a marriage. In Lamont’s study, women admitted they only said “yes” because they feared saying “no” would translate to “saying no to the relationship.” Perhaps moving away from proposals that reify traditional gender norms could be a key first step to healthy marriages.