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Marriage Proposal Meaning & History: Everything You Need to Know

Marriage proposals are commonplace in our culture today and span a colorful rainbow in terms of execution and creativity. It’s common that before a man asks a woman to marry him, he “courts” her first and makes his intentions known. We call it dating now, but regardless of what you call it, the outcome is the same. Most couples “date” or “court” each other with marriage in mind. Once a marriage proposal has been made and an engagement ring has been presented, a couple is then considered “engaged.” 

The engagement period could last anywhere from days to even years in some cultures. At the end of the engagement period, the couple performs a ceremony to exchange wedding vows. Once the ceremony is complete, the marriage is considered to have “officially” begun and a couple begins the rest of their lives together as man and wife. 

Marriage Proposal Meaning: Popping the Question

There are a lot of ways men (and even women on occasion) choose to pop the question. Some couples talk about getting married for a long time before ever getting engaged. In these cases, the marriage proposal usually isn’t a huge surprise, since it’s been the topic of conversation so much. Perhaps the when and how is a surprise, but not so much the question itself. 

In other cases, the marriage proposal is entirely unexpected, which can be both fun and terrifying, especially for the one proposing. Usually the proposal comes from a man, although in English speaking countries, more women are now proposing to their guys and taking their future into their own hands. However, it’s still not a tradition that has truly caught fire yet. It seems there are quite a few women out there that continue to value what some consider “old-fashioned” ideas of courtship, like having a man chase her, sweep her off her feet, and ask her to marry him, despite the rise of rampant feminism. 

Ultimately, when a proposal happens, where a proposal happens, how a proposal happens—all wedding proposal meaning boils down to one truth. One person wants to marry another person and spend the rest of their lives together. Seems simple enough, but the truth is, asking for a woman’s hand in marriage can be nerve-wracking, even for the steadiest of guys. We encourage you to subscribe to the old adage, nothing ventured, nothing gained! After all, if you don’t dare to ask, how will you ever know if she’ll say yes? 

Marriage Proposal History

Once upon a time, back when humanity was nothing but cavemen, it’s said men proposed to women even then. At least, it was a kind of proposal, although how much actual consent was involved is probably debatable. Whether it was with consent or without, cavemen were said to propose by creating and tying ropes around a woman’s feet and hands, made from grass. These grass ropes were meant to symbolize the caveman’s dominance over the cavewoman’s spirit. 

Prehistoric? Definitely. But the apple didn’t fall far from the tree (literally) as time progressed. Ancient Greece reflects the practice of men tossing apples to a woman when they found one they wanted to marry. This custom related back to the Goddess of Chaos, Eris in Greek mythology. Legend has it that when Peleus and Thetis got married, Eris threw a golden apple at their wedding guests, with a note written on the apple, saying it was intended for the most beautiful person in the room.  

The truth is, the marriage proposal meaning and the different methods today are vastly different than the marriage proposals that pepper humanity’s history. From Ancient Egypt on through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, marriage was considered to be more of a transaction than a declaration of love and commitment. Today, when a man proposes to a woman, it’s because he wants to marry her, spend the rest of his life with her, love and cherish her, and be there for her in sickness and in health. In history, however, most, if not all marriages were arranged. They reflected a financial and legal transaction and had nothing to do with a ceremony of commitment or a lifetime of love and devotion.

Since marriage was merely a legal transaction, negotiations were made between parents before a man could marry a woman. Things like the bride’s dowry had to be determined and accepted by the groom’s family before a marriage could take place and often a woman had little to no say in the matter. Most of the time in arranged marriages, the bride and groom were strangers, unless they got lucky and were able to meet and develop some kind of relationship before their vows took place. 

Even in ancient times, women were largely considered to be “property” and really had very little say in who they married or even when they married. Girls as young as 12 were sometimes sold into marriage, mostly for monetary reasons. Sometimes they were given in marriage to men their own age, but often they were given in marriage to much older men, as a way to form new or solidify old alliances. 

It wasn’t until around the 1700s that people began to marry for reasons that transcended financial or economic gain. People began to recognize the value of individuality and personal happiness, although this mostly occurred in nations that were industrialized. Once that happened, love and emotion became a big driver in the reasons a couple would marry. 

That’s not to say there weren’t still arranged marriages and that finances and strategic alliances weren’t considered. But more couples began choosing each other out of love and friendship instead of mere duty to their family name. During this period of wedding proposals and marriage, a man that fell head over heels for a woman would often first go to the woman’s father as a sign of respect and ask for her hand in marriage. The father could refuse if he thought the man unsuitable for his daughter or agree if he found the man to be worthy. Today, some men still like to adhere to this practice, even if only as a nod to tradition, or out of respect.

As time marched on, the modern tradition of kneeling on one knee to propose marriage began. This tradition was reminiscent of knights from the Middle Ages, kneeling to swear allegiance and protection to a woman he cared for. Except sans the coat of armor and dangerous swordplay, of course. It’s a tradition that remains dominant in many cultures, even now. 

Fast forward to the 1900s and we can see how the power of advertising campaigns came into play. Ever heard the phrase, “A diamond is forever?” Of course you have, it’s one that is still used today. However, that phrase originated in an ad campaign for diamond rings, from a jewelry company called De Beers Diamond Jewelry, founded by Brit entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes in South Africa in 1888. It was because of his campaign that diamond rings became such a phenomenon in marriage proposals. Now, most engagement rings and wedding bands have at least one diamond. 

Today, marriage proposals are almost “expected” in many cultures. In fact, they have become so normal it’s almost bizarre to think of marriage occurring without a proposal. Arranged marriages are frowned on as archaic and demeaning and instead, people decide who they want to spend the rest of their lives with for themselves.  

Of course, with the advent of social media, wedding proposals have become more and more a show or spectacle. What was once considered a private moment between two people is now an opportunity for couples to show off their creativity and romance and record the whole thing for posterity’s sake. After all, if you can’t put it on Instagram or Facebook, did it even really happen? 

The modern television and movie industry has also driven this idea that a proposal has to be a big, show-stopping event in and of itself. Movies and TV shows are rife with scenes of grand romantic gestures, men getting down on one knee and serenading their lady with a special song or writing a proposal in the sky. Not to mention the popularity of shows like the Bachelor and Bachelorette. They are all about the big moment of a man or woman choosing their mate and popping the million-dollar question. 

Marriage proposal meanings have evolved through the course of history, changing things like how it’s done, why it’s done, and even when it’s done. Despite its evolution, the end result is always the same. Proposal of marriage equals marriage to another person. Before popping the question, think about all the things to consider before proposing. Make a plan, talk to her parents, and find the perfect ring that she’ll be wearing for a lifetime!

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