Marriage Proposal Etiquette

Proposing marriage can be one of the greatest and most nerve wracking days of your life. Fortunately, Modern Manners Guy has 3 tips to make sure you handle a wedding proposal properly—and receive a happy “Yes!” in return.

Richie Frieman
6-minute read
Episode #206

Marriage Proposal Etiquette

Here’s a fact: It’s great to be in love!

I’ll scream it to the high heavens and stand on any soapbox you give me to express my love for my wife. We’ve been married for almost 7 years and have 2 beautiful kids. I still have the painting I did for her the night I proposed on October 29, 2004. I remember it like it was yesterday—the chilly Baltimore evening, how I kept touching my jacket pocket all through dinner to make sure the ring as there, the nerves I felt when wondering if my “perfect plan” would be just that. And of course, I remember her saying yes.

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Marriage Proposal Etiquette

I had planned for everything perfectly, but it didn’t go completely as planned. For example, the restaurant was oddly empty for a Friday night in the city and this caused the meal to go way too quickly. And since I had something planned at a certain time, this threw things off.  But in the end, it was picture perfect and romantic. However, not everyone’s marriage proposals go this well. There are many factors that can affect your big night.

So before you empty out your savings account to pick out that special ring, check out my top 3 Quick and Dirty Tips for proper marriage proposal etiquette:

Tip #1 – Ask Before You ASK

Last month, a friend called me to say he was going to propose to his girlfriend. He laid out his plan for the proposal, which was quite clever and charming. Then I asked if he had approached her father to properly ask for his permission. He replied (and I quote), “What? Dude, it’s not 1920! HE didn’t buy the ring!” Okay, I get that my friend’s future (well, let’s hold off on the word “future” for now) – father-in-law is a bit of curmudgeon, but I was shocked at this cavalier attitude towards asking her parents to marry their daughter.

When I suggested that he should reconsider asking her father for permission, he wouldn’t hear of it. I think the word “permission” was throwing him off. He was annoyed at the idea of someone else dictating whether or not he should ask his girlfriend to marry him. His defense was, “I own my own business, I make my own money, I have my own house, and I bought this ring. Why do I need to ask anyone’s permission (besides my girlfriend)?” My friend was mixing up the image he holds of himself and his success with keeping up a pretty standard (though old-fashioned) tradition. After all, despite his success, his girlfriend’s father would be contributing to the wedding.

This is a case of stubbornness and ego getting in the way of doing the right thing. Does his girlfriend’s father have any say in his life? Not likely. Did he help my friend pay for the ring? No. But that’s not the issue. It’s about respect, not so much as “permission.” How you ask the parents doesn’t matter – be it over the phone or in person, but NOT in email and NO WAY ON Earth by text – it’s just important that you do. Asking the parents for permission shows that you understand the seriousness of combining your two families. Proposing is a huge step and it’s only proper to make the most important people in your special person’s life aware of your intentions. Even if you are the wildest, most non-traditional person on the planet, drop the ‘tude and do the right thing.

Tip #2 – Plan Accordingly

As I mentioned above, I had planned the perfect night to propose to my wife. My plan was as follows:

  1. Take her to our favorite restaurant, which is usually pretty crowded. So dinner should take about an hour and change-ish.

  2. Somehow convince her to walk with me on the brick walkway along the boats outside the restaurant on the Baltimore Harbor.

  3. Surprise her on that short walk with a 5ft x 4ft painting that I created for the occasion, which would be wrapped up in a bow with her name on it, and three dozen flowers sitting alongside.

  4. All of this would be made possible with the help of a friend who would drive the painting down to the pier and place it on the walkway while we ate dinner. The friend would then call me to invite us to his uncle’s boat right outside the restaurant’s pier.

Now, if this seems far-fetched or tough to pull off…it was. For one thing, the walkway is crowded, so my proposal ran the risk of becoming a public spectacle. Secondly, when I came out onto the walkway adjacent to the line of boats, (after somehow convincing my wife that a walk by the water in late October would be a good idea), I realized that there was a good 20 feet between the walkway and the boats, which would make it impossible to just “swing by for a visit.” As well, my friend had to dodge a homeless man who decided to park himself on the very spot where I was set to propose. How romantic.

These minor difficulties aside, she said yes and I was thrilled with how the night turned out. But the perfectionist in me couldn’t help but think that a bit more planning could have prevented those little hiccups from happening.

I’m not saying that you have to do something incredibly over the top. Not at all! In fact, the simpler the better. But no matter how you choose to propose, planning is key. If you want to do it at a restaurant, call ahead and make sure you have a reservation and nice table. Mention your plans to the manager and I bet they will help make the evening special. If you’re going to do it in public, don’t pick some loud establishment where the person you are proposing to has to ask, “What did you say?” And of course, never assume that you can control things that are outside your power. My one friend swore he could smooth-talk his way to the manager of a well-known band so that on the night of a concert he could be pulled up on stage to make a public proposal. You can probably guess what happened (or rather, what didn’t happen).

Tip #3 – Show the Love

The males of our species tend to get a bad rap when it comes to expressing our emotions. “Being a man” sometimes means being an emotionless boob who can't express his feelings because he’s afraid of being called a wimp. Really?!? It’s the 21st century, people! We’ve evolved! We don’t have to hide behind some steel façade anymore.

I'm not embarrassed to admit that I’m an open book and have no intention of hiding my feelings. Plus, I like to think that my 8 years spent as a pro wrestler pretty much take care of any questions regarding my “manliness.” Thinking that you can be either emotional or manly is a sure sign that you are still stuck in the days of cavemen.

Proposing is supposed to be romantic. That doesn't mean it has to be big, over the top, or insanely expensive, but it does have to be from the heart. You earn no points for trying to act like this is not a big deal. When proposing, broaden the limits of your comfort zone and express how you really feel. After all, you don't want the person you are proposing to think that this is a burden for you. Shout it! Scream it! Get down tonight.

Do you have a great story about a marriage proposal?

Post all the details in the comment section below. As always, if you have another manners question, I look forward to hearing from you at manners@quickanddirtytips.com. Check out my Modern Manners Guy Facebook page, follow me on Twitter @MannersQDT. And of course, check back next week for more Modern Manners Guy tips for a more polite life.

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Proposal image courtesy of Shutterstock.