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Column: Men still propose marriage, but it’s not about love

‘Popping the question’ is seen as the ultimate romantic gesture – but appearances often don’t match reality, argues Paul Ryan.

Paul Ryan

I DO NOT believe that marriage proposals are accompanied by even the slightest element of surprise.

This was recently brought home to me again when an acquaintance, let’s call her Aine, told me the story of her engagement. It involved a trip to Paris, his romantic proposal in the shadow of the Eiffel Tour and her gushing acceptance to be his wife. A little cliché I thought, but my scepticism faded away in the face of this demonstratively happy woman.

I subsequently discovered through a mutual friend that not only had this woman chosen her own engagement ring, it had to be returned to the jewellers some months previously for alterations. She had also organised the couples’ trip to Paris leaving her fiancé with little to do but propose on cue. Aine’s construction of her marriage proposal narrative, complete with her feigned surprise when he ‘popped the question’ would undoubtedly be told and retold to their family and children becoming part of their own intimate history. The story encapsulates what love is meant to be – spontaneous, passionate, unbridled – but to what extent does the decision to marry live up to the romantic ideal?

I interviewed many older men who had become engaged and married in the years 1963-80 when I was writing a book on the topic. It analysed the letters received by popular agony aunt, Angela Macnamara in The Sunday Press to chart how the rules governing dating, sex and marriage had evolved over this seventeen-year period. These men were making their decisions about their intimate lives at a time of unprecedented social change in Ireland. Older practices in rural areas, such as match making and dowries, had died out and throughout the country young people were governed more by their hearts than their obligation to family, religion or class as they chose a mate. Greater levels of car ownership allowed couples escape the surveillance of their local communities to meet men and women in neighbouring towns. Greater privacy was secured and compatibility tested, often as the couple holidayed alone. However, not all men availed of the greater freedom and possibility offered by these new dating innovations.

‘I’m pushing on a bit’

One man I interviewed, Patrick, who was 75 years old and had inherited his parent’s large Co Cork farm spoke of their influence over the woman he would choose to marry. ‘I knew the type of girl that would suit them’ he explained. ‘I also knew the girl I would marry would have to come into our house, their house and be with me and them while they were alive.’

There was also an absence of any ‘love-at-first-sight’ story lines where for many men the importance of timing, compatibility and economics would play an important role in their decision to marry. Men like Liam, a 63 year old, although having dated several women never considered marriage until he deemed himself to be in a stronger financial position. He also felt that after years of caution and reluctance around relationships, that his age would soon be an impediment to marriage. He told me: ‘I began to realise that I’m pushing on a little bit now and if I get a chance again I better do something about it.’ He did just that and married the next woman he dated. His story is reminiscent of the Sex and the City character Miranda Hobbs, who compared men’s availability for marriage to that of taxi cabs. ‘When they are available, their light goes on,’ she explained ‘They wake up one day and decide they’re ready to settle down, have babies, whatever … The next woman they pick up, boom, that’s the one they’ll marry.’

This tendency towards the instrumental rather than the emotional in the timing and marriage decision-making process is borne out in my research but also in more contemporary research in the United States. Sociologist Ann Swidler’s interviewees in her study also revealed a similar reluctance to describe their courtship and the decision to marriage in very romantic terms. Interviewees would more frequently talk of the decision as the outcome of a ‘steady growth of support and friendship’ or a feeling that the couple met at ‘the right time’ or, more dubiously of all that both partners ‘kind of grew on each other.’

So what are the factors motivating couples to marry in contemporary Ireland? The social landscape is almost unrecognisable from the 1960s. The role of marriage in Irish society has changed. It no longer facilitates couples to have sex. Or to have children. I argue that the decision to marry is an increasingly rational one. It often marks, not the beginning of a life together, rather the recognition and formalisation of an existing co-habiting relationship, often accelerated by the birth or the desire to have children.

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Stability in a risky world

Marriage is a decision we are taking later in life with Central Statistics Office figures published in 2010 showing the average age of a groom is now 33 years old. While marriage itself represents a decision to commit, it is done so when the risk of failure has already been minimised. Couples have spent years waiting until what they consider as the ideal conditions of success have been achieved. Compatibility has been checked, a degree of financial security and homeownership achieved.

Marriage is all about risk. It offers couples stability in a world of increasing risk. Here, I do not mean physical or financial risk, although those dangers do manifestly exist. I mean those prevalent within modern relationships, where couples stay together only as long as their union remains mutually satisfying to both parties. This requires a greater deal of emotional work, where couples disclose their needs and wants in a relationship. It requires couples to become proficient in a language of intimacy in which these desires are communicated. It requires couples to harmonise their need for individual fulfilment most commonly in the pursuit of joint ‘projects’. In Celtic Tiger Ireland, projects were often the wedding itself – sometimes lavish affairs that represented the next phase of the relationship. Other projects would follow – house restorations, longer periods of travel or the decision to have children.

Although the reasons for entering marriage may appear increasingly less romantic, does this minimisation of risk before entering it actually produce happier, longer unions? The evidence suggests so. The Economic and Social Research Institute’s analysis of census data in 2010 suggested that the rate of marriage breakdown actually declined since the introduction of divorce in 1997, while the rate of marriage breakdown is one of the lowest in Europe. It would appear that in Ireland our cautious, rational and yes, somewhat unromantic approach to marriage really does win the day.

Paul Ryan lectures in the Department of Sociology at NUI Maynooth and is the author of a forthcoming book, Asking Angela Macnamara: an intimate history of Irish lives, published by Irish Academic Press.

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