Valentine’s Day questions to ask to keep it real on love and marriage proposals

These people are everywhere – enthusiastic flash mobs taking over the food court of a local mall, billowing hot air balloons gliding over the pyramids and surprise reunions at the top of the Eiffel Tower – all in pursuit of the perfect proposal.

While the reality is often much simpler than carefully curated content on TikTok or YouTube, it is engagement season. About 40% of couples who get engaged do so from November to around Valentine’s Day.

As sociologists who are experts in family relationships – including the progression to marriage, we have five pieces of advice for those who are pining for a Valentine’s Day proposal.

Do you really want to get married?

First, are you both sure you even want to get married? To each other? Do you prefer a life of travel and pets to Little League and trying to find the hippest strollers?

More than 40% of never-married adults aren’t sure they’ll ever walk down the aisle, and a similar percentage of childless adults doubt that they’ll ever have children. Keep in mind that couples who have shared goals are happier and therefore may be more likely to tie the knot. Make sure you bring up the big picture things you want, rather than waiting on your partner to raise them.

Couples take part in a Valentine's Day mass wedding in San Antonio, Texas, in 2017.

Couples take part in a Valentine’s Day mass wedding in San Antonio, Texas, in 2017.

A second thing we learned is that timing matters. Women, especially, seemed to have an idea of how a relationship “should” go – date for about a year, live together for about a year, be engaged for about a year, then take the leap. Couples felt that was the “right” time to be able to assess each stage of their relationship. Folk wisdom recommends never marrying anyone until you’ve seen them with the stomach flu: To decide whether someone is “the one,” you need to see them at their worst.

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Even so, our research finds that waiting too long can also cause a relationship to “stall out” as couples get stuck in a holding pattern. Make sure that your conversations include when you’d like to take the plunge.

Go to other weddings together

If you need a little help getting the ball rolling, our third tip is to accept any and all wedding invitations and include your partner as a “plus one.” When we interviewed young adult couples, we were the first to document the potentially relationship-altering power of the party. A major impetus for couples to discuss their own futures was attending the wedding of a friend or family member.

Perhaps there’s something about choosing between chicken and fish together – or more likely, the soft lighting and slow dancing in that new dress and snazzy suit – that seems to inspire conversations about your own relationship on the drive home.

How to pop the question

Fourth, there’s a lot of pressure on men (who, for better or for worse, are tasked with proposing among straight couples) to do something huge and elaborate. But the anxiety this could induce can prevent a guy from actually taking that step. (What if I propose on the Jumbotron and she says no? How do I even go about finding a skywriter?) So, for women, if you prefer to be proposed to with something low key, let your partner know.

His assumptions that you are holding onto grand expectations might in fact be the cause of his proposal delay. Some of the happiest couples we spoke with got engaged during a quiet evening at home. If you’d like to speed things along even further, rumor has it a home-cooked Ina Garten recipe called “engagement chicken” has led to hundreds of proposals – including, perhaps, Prince Harry’s. Simple can be beautiful. Plus, no one wants their engagement to turn into a superspreader event.

Getting married in Feb. 14, 2018, in San Antonio, Texas.

Getting married in Feb. 14, 2018, in San Antonio, Texas.

To be clear, we definitely know that most of the rules for proposals are antiquated – and that they apply mostly to heterosexual couples. But while many LGBTQ community members are happy to remold long-standing gender roles, most of the working-class and middle-class straight young adults we talked to were not.

Americans have seen Hollywood proposals enacted so many times that the image of a man on bended knee is practically etched into their brains. It’s not surprising, then, that most couples admitted a male proposal was their preference, even if they viewed themselves as complete equals in all other aspects of their lives.

Don’t wait on him to propose

A Valentine's Day floral arrangement in Bethesda, Md., on Feb. 11, 2022.

A Valentine’s Day floral arrangement in Bethesda, Md., on Feb. 11, 2022.

That takes us to tip five, which is especially for women. Don’t want to wait to see whether he will propose? Try it yourself. It could be empowering – or illuminating. If he says yes, you’ve got a unique and special engagement story. If he says no, then maybe it means this particular person is not in your future. And that’s OK – it’s better to know sooner that you’re not on the same page than to get stuck in a relationship where you have different desires.

Ultimately, whether you end up getting engaged this Valentine’s Day or not, you and your partner will benefit from talking more about your futures. Deciding to move a relationship forward is a big step that shouldn’t be taken lightly. And if it doesn’t work out, don’t forget that Feb. 15 is Singles Awareness Day – a time to celebrate your wonderful, solo self.

Amanda Jayne Miller

Amanda Jayne Miller

Amanda Jayne Miller is a professor of sociology and director of faculty development at the University of Indianapolis. Her book (with co-author Sharon Sassler), “Cohabitation Nation: Gender, Class and the Remaking of Relationships,” won the 2018 William J. Goode Book Award for Family Sociology. She and Sassler are working on a long-term follow-up of working- and middle-class cohabiting couples. She is a Public Voices Fellow through the OpEd Project.

Sharon Sassler

Sharon Sassler

Sharon Sassler is a professor of sociology and director of undergraduate studies in the Brooks School of Public Policy at Cornell University. A social demographer, her work examines family transitions over the life course, and how these vary by gender, race/ethnicity and social class. She sits on the Board of the Council on Contemporary Families and was a Public Voices Fellow in 2017.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Love on Valentine’s Day: Wedding proposals should come with questions