Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

'Did You Just Ask Me to Marry You?': The Gendered Nature of Heterosexual Relationship Progressions

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

'Did You Just Ask Me to Marry You?': The Gendered Nature of Heterosexual Relationship Progressions

Article excerpt


Previous research has found that relationship progressions from casual encounters to dating, from dating to co- habitation, and from cohabitation into marriage are more likely to be controlled by men than women amongst heterosexual couples (Bogle, 2008; Sassler and Miller, 2011). Drawing on recent New Zealand interviews on the transition from cohabitation to marriage, we discuss examples of gendered transitions, providing verbatim comments from our participants as illustrations. Despite notable changes in gender relations over the decades, we found that female participants were less likely to see cohabitation as a viable long-term living arrangement yet they typically waited for their male partner to propose marriage. In the few cases where heterosexual women suggested formalising their relationship, the proposal was often repeated by the man before the engagement was publicly announced. Furthermore, marriage ceremonies often contain patriarchal symbols. Framed within feminist analysis, our findings highlight the lingering male privilege in intimate relationships, both in social expectations and material reality.

Key words

cohabitation, marriage, relationship progressions, weddings


Previous research has found that men rather than women continue to control progressions in hetero- sexual relationships, including the shift from casual encounters to dating, from dating to cohabita- tion, and from cohabitation into marriage (Bogle, 2008; May, 2011; Sassler & Miller, 2011). De- spite major improvements in women's educational attainment, labour force participation and legal rights, male partners typically expect and are expected to initiate cohabitating relationships and later to propose marriage. Many female partners accept male authority in relationship transitions and wait to be asked to cohabit or marry, although some cohabiting women hint or joke with their male partners in an attempt to reach an agreement to marry (Sassler & Miller, 2011).

This paper draws on our qualitative interviews from New Zealand in order to discuss the nature of male influence in heterosexual relationship transitions and to provide examples from the verbatim comments of the participants. Our empirical research is consistent with interna- tional studies which find that men often assume that they should take the initiative in relation- ship progressions when they are ready to make a commitment or assume responsibility for economic support, and that decisions do not become 'official' and are not shared with friends and family until the man approves of the timing. When couples marry, they often retain pa- triarchal1 symbols in their ceremonies, such as the bride's father walking her down the 'aisle' and passing her to the groom, the bride wearing a 'virginal' white dress, or the bride taking the groom's surname. These findings are framed within feminist analyses that emphasises the social construction of reality, and men's continued greater access to power, positions of author- ity and material resources. Our findings are divided into four sections, including the transition from dating to cohabitation, transitioning from cohabitation to marriage, manoeuvring reluc- tant partners into marriage, and gendered weddings.

Survey of previous research

The double standard of sexuality, with men having more freedom to participate in non-monog- amous sexual relations, has been somewhat eroded over the decades but researchers conclude that it has certainly not disappeared (Eaton & Rose, 2011; Farvid & Braun, 2013; Lamont, 2013). Although women in the English-speaking countries have become more assertive in dat- ing practices, researchers have found that men are more likely than women to interpret a first 'date' initiated by a woman as a sexual overture (Bogle, 2008; Mongeau & Carey, 1996). Stud- ies have also found that 'sexually aggressive women' are seen by men as off-putting, although flirting with sexual overtones remains an integral part of dating for both men and women (Col- trane, 1998). …

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