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Marriage

10 Ways Proposals Go Wrong, and 5 Keys to Doing It Right

When popping the question, there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do it.

Key points

  • A marriage proposal is a key life experience that follows a script or a culturally defined set of expectations.
  • Successful proposals are more likely when couples have discussed marriage previously and have dated longer.
  • Proposals are more likely to be met with a rejection when the couples are too young or when they violate the woman's expectations.
YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock
Source: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock

Will you marry me? It’s a simple question, but the answer has enormous implications.

Whether you're the one posing the question, or on the receiving end, there are clear expectations about what a marriage proposal looks like. That is, we (members of the same culture) have a script or a shared set of beliefs about how life events should transpire, including when, where, and in what order key pieces occur (Berntsen & Rubin, 2004). These beliefs touch on elements such as the timing of the proposal, who does the asking, who should or shouldn’t be there, and whether a ring is needed.

Though marriage proposals represent a key life experience and relationship transition point, research has not fully explored the nature of successful and failed proposals. To learn more about heterosexual marriage proposals in Western culture, Lisa Hoplock Ph.D. and Danu Stinson Ph.D. from the University of Victoria in Canada examined 400 proposal descriptions posted in online forums (e.g., Reddit.com and Weddingbee.com).

A group of seven trained coders dissected each proposal description to extract key elements (e.g., partners’ ages, relationship length, had they discussed marriage previously, whether the proposal followed the script, setting of the proposal, etc.) (Hoplock & Stinson, 2021). As expected, based on existing cultural scripts, men made the vast majority of proposals (94 percent). Because that number was so high, the final analysis focused only on the 374 traditional proposals.

5 Keys to Successful Proposals

A few characteristics were associated with women accepting a male’s proposal:

  1. Date Longer. Compared to rejected proposals, couples with successful proposals had dated an average of two years longer.
  2. Have “The Talk." 100 percent of couples describing accepted proposals had previously discussed getting married, while only 40 percent of the rejected proposals had talked about marriage.
  3. Have a Ring. Men were eight times more likely to get rejected if they didn’t provide a ring when popping the question.
  4. Take a Knee. Men were four times more likely to get rejected if they didn’t kneel for the proposal.
  5. Go It Alone. Most couples (63 percent) propose privately without others around. That’s smart because the odds of rejection were nearly two times higher if the proposal was done in public with others around.

Accepted proposals are emotional experiences. Women’s most common reactions were strong emotions such as happiness, surprise, and excitement, as well as physical reactions such as shaking, hugging, and kissing (e.g., “I couldn’t tell you what he said now, so much excitement, surprise and adrenaline.”). A combination of a laughing and crying was also common due to the overwhelming positive feelings. Similarly, men reacted to accepted proposals with crying, shaking, a sense of relief, and pounding hearts (e.g., “I of course said yes, and then he hugged me to him for like five min, and I could feel his heart racing.”).

Sadly, not all proposals have such happy outcomes.

3 Common Themes in “Rejected” Proposals

When people wrote about their failed proposal experiences, their accounts had several themes in common.

  1. Bad Timing. This involves being too young and not ready (e.g., proposing in high school), not being in the relationship long enough (“wasn’t ready for anything serious and wouldn’t be any time soon.”), or it being a bad time in general (e.g., after a loved one’s death).
  2. Trying to Save the Relationship. When relationships are troubled a proposal is a misguided way to solve problems or prevent a break-up (“I guess he thought he could save the relationship that way, but we both knew that it wouldn't last much longer.”).
  3. Failing to Meet Expectations. Rejected proposals often didn’t live up to what women hoped for (e.g., “I was disappointed that he didn’t take a knee,” “He didn’t ask my dad even though that’s what I wanted.”)

When rejecting a proposal, women felt bad for their partner and were sympathetic (e.g., “I turned him down as gently as I could. The look on his face still haunts me.”). Also, when women sensed an impending unwelcome proposal they tried to prevent it from happening (e.g., “Nobody deserves to hear a 'no' response to the question you're about to ask me. I can't let you do that”). It was also common for women to be brought to tears when turning down a proposal. When rejected, men were angry and confused (e.g., “He looked like he had the wind knocked out of him”). Crying was also common among men. Surprisingly, nearly one out of three relationships (30 percent) continued after the rejected marriage proposal.

Gary Lewandowski
When planning a proposal it helps to know what NOT to do.
Source: Gary Lewandowski

There’s also a very serious side to rejected proposals, with 15 percent of rejected proposal accounts included elements of intimate partner violence (either prior to the proposal or afterward). That includes behaviors such as manipulation, excessive control (e.g., “He liked to isolate me and constantly demanded my attention.”), coercion, suicide threats, and stalking (e.g., “So began the stalking, obsessive calling, and texts, letters on my car while I worked, following me while on dates…”)

Takeaway

Every relationship is unique and what might work for some couples’ proposals won’t be effective for others. Similarly, no one strategy guarantees success or failure. That said, this research provides several guidelines to help increase the chances of a proposal’s success. For example, it’s clearly important to know what your partner expects by understanding the proposal script that they’re following. When women were unhappy with how the proposal unfolded, they were more likely to say “no.” Similarly, as they say, “timing is everything.” If the question gets popped too early, it’s more likely to result in rejection. Ultimately, there are rules of engagement that are worth knowing so that your relationship can get the strong start you desire.

If you’re interested in how a relationship’s progression can predict marriage likelihood, see here.

Facebook image: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock

References

Berntsen, D. & Rubin, D. C. (2004). Cultural life scripts structure recall from autobiographical memory. Memory & Cognition 32(3), 427-442. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03195836

Hoplock, L. B., & Stinson, D. A. (2021). Rules of engagement: A content analysis of accepted and rejected marriage proposals. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000903

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