Get Hitched or Get Ditched? Why Some Marriage Proposals Fail
You see someone on one knee, proclaiming their love, and proposing marriage. The person they are with looks shocked. You can almost feel everyone around you holding their breath: will the proposal be accepted? We analyzed 400 personal marriage proposal stories (200 accepted proposals and 200 rejected proposals) to find out.
Marriage proposals tend to follow a script—like what an actor reads for a play. The script involves the proposer (usually a man) kneeling on one knee, offering a ring, and asking “Will you marry me?” The exact timing of the proposal is often a surprise for the person being proposed to, but that prospect of marriage is hopefully not. Nonetheless, proposals tend to be designed to be memorable…for better or for worse.
Tell Us a Story
Given how popular marriage proposals are in Canada and the U.S., we were surprised to learn that there isn’t much research on them. So, we set out to learn about the qualities of accepted and rejected proposals between men and women by reading stories found on the online forums Reddit and Weddingbee.
We analyzed stories that people told about their own proposal, excluding any stories that were obviously fake (e.g., one described a proposal that occurred on the show The Office). We focused on opposite-sex proposals between, because same-gender proposals were few (likely because same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in most of the U.S. when these 2015 data were collected). However, we do know from other research that same-sex and queer couples often alter the ritual to feel more authentic. For example, sometimes both partners propose to each other.
Other research also finds that women proposing can be seen as a joke or illegitimate because it’s not part of the conventional script. Thus, we weren’t too surprised to find that few women proposed and that there were more women whose proposals were rejected (20 out of 25) than accepted. For comparison, 180 men were rejected and 195 men were accepted (one proposal was a mutual decision). Because so few women proposed to men, we mainly focused on the 374 stories of men proposing to women.
Did It Have A Happy Ending?
Aside from gender of the proposer, here are other ways that rejected proposals differed from accepted proposals:
- Rejected proposals came about 2 years earlier in the relationship than accepted proposals
- Women often rejected a proposal because they thought it was too soon in the relationship, they were too young, they were experiencing relationship problems (for example, they had broken up), or they thought they were incompatible with their partner
- Rejected proposals were more likely to take place in public and without talking about marriage in advance of the proposal
- Rejected men often proposed for the same reasons as accepted men, but one reason not mentioned in accepted proposals was proposing to “save” the relationship
- Rejected men were also less likely to propose with a ring and bend on one knee than accepted men.
These rejected proposals start to paint a picture of miscommunication, poor timing, and last-ditch efforts for some. Showing up at your partner’s door after a breakup doesn’t tend to be a winning strategy, despite what the movies may show.
It should be noted that while most couples who experienced a rejected proposal broke up after the proposal and some had broken up before, about 30% stayed together and a few even got married. Thus, a rejection doesn’t mean the end for everyone.
Check That You Are On The Same Page In Your Love Story
Details of the proposal like location can be a surprise, but the intent to propose shouldn’t be a surprise to your partner. Talking in advance about where the relationship is going and ensuring that you’re both on the same page is important. In our research, people sometimes assumed that they were on the same page when they weren’t, and they said that this had devastating consequences for them.
Talking about marriage proposal preferences can also be helpful (and fun) to avoid a proposal that makes the other person uncomfortable. While some people may want that big, public proposal on the jumbotron, others do not. So, have that conversation and ensure you’re on the same page about marriage, timing, and proposal preferences. If in doubt, propose in private.
For Further Reading
Robnett, R. D., & Leaper, C. (2013). “Girls don’t propose! Ew.” A mixed- methods examination of marriage tradition preferences and benevolent sexism in emerging adults. Journal of Adolescent Research, 28(1), 96–121. https://doi.org/10.1177/0743558412447871
Lisa Hoplock received her PhD at the University of Victoria in Canada and now works in the private sector.