A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology takes a deep dive into the dynamics of rejected marriage proposals and concludes that most failed proposals violate the "proposal script."
Lead author Lisa Hoplock told therapytips.org that the typical Western proposal involves kneeling, offering a ring and asking some variant of "Will you marry me?" It's part of a "life script theory," where people within a culture have shared ideas about the timing and order of big life events.
When a potential suitor fails to stay within the guardrails of what society believes is acceptable, the likelihood of a rejection skyrockets.
As a graduate student at the University of Victoria in Canada, Hoplock analyzed 374 first-person written accounts of accepted and rejected marriage proposals between men and women that were sampled from online forums.
She learned that rejected proposals often came earlier in the relationship, typically prior to the discussion of the topic of marriage by the couple.
"My research shows that some details [of a proposal] can be welcome surprises, but the timing of the proposal in a relationship should not be surprising," Hoplock told therapytips.org. "That is, couples should be on the same page about when they want to get married.“
Hoplock explained the essential role played by the engagement ring in the proposal process.
"We also learned that accepted proposals were more likely to have a ring than rejected proposals," Hoplock noted. "The engagement ring is part of the proposal script. It signifies commitment and readiness for marriage, and was noticed when missing."
Another path to rejection occurred when men popped the question to "save" an unstable or abusive relationship that was otherwise headed toward dissolution.
In the few instances where women proposed in the study, an unusually high proportion were unsuccessful. Once again, the life script theory helps explain the results.
“According to the Western script, men propose to women,” Hoplock said.
One man wrote that he rejected the proposal because he wanted to be the one to propose.
"So, while this element of the script might be slowly changing," Hoplock told therapytips.org, "it is still currently present in relationships between men and women."
Hoplock wrote that audiences played an important role in many proposals. Rejected proposals were more likely to occur under the pressure of public scrutiny. Hoplock said that bystanders encouraged couples to follow the "proposal script" and sometimes became hostile when the woman said "no."
Confusion and anger were the two most common emotions experienced by rejected suitors. She also reported that 30% of relationships survived, despite the rejected proposal.
Hoplock offered the readers of therapytips.org some simple advice on how to up the odds of a successful marriage proposal: Talk in advance about marriage and proposal preferences, and if in doubt, propose in private with a ring.
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