The Most Common Mistake People Make When Popping The Question

Researcher Lisa Hoplock breaks down the ideal marriage proposal.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 19, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology analyzed 374 first-person accounts of accepted and rejected marriage proposals to understand what makes the perfect marriage proposal.

I recently spoke to researcher Lisa Hoplock to go deeper into the most common proposal mistakes people make. Here's a summary of our conversation.

Could you give us a brief description of the life script theory and how it informed your study?

According to life script theory, people within a culture have shared ideas about the timing and order of big life events.

For example, the Western children's nursery rhyme: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage" outlines that it's expected that people fall in love, get married, and then have a baby, and in that order.

The events themselves are also scripted. That is, like a play, people perform certain behaviors (e.g., kneeling during a marriage proposal) and this performance tells others that the event is taking place.

Scripts help people make sense of life and connect with others. According to the theory, celebrations often happen when life and event scripts are followed, but social repercussions often happen when they're not followed (e.g., others might make snide remarks).

The marriage proposal is one big life event that people often experience. When analyzing the results of our study on proposals, we noticed that people's proposal stories often mentioned timing, celebrations, and deviations from life and the event's script.

The theory helped us understand why people might accept or reject a proposal and others' reactions to proposals.

What inspired you to pick marriage proposals as the topic for your research? What was the central question that you wanted to pose through your study?

I conducted this study while I was a graduate student at the University of Victoria in Canada. At the time, I was studying situations where people might be accepted or rejected, like when meeting a stranger or seeking help.

I remember watching a TV show and seeing a rejected proposal, and reading people's proposal stories, and thinking that this could be a good area of research. I looked into it and learned how little research had been done on the topic, especially the topic of rejected proposals.

So, I set out to learn about the similarities and differences between accepted and rejected proposals found online.

What does the typical Western marriage proposal look like within the purview of your study?

Within my study and others, the typical Western proposal involves kneeling, offering a ring, and asking some variant of "will you marry me?" The proposal is also often a surprise.

What my research reveals is that while certain details can be a welcome surprise, the timing of the proposal in the relationship shouldn't be a surprise. That is, couples should be on the same page about when and if they want to get married.

If a partner says that they don't want to get married in the next few years or ever, or if you haven't talked about marriage, then don't propose. This might seem obvious to some, and yet, it still happens.

Gender seems to be particularly enmeshed with the proposal script, according to your paper. Could you elaborate on this for our readers?

According to the Western script, men propose to women in relationships between men and women. Having the man be the proposer and the woman be the proposee may reinforce within themselves and tell others that they are part of their gender and know how to follow the script.

Other research has found that people think the relationship is stronger when the man proposes and that people sometimes don't take the proposal seriously when a woman proposes because it violates the script.

The couple members themselves might take the proposal seriously, but others might not. In line with other research, very few women proposed in our study.

Of the stories where women proposed, more women were rejected than were accepted. 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, it is still currently present in relationships between men and women.

Could you take us through the methodology of your study? What would you say were your key findings?

We gathered people's stories about their own proposal from and What little research that has been done on marriage proposals has mainly focused on accepted proposals.

We were interested in learning more about accepted and rejected proposals, and what differentiates them. We focused on relationships that appeared to be between men and women because a preliminary search found that there weren't many stories with same-gender couples at the time the study was conducted.

We learned that couples who experienced accepted proposals were more likely to talk about marriage in advance of the proposal and that these proposals occurred later in the relationship than couples who experienced rejected proposals.

In rejected proposals, the proposer often assumed that they were on the same page as their partner or proposed to save the relationship. That is, the couple had broken up or were fighting and the proposer proposed to try to make things better. Not a recommended strategy.

We also learned that accepted proposals were more likely to have a ring than rejected proposals and were more likely to take place in private, with just the couple there. The engagement ring is part of the proposal script. It signifies commitment and readiness for marriage, and was noticed when missing.

While large public proposals are popular online and on TV, people often prefer a private proposal. Public proposals tended to garner attention. People present would take pictures, encourage following the script, and cheer when the proposal was accepted or go silent or hostile when the proposal was rejected.

Thus, the timing of the proposal in the relationship, the proposal script, and people's reactions helped differentiate accepted and rejected proposal stories.

Considering your study, what words of advice do you have for someone contemplating popping the question to their partner?

My advice: Talk in advance about marriage and proposal preferences, and if in doubt, propose in private with a ring.

Are there things about the proposal script you would change and/or seem dated to you?

Part of the marriage proposal script that I didn't mention is asking a parent for permission/blessing. This wasn't present in many of the stories and appears to be a dated element of the script that is changing.

That said, the takeaway from my research is to talk about proposal preferences and timelines in advance. The proposal is a story the couple tells repeatedly. Sometimes people are disappointed if an element is missing and people can have different ideas of what they want in a proposal (e.g., public versus private).

Talking about it gets them both on the same page and can help shape (welcome) surprises. If anything, the proposer can get a third party to talk to their partner to figure out what their partner is comfortable with.