The Psychology Of Proposals: Why We Say “I Do”

Everyone gets psyched out at the idea of proposing. Fortunately, we have a certain ritual that makes the process as easy as getting on one knee and asking someone to be in your life forever. No big deal, right?

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When the big news came in, we all swooned. Even the cynics and curmudgeons among us couldn’t help getting just a little bit swept up by the magic and romance of it all. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle—the pond-crossing power couple of British royalty and American celebrity–got engaged. Engaged! And once we heard, there was one question spilling from our collective lips: How’d he pop the question? Even the BBC jumped right to the query in its exclusive post-engagement interview with the couple: “Can we start with the proposal and the actual moment of your engagement? When did it happen? How did it happen?” It’s not just that we’re starstruck by #Harkle, as some are Brangelina-ing the two, or are The Crown-addicted, corgi-obsessed Anglophiles. It’s that we, as a culture, are absolutely fascinated with marriage proposals. Proposees daydream their ideal engagements, from beachside sunsets to skydive surprises. Proposers scheme their knee-dropping, including ever elaborate—and ever public—songs and dances. But why? Of course, the marriage proposal is a significant and singular moment in one’s relationship, if not life, marking the passage into that greater commitment of marriage (unless the partner says no, that is). That’s an incredibly intimate moment. So why do we care how Prince Harry asked Meghan Markle to marry him? Why do some partners orchestrate flash-mobs? Why is the marriage proposal, well, such a thing?

The marriage proposal is an important ritual.

For Lisa Hoplock, PhD, it all comes down to ritual. Currently working at the University of Manitoba, Hoplock dedicated her dissertation to the psychology of the marriage proposal and is an expert on this under-researched area. “Marriage proposals give us a sense of control and predictability,” she tells HealthyWay. “They provide a script for important life events.” And we all know the script thanks to its consistent appearance in popular media. As Hoplock outlines the steps, the proposer:

  1. Asks for the blessing of the proposee’s parents
  2. Makes the proposal a surprise
  3. Gets down on one knee
  4. Presents a ring
  5. And asks the proposee, “Will you marry me?”

Even Prince Harry followed the same formula, though his script had some additional elements—him being, oh, fifth in line to the Throne of England and all. We talked to the orchestrater of one of the most romantic proposals we’ve heard of, and guess what? He followed it, too—though, as you’ll see at the end of this piece, it was anything but easy. Harry asked for the blessing of Markle’s parents. He also asked for the blessing of his grandmother, the Queen, as required under law by the UK’s Succession to the Crown Act 2013. He dropped to one knee and presented a ring—which he designed with diamonds from the collection of his late mother, Princess Diana—that jewelers have valued at up to $350,000. And before he could even finish asking the question, Markle blurted out her “Yes!” Royalty: They’re just like us! Monarchy aside, they kind of are, actually. Their proposal itself was a simple and private affair, as we’d imagine a high-profile pair would want for an engagement announcement that made international headlines and sparked its own hashtag. Markle told the BBC that Harry proposed on a “cozy night” at their cottage. “We were roasting chicken. It was just an amazing surprise. It was so sweet and natural and very romantic. He got down on one knee.”

The proposal script provides guidance and communicates values.

Now, the origins of the proposal ritual as such aren’t exactly clear, but Hoplock notes that many of the individual elements are very old. The parental blessing may have grown out of the ancient practice of the dowry, when a bride’s father gave the husband money or property upon marriage. We can find evidence for engagement rings in ancient Rome, with future brides brandishing a gold ring in the forum and a less expensive iron counterpart around the villa. The diamond ring as the go-to band, meanwhile, was the marketing brainchild of De Beers, the jewelry giant, during the Great Depression. And evoking chivalry and supplication, the genuflection expresses “subservience,” as Hoplock puts it, with the question conveying “intention.” But while each particular component of the marriage proposal has its meaning and symbolism, the power of the ritual is as a whole. First, as we’ve seen, the ritual offers guidance through the proposal, a momentous, but stressful, situation “where someone might get accepted or rejected,” Hoplock says. Both actors know the scene and their parts, to continue the script metaphor—though a rejection is a plot twist, not the dramatic climax the individuals may have rehearsed. And on a broader level, Hoplock also supposes the marriage proposal ritual provides a larger sense of social continuity and stability in the “tumultuous world” we inhabit. Second, rituals “communicate one’s values and one’s bonds,” Hoplock explains. “They are a way to connect to other people, a way to demonstrate to others that we share these values.” For Hoplock, the marriage proposal expresses the traditional “marriage ideal” of a committed, stable partnership founded on love and fidelity—you know, all that squishy-squashy feel-good stuff. We can even understand a proposal rejection as upholding that ideal, declined because of an unreadiness or unwillingness to make the more serious commitment marriage demands.

A good engagement story can be vital to the relationship.

We also value the engagement story itself—so much so that we actually judge the strength of a couple’s relationship based on it. A 2007 study found that “relationships were evaluated as stronger when they conformed to a traditional proposal script,” like the one described above. Based on the details of the proposal, friends and families deem the couple a good match with a healthy relationship when their engagement follows the traditional steps, and are more likely to support their upcoming union. “If any of the elements are lacking,” says Hoplock of the study’s results, “especially if there’s no ring, [others] might see the proposal as illegitimate. They might think that the relationship isn’t as strong, that it’s a weaker relationship, and it might not last as long or be not as sincere or they don’t actually mean it.” The marriage proposal, then, isn’t just the performance of a ritual for a hoped-for spouse-to-be: It’s also a performance to our social network to help us secure their investment in our marriage. Despite the stereotype and media messages, many may be relieved to learn that the size of the ring didn’t matter for the traditional script. The study found ring size made no difference to its participants’ perceptions of the quality of the marriage proposal. It did matter, however, who was asking the question.

We still think of proposing as the guy’s job.

We may be living in a time of greater, if still insufficient, gender equality, but when it comes to marriage proposals, we’re still very conservative. With heterosexual couples, we by and large still expect the man to the do the proposing. A 2012 study of nearly 300 undergraduate students found that about two-thirds of both women and men said they would “definitely” want the man to propose—zero percent of women said they would definitely want to propose, and zero percent of men said they would definitely want their partner to propose to them. “Given the prevalence of liberal attitudes among students at the university where data collection took place,” the authors discuss, “it is striking that so many participants held traditional preferences.” Striking, indeed. Over 41 percent of women and over 57 percent of men largely cited traditional gender roles for why they want the man to propose. They wanted men to propose because men are the ones who are supposed to propose—because that’s just the way it’s always been. The authors refer to this as “benevolent sexism” or the “belief that men should protect, cherish, and provide for women,” also manifested in everyday behaviors like the expectation that men should pay for dinner. There may also be so not-so benevolent forces at play, too. Writer Miranda Popkey thinks heterosexual women face an insidious catch-22: “We’re supposed to want to get married,” she wrote, “but if we advertise that desire too loudly, we become unmarriageable.” A quick search around the web yields countless articles for how to get him to “put a ring on it,” as Beyoncé would sing: 15 Psychological Tricks To Make Him Propose, 10 Steps to Get An Immediate Marriage Proposal From Your Boyfriend, Get a Guy to Propose Naturally Without Being Obvious. There’s even the myth of the engagement chicken, a dish so delicious, it will make a boyfriend drop down straight to one knee—much humorous speculation arose after we learned Harry proposed to Markle over such a dish. But if a woman dares to ask the question herself? She risks coming across as too desperate or assertive. She breaks the mold, Hoplock says of the lady-in-waiting. “It’s a minority of women who are the ones who propose,” she says. “In my studies, the women were more likely to be rejected. … It is really looked down upon … They think it would be more comfortable if the man is the one to propose.”

The Myths, Media, and Manipulations of Public Proposals

So, for better or worse, we favor traditional proposals. We also like those proposals to be private—another point for Harry. In a 2015 survey she conducted, Hoplock found that 69 percent of respondents said their ideal proposal would involve just the two of them. “Most people want a private proposal, and if they could change it, they would change it to be more private,” she tells HealthyWay. And yet it seems we’re continually seeing bigger, showier productions of marriage proposals. On YouTube—and yes, we’ve all fallen down this rabbit-hole on YouTube—there are countless flash-mob proposals with millions of views. They’re staged in squares in Barcelona. They’re staged in Times Square, at airport arrivals from LAX to LHR. They’re staged during half-time at sports games, broadcast to cheering fans on the Jumbotron. They’re even staged at the checkout lines at IKEAs. As flash-mobs, many of them develop in the same way. Music unexpectedly comes on—in the video above, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”—and dancers follow. Amused and intrigued by the incongruous event, a crowd forms. Seemingly out of nowhere, more and more participants join in until the proposer emerges on one knee, asking for the proposee’s hand in marriage before dozens, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people. The audience claps, cheers, shouts “Say yes, say yes!” The proposee dips her head. She covers her mouth. “Say yes, say yes!” It’s part of the typical proposal script, after all, for her to say yes. The crowd wants her to say yes. We want the man to be rewarded for the grand, romantic gesture, declaring his love so widely and openly, even exposing himself to humiliation for it. We’re rooting for love. And public proposers could be manipulating that very expectation, some think. As psychologist Glenn Wilson told the BBC of the phenomenon: “It’s possible that some men think that this will pile pressure upon her and increase the likelihood of getting a positive response, that she must think that he really loves her if he goes to this extent of trouble and trickery.” Hoplock, for her part, thinks various media may also be contributing to the trend. “Technology allows for sharing and recording proposals” like never before, she notes, perhaps compelling some proposers and proposees to feel a viral proposal is a more memorable one. Proposers might also feel expected to put on an elaborate public proposal because of how they’re romanticized and celebrated in film and television—often as a daring, last-ditch effort to demonstrate to the proposee that, despite previous mistakes and shortcomings, the proposer is truly prepared to take the relationship to the next level. But this thinking is just the stuff of fiction, says Hoplock. “People think that the proposal will save the relationship.”

Why and How Women Reject Proposals

In a sweeping review Hoplock carried out of written descriptions of proposals on online forums like Reddit, she found that the second most common reason women rejected the proposal was that the couple had broken up. “There’s a big fight, and he goes back to the ring.” The most common reason? Women said they were too young: “They were 18 and not even thinking about marriage yet.” Also, Hoplock has a word to the wise: Avoid proposing at malls or food courts. She’s found that they usually result in a no. And speaking of rejections, Hoplock had to weed out a lot of videos of proposal rejections for her research, as she discovered a number of them are actually staged for sociological research—or sometimes, incredibly, for the sheer entertainment of it. But in the real ones, the pain and humiliation—for both parties—is very real. One aspect of Hoplock’s research focused on how women behave when rejecting a proposal from men in public. She’s found a pattern: Cortisol, the hormone released by the adrenal gland when we’re under stress, spikes during a proposal. “The women seem to freeze in surprise at first,” Hoplock says. “But then the women would try to halt the ritual or pace in distress. The fight-or-flight response seems to occur, where they start arguing or maybe slap the partner or maybe back away from the partner before running away.”

This guy will show you how a proposal is done.

Nobody wants their marriage proposal culminating in consolation from a mascot. So what makes for the ideal proposal? “The ideal is one where the couple talks in advance,” advises Hoplock, emphasizing the importance of discussing a timeline and general expectations for what the proposal should be like. “If in doubt, propose in private with a ring and make the other person feel valued.” That doesn’t mean it still can’t be magical, though. Take a page from Jim Fisk, director of wellness at an assisted living community in Cincinnati. “I’m a big storybook person,” he shares, recalling his Summer 2017 proposal story. “I wanted it to have meaning.” Fisk began by observing Hoplock’s golden rule the year prior. “We had talked about it for sure,” he says. The talk gave him assurance that he and his girlfriend were on the same page, relationally speaking. It gave him a timeline: She was interested in getting engaged in 2017 but didn’t want to know when it was exactly coming. It also gave him a sense of what she wanted out of a proposal, which he was able to respect but also use to heighten the all-important surprise. So Fisk started planning. The blessing: He took her father out for a drink in Cincinnati and called her mother, who lives not far from where Fisk was planning to propose. That fact would help provide Fisk some cover for the surprise. The ring: After talking to his girlfriend about her taste in bands, Fisk asked his mother for further guidance in this department—“I didn’t really know what I was doing,” he admits. He discovered his late grandmother had left him a band studded with diamonds, which he took to a small family jeweler for some further modifications. The setting: Longboat Key, Florida, where the two took their first vacation together. (Hoplock has found that the number one ideal proposal spot is by the water, usually on the beach, so points to Fisk.) “[The trip] set the stage for the relationship … it got serious from then on … . It would be meaningful to come back around to where we started it all,” Fisk says. He called her boss, shared his plan, and secured a week vacation. The couple took a private sailboat tour that first trip, so he also called the operators to set up the literal vehicle for his “Will you marry me?” Guests could bring food and drink, and the drivers made for excellent photographers.

But as the day drew near, things, as they do, happened.

His girlfriend got jury duty. He had to convince her not to file another postponement in case she was called up around the time of trip, planned for mid-August. Her grandfather was ill, and her family wanted everyone to gather together out of state before he passed away—in mid-August. He talked to her sister about his plans, and the family gladly helped him reschedule the visit with the grandfather. Then, on the Sunday just two days before they were flying off for the surprise vacation, Fisk says his girlfriend tells him she wants to take a few personal days. Beset by yet another snag, he pulls off some artful maneuvering, convincing her that they will take a proper vacation soon and that when they get back, they’ll do some earnest engagement ring shopping. He threw her off the trail. The proposal: The following Tuesday, Fitzs reveals, to her elation, that they’re headed to Florida. His birthday is coming up, he says, and they’re overdue for a visit with her mother down there. “My shoulders were up to my ears. She was totally relaxed.” They arrive, get settled in, and head out to a restaurant near the dock, where the special sailboat is waiting. But Fisk has one last obstacle. “We get there, we walk into the restaurant. She’s starving.” “‘Oh, honey, look over there—is that the boat we took?'” he recounts to us, playing out the drama. “‘I don’t care, I’m starving. Why do you want to go over there?’ She’s kind of perturbed that I’m taking a detour from the food.” Again, Fisk persuades her. He pretends it was a chance encounter. On cue, the boat operator fakes a cancellation and invites the couple aboard—let us photograph you for our new website, they say, and we’ll give you a free ride and even throw in some food and drink. Soon, the couple’s aboard. They make it out into the Gulf when the photographer asks, as planned, to photograph Fitz’s girlfriend at the brow of the boat. The photographer has her do her best Titanic pose so her back is to Fisk. “That’s when I was suppose to come up behind her on one knee. I’m standing midship, I kid you not, and it all hit me at that point. The sun is coming down, there was some music playing. It all hit me. Holy s***. It’s here. I froze up,” he remembers. “It wasn’t until the captain … took a hand and put in on my shoulder, just a nudge. I walked up and was down one knee,” her back still to him. He took her hand and explained how being in this boat with her was like coming full circle. He popped the question. She said yes. “I felt so relieved,” Fisk says—not just that she said yes, but that he’d overcome all the hectic hitches leading up to the big moment. “If I did this in another lifetime, a lot less moving parts would help me!” he jokes. But we’re not so sure Fisk would actually change anything were he to do it over. He told his fiancée all the hurdles he had to jump over as they basked in the post-engagement glow—and for Fisk, the relief. When people ask them how they got engaged, they have quite the story to tell. Roast chicken? Pshaw, Prince Harry.

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