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The Marriage Proposal Ritual

You have likely seen some variation of this scene before: you’re out in public or watching TV, and you see someone bend down on one knee, pull out a ring, and ask the person they’re with, “Will you marry me?” Odds are you knew what was taking place the moment the person got down on one knee and pulled out the box. This is because proposing marriage is a ritual that has a fairly standard script that people often follow. Of course, there are some variations on the script, but generally people seem to include some or most of the elements. This post describes those script elements and what people sometimes think when that script is not followed.

Rituals involve intentional and often formal behaviors that communicate social information.1 For example, people in some cultures wear torn clothing to communicate their grieving.2 Rituals provide people with a sense of control because they provide a script.3 To give you an example of what I mean by a script, I’d like you to imagine that you are at a restaurant. When you enter the restaurant, the hostess brings you to a table, a waitress greets you and you order drinks and food, and when the meal is over you receive and pay the bill. There may be variations to this script depending on the type of restaurant, but generally you know what to expect because the experience is similar from restaurant to restaurant and there are a few elements of the script that are stable across restaurants (e.g., ordering and paying for food). If the restaurant script isn’t followed (e.g., if you are asked if you want the bill right when you enter the restaurant), then you’ll likely be thrown off. Thus, the restaurant script helps you to anticipate what is about to happen and facilitates smooth interactions. Rituals also communicate values, are a way to bond with others, and help perpetuate and encourage socially agreed upon ways of behaving.1 In other words, following a ritual tells others a bit about you and helps to perpetuate the ritual and its script.

Proposing marriage is one common ritual that involves a well-known script. How people go about proposing marriage can vary quite a bit, with some proposals being quite showy and others being more low-key, but there are a few elements of the proposal script that are relatively stable across proposals. These traditional elements include:

  • the proposer asking the father or parents of the proposee for his/their permission or blessing to marry the proposee,
  • the proposal being a surprise,
  • the proposer getting down on one knee,
  • the proposer presenting a ring,
  • the proposer asking, “Will you marry me?” 4,5

There are two kinds of proposal surprises: the Shock, which comes out of the blue (e.g., if I hear on the radio: “Lisa Hoplock, your boyfriend wants to know, will you marry him?”) and the Climax, which involves a slow buildup to the proposal (e.g., a carriage ride, a nice dinner, a walk on the beach, then the proposal).5

Marriage proposals are considered to be the “cornerstone” of relationships,6 and people expect to hear an entertaining story when they find out that a couple has become engaged.4 When members of a couple don’t follow the traditional proposal ritual, then others sometimes shame them, don’t consider their proposal to be legitimate or “official,” or think that something is wrong with the relationship.7,8 For example, in one study, researchers presented a range of hypothetical proposal scenarios to over 1000 participants and asked the participants to rate the strength of hypothetical couples’ relationships based on whether or not they followed the traditional proposal script. In other words, the researchers wanted to know if people would judge a relationship based on whether or not the proposal followed the traditional script. Participants rated relationships as stronger when the proposal was traditional versus when it was not.7 Note that the couple members themselves may consider the relationship to be strong even if they don’t have a traditional proposal, but that outsiders might question the relationship’s strength solely based on how the proposal went down. This could have implications for the support that others provide, or decide not to provide, to the members of the couple down the road. Having a strong support network is important for relationship well-being (see a post on this topic here). Another traditional element of the ritual for mixed-sex couples is that the man proposes to the woman.7

People are often aware of gender roles when it comes to proposals.4 Even though men are usually the first to say “I love you,”9 women in mixed-sex couples are often the ones who are ready to get married first.8 According to some research, women indicate this to the man, then wait for the man to be ready to marry them because the ritual dictates that men are the ones to propose.4,8 Men are usually ready to propose within about 6 months of receiving hints or discussing it with their partner.8 Women often play a role in planning the proposal by helping to choose the ring, for example, but the time when it actually occurs is usually kept a surprise.4,8  

If the woman proposes, then it is often viewed as illegitimate (or a joke) by the partner and others, because it goes against tradition.4 For example, in an episode of the show Friends, baseball fans booed Phoebe when she proposed to her boyfriend at a baseball game. At the start of the previous century, it was so unconventional for women to propose that a tradition was developed where it was okay for a woman to propose on leap year and Sadie Hawkins Day.10 This tradition isn’t followed as much anymore, but was quite popular back in the early 1900s. Social reinforcement helps perpetuate the script, so it may not be too surprising that many young men and women in this day and age still often hold traditional views of proposals.11

What are your thoughts? Do you prefer the traditional ritual? If you proposed to someone or if someone proposed to you, did you follow the ritual? Why or why not?

TL; DR: The marriage proposal ritual involves bending on one knee, presenting a ring, and asking “will you marry me?” People can be thrown off when it’s not followed. What do you think?

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1Rossano, M. J. (2012). The essential role of ritual in the transmission and reinforcement of social norms. Psychological Bulletin, 138, 529-549.

2Lobar, S. L., Youngblut, J. M., & Brooten, D. (2006). Cross-cultural beliefs, ceremonies, and rituals surrounding death of a loved one. Pediatric nursing, 32, 44-50.

3Norton, M. I., & Gino, F. (2014). Rituals alleviate grieving for loved ones, lovers, and lotteries. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 266-272.

4Schweingruber, D., Anahita, S., & Berns, N. (2004). “Popping the question” when the answer is known: The engagement proposal as performance. Sociological Focus, 37, 143-161.

5Vannini, P. (2004). Will you marry me? Spectacle and consumption in the ritual of marriage proposals. Journal of Popular Culture, 38, 169-185.

6Ponzetti, J. r. (2005). Family Beginnings: A Comparison of Spouses' Recollections of Courtship. The Family Journal, 13, 132-138.

7Schweingruber, D., Cast, A. D., & Anahita, S. (2008). 'A story and a ring': Audience judgments about engagement proposals. Sex Roles, 58(3-4), 165-178.

8Hunter, E. (2012). Creating meaning in engagement: Gender, heterosexuality, and commitment to marriage. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University at Albany, State University of New York, USA.

9Ackerman, J. M., Griskevicius, V., & Li, N. P. (2011). Let’s get serious: Communicating commitment in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 1079-1094.

10Parkin, K. (2012). 'Glittering Mockery': Twentieth-century leap year marriage proposals. Journal of Family History, 37, 85-104.

11Robnett, 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, 96-121.

Dr. Lisa Hoplock - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Lisa's research examines how personality traits like self-esteem and attachment influence interpersonal processes in ambiguous social situations -- situations affording both rewards and costs -- such as social support contexts, relationship initiation, and marriage proposals. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger... Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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