Picture of a hand with engagement ring and someone else turning it downiStock

Are public proposals really such a great idea?

What if you wanted to say no, in front of all those people?

What’s that? Another one of your friends has got engaged? Your timeline is full of couples glowing with happiness and finger bling? That’s probably because, according to research, December - and the Christmas/New Year holiday particularly - is the most popular time of the year to pop the question.

And we’ve had some pretty memorable proposals over the past 12 months – think back to Glenn Weiss at the Emmys or Idris Elba at the screening of his film Yardie.


The trend for big, planned proposals has created something of a cottage industry, producing slick videos of the build-up and moment itself, often with a soppy song playing in the background. But type 'marriage proposals fail' into YouTube and you'll see the other side of the coin: two people experiencing acute embarrassment for very different reasons, posted online for the amusement of viewers worldwide.

What if there's a darker side to all this? After all, according to one survey, one quarter of women have turned down a proposal of marriage - and for a variety of different reasons. But surrounded by the fanfare of a large public proposal, are people able to be honest to the ring-bearing hopeful?

When Chinese athlete Qin Kai proposed to diver He Zi during her silver medal ceremony at the 2016 Rio Olympics, it started a conversation about 'coercive proposals'. By popping the question during her moment of professional triumph (and in front of potentially billions of viewers), was he exerting a form of control over her?

This debate about the pressure of public proposals reared its head again at this year's Emmys, when director Glenn Weiss paused his acceptance speech to ask his (now) fiancée Jan Svendsen to marry him. The overwhelming reaction online was positive, with the difference, for many, being that Glenn hadn't interrupted his partner's moment in order to 'claim her' publicly, but had used his own moment of success to make a romantic gesture.

But the episode did again raise questions again about the potential coerciveness of hugely public proposals. How easy would it have been, after all, for Jan to say no, with hundreds of millions of viewers at home clutching their sofa cushions in anticipation?

For us mere mortals, the audience for a public proposal might be smaller, but the emotional stakes are just as high. Sites like Reddit are awash with stories of misjudged proposals, and many provide an insight into the feelings of the person proposed to.

One user, for instance, explained how the very idea of a public display was enough to demonstrate that their partner didn't know them as well as they might have hoped:

When you're recovering from crippling social anxiety and your boyfriend proposes to you at the Trevi Fountain surrounded by applauding people, it makes you question how well he knows you.

Another made the point that the gesture, while ostensibly romantic, was far more self-centred than it first appeared:

Proposing to me at a sports event was all about him and nothing to do with us as a couple or me as his partner — much like the rest of our relationship.

But how does all this square with research that suggests people generally appear to find public proposals 'more romantic'?


Ammanda Major, head of clinical practice and service quality for charity Relate, says it's all about knowing the person you're proposing to. “If this is your personality, if you are someone who likes to make grand gestures and you’re with someone who likes that, it can work quite well,” she tells BBC Three.

“They can seem like a terribly romantic thing to do, but you need to ask yourself what's motivating you when you ask someone to spend the rest of their lives with you [in this way],” Ammanda says.

“If you do make a public proposal, if you haven’t talked about it before, you need to be prepared for the potential that you could be rejected publicly, and be hurt or angry as it’s in the gift of your partner to say no.”

There was definitely an awkward pause before He Zi accepted her boyfriend’s proposal, leading many to question whether she could really have said no in such a public arena.

How on Earth do you turn someone down in front of hundreds or thousands of people – or even just a room full of family?

"It must be the most hideous of positions to turn someone down, if you've been proposed to in public, with everyone smiling, expecting you to say yes," explains Ammanda. "There is no shame in saying no, if you know it's wrong and not the right thing for you. Maybe smile and go with it and then say you need more time. Leave the person doing the proposing with some dignity."

So if you're considering a festive proposal in front of family, friends, or indeed a large group of strangers, make sure you've got your partner's best interests at heart. Otherwise, be ready to take a very public rejection on the chin.