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Dear Gentleman Scholar,
Should men ask their future in-laws for permission to marry their daughters? Is this charmingly old-fashioned or disgustingly sexist?
Thank you for your question.
“The custom today is that the two principals make up their minds first, and the bride tells her parents about the engagement afterward,” wrote the exquisite Millicent Fenwick in the 1948 edition of Vogue’s Book of Etiquette. It has been a long time since good society felt it necessary for a prospective father-in-law to formally evaluate a suitor’s suitability, and yet the tradition persists. The rituals of the 21st-century wedding include all manner of unnecessary actions—really, when else does the modern woman look to Queen Victoria as a fashion plate?—and this one is far more meaningful than most. While the question is quite obsolete from a functional standpoint, posing it is strictly a statement of good form.
But before we get to the meaning, let’s get semantics out of the way. Some men prefer to ask their future in-laws for their blessing rather than to ask for permission. Blessing implicitly acknowledges everybody’s autonomy, and permission evokes ideas of the prospective fiancée as property and of a bride price payable in goats. The distinction is symbolic and, from some feminist perspectives, very important—but also the distinction is vanishingly slight. Consider that some of the men who reject the permission phrasing on principle and instead ask to be blessed are agnostics and atheists. We’re talking about a linguistic arena where permission isn’t really about acquiring authorization and blessing often sheds its religious connotations. We’re talking, in each case, about embracing traditional language to indicate respect for values more durable than the patriarchy from which that language emerged. I detect nothing offensive in the gesture, but you have a foolproof sexism-detector close at hand: your bride-to-be. Run this idea by her, directly or otherwise. If she disapproves—if she is the type who, further, objects on principle to her father giving her away at the altar, believing that retrograde gender politics are encoded in that bit of stage management—then defer to her happily.
In 2014, the guys most likely to ask for permission are those least likely to need it. I offer, as Exhibit A, a brain surgeon who got all worked up in the days before asking his then-girlfriend’s father: “I felt disconcertingly like I was about to try making a good first impression on someone I’d known for years.” This, despite the fact that he’d 1) spent hundreds of nights sleeping in his bride’s childhood bedroom; 2) already been offered her grandmother's diamond for an engagement ring; 3) knew that her parents understood they’d raised a daughter who was going to marry whomever she wanted. So why did he do it?
“I thought that there was something in the ritual,” he wrote me. “I embraced the tradition despite the fact that the institution of marriage has evolved. Or maybe even because it has evolved: My relationship with her parents was so informal that it felt important for me to declare my dedication to their daughter explicitly. I saw it as a way of deepening my bond with them as family.”
Talking about the bond with the family, we are talking about community in terms that only a nihilist could fail to get behind. This is the theme that thousands of officiants riff on every weekend when declaring that a wedding represents more than the union of two people but the joining of two families, when encouraging all the assembled to commit themselves to the happiness of the couple, yadda yadda yadda: That the language is often rote only indicates the wisdom of the idea, and giving your future in-laws a humble heads up about your plans is in keeping with it.
That covers the why. Now, onto the how.
Be certain that the woman in question is on board with you popping the question. You guys have discussed this, right? Nothing could be more embarrassing than securing the blessing of the father—the two of you tearfully embracing and declaring your own mutual love—and then turning around to discover that she’s not really feeling it. There is nothing romantic about genuinely surprising proposals.
Arrange a meeting with the head(s) of the household who raised her. Logistics can be an issue, of course, but if you can drive over to their place one night after dinner, or if it is remotely practical to take the Acela to lunch, or if you’re living in their basement already, then do this in person. I’m in favor of chatting with both mom and dad, but I certainly won’t denounce you as a paternalistic warthog if you feel otherwise. Again, the manliest option is to let your girlfriend’s conscience be your guide.
Pace the conversation properly. Why cut to the chase? The parents likely harbor a correct hunch about your agenda in this meeting, and it may help you (and them) burn off some nervous energy to offer some preliminary chit-chat about sports or weather before launching into your polished monologue about the amazement you feel when confronted by the bride-to-be’s limitless charms. But you don’t want to dillydally either. A friend of mine, out to dinner with his girlfriend’s imposing dad, spent much of the meal asking probing questions about the old man’s workplace. When my friend finally got around to the main topic, his future father-in-law sounded a note of relief. “I was worried you were going to ask me for a job,” he said. And then ordered Champagne.