Weddings are all about tradition, from wearing white and exchanging rings to the time-honored words said at the altar. Another tradition with serious staying power? Asking your partner’s father for his child’s hand in marriage. As many nuptial traditions go, feelings about this one range from seeing it as a sweet way to honor and include parents to an antiquated practice primed for a phase-out.
These days, it’s less a question of permission and more a sign of respect. It is a huge moment in any person’s life, and it’s still incredibly popular for one partner to honor the other’s parents in this way—and enable them to be part of the process. So is this a tradition you should consider upholding? We’re here to help you figure it out and offer expert insight from someone who knows a thing or two about a proposal: wedding proposal planner Megan Bicklein.
Meet the Expert
Megan Bicklein is the director of sales and proposal design at The Yes Girls, the world's original proposal planners. She has over five years of experience in the industry.
The History and Meaning of Asking for a Father's Permission to Wed
Unlike other wedding traditions that have a darker past (like the history behind not having a first look), a man asking a woman’s father for her hand in marriage has a slightly sweeter origin. The practice became popular in the 19th century when couples were marrying for love but when women were still considered to be under the control of the men in their lives. The bride and groom were able to choose one another, but if the groom wanted to propose, he had to have dear old dad’s permission first. This was primarily to ensure the marriage was one that the family deemed fitting and the groom was someone they could entrust with their daughter's future and well-being. It also provided an opportunity to discuss the contractual side of the arrangement, like the daughter's dowry. If the bride-to-be's father was not around at the time, the duties would fall to her eldest brother or male family member. Think Daphne's entire future precariously resting in her brother's hands during the first season of Bridgerton.
The modern practice of the tradition has evolved into something far less transactional. With many couples choosing to cohabitate long before walking down the aisle and things like dowries being a thing of the past, looking to dad (let alone a brother) for permission to wed can seem a tad farfetched. Instead, the action of approaching a partner's parents—moms aren't to be ignored!—is more of a respectful gesture meant to include them in the joyous occasion and allow them to give their blessing for the impending union.
Is it necessary to partake in the tradition?
If your partner has more traditional parents, they may be offended if they aren't asked for their blessing. Easy enough if you were planning to, anyway, but if the entire practice and meaning behind it doesn't sit well with you, it might be more of a challenge. For parents who aren’t tied to the tradition (or couldn’t care less about it), you're welcome to skip it entirely, though it’s probably still a good idea to clue them in to what’s about to happen.
Are mothers excluded from the tradition?
When it comes to asking a father, mother, or both parents, it all depends on the relationship. If the parents are happily married, one could speak to the father or may want to talk to both parents together. If your partner and their mom are particularly close, she shouldn’t be left out of the big moment. If the parents are divorced, each parent should be addressed individually. It's best to begin with whichever parent your partner is closest to, as the conversation should be easier and will be great practice before talking to the other parent.
How do I ask for permission if our relationship is already strained?
This situation requires a lot of insight into the particular family dynamic and should be assessed personally. While there is no tried-and-true prescription, it's best to take your S.O.'s feelings into consideration first and foremost. If the relationship between them and their parents is strained, then you may not need to ask permission at all. However, if it's your relationship with the parents that is strained, Bicklein recommends easing into it by engaging them in multiple conversations before finally asking for their child's hand in marriage. This will definitely take more time than a one-and-done event, but slow and steady is the best way to ensure a reasonable exchange.
How far in advance should I ask?
"We always suggest asking for a partner's hand sooner rather than later, to avoid making the parents feel like the conversation was an after-thought," explains Bicklein. "In fact, most parents will expect the conversation to happen before proposal plans are made, so we suggest asking at least a few weeks prior to proposing."
How should I ask?
It's essential that the parents are made to feel as comfortable and respected as possible. An in-person conversation is the best course of action, but if traveling is involved, it's best that you make the trip rather than inconveniencing them. According to Bicklein, it's important to consider the environment and weigh how the conversation might pan out. If there's a chance you won't get the reaction you're looking for, a public setting may not be the right choice. However, if you foresee things going smoothly a nice dinner out is a lovely way to make the conversation a little more special.
What should I say?
When it comes to matters of the heart, we highly recommend going off script and speaking from your heart. But, as a general rule of thumb, mention how much you love their child and wish to make them happy and want to spend the rest of your life with them. And, of course, divulge that their blessing or permission or joy (whichever you find to be the most fitting with your beliefs) in your union is something you would treasure or appreciate before moving forward.
Keep details of your proposal plans to a minimum—Bicklein says parents have been known spill the beans. If they ask for details, say you're still working on the perfect plan or you want them to hear it from their child post-proposal.
How can I put a modern spin on this tradition?
If you're particularly close with your partner’s parents, Bicklein suggests a fun and clever “proposal” to them as well. In reality, this tradition by any other name is really just a pre-proposal proposal, so why not personalize the whole event and make it a memorable one. We love the idea of filming it for your S.O. to watch later on!
How can I take a more feminist approach to this tradition?
Historical origins aside, there is absolutely no reason for just one partner to do all the heavy lifting here. If your relationship is all about equality and this tradition is meaningful to both of you, extend those values into upholding it. If you're both aware that marriage is the next step, then each partner can have an individual conversation with their respective future in-laws about their intentions and request their blessing in moving forward.
Alternatives to Asking for Permission
Instead of asking for permission, treat the conversation as a chance to let your S.O.'s parents in on the fun, whether that’s letting them know the big moment is approaching or asking them to help plan the perfect proposal. This eliminates any of the dated mentalities linked to the tradition and offers a much more refreshing, feminist-forward approach while being inclusive. Fill them in on what plans you have in store for your partner, ask mom for help picking out the ring, or simply hint at the fact that this big milestone is approaching. This way, your “We’re engaged!” phone call is a much-anticipated surprise instead of an out-of-the-blue shock.