Asking for Dad's Permission to Get Married: Cool or Messed Up?

Liz Susong weighs in on the age-old tradition of the man asking for his bride's father's permission to marry

Updated 08/24/17

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In Catalyst Wedding Co. editor Liz Susong's weekly column devoted to the feminist bride, she dives headfirst into the crazy history behind common wedding traditions we may take for granted. Liz investigates here.

Adapting medieval marriage customs to be the Pinterest weddings of the modern day can sometimes be awkward—just a little off—like accidentally ordering a McCafé frappé at Starbucks. For instance, we continue to treat the bride like a prize to be won, while simultaneously making jokes about the “old ball and chain,” when the reality is that now more than ever, women are entering into marriage on equal footing with their partners. Comedian Jim Gaffigan mocks the antiquated language often used on wedding invitations, saying: “The honorable king slayer cordially invites you to the marriage of his forty year old daughter to her live in boyfriend of 12 years.”

In this scenario, imagining that a woman’s father has any authority over her romantic choices is a little silly. And it’s true; millennials are delaying marriage longer than any other generation before, often establishing themselves in their careers first. So why do we continue the custom of asking a father’s permission for his daughter’s hand in marriage, especially knowing that she has likely been living independently for years?

Historically, “courtship was a family affair; a young man who caught the eye of a young woman...was to arrange an introduction to the father of his chosen lady,” according to marriage historian Susan Waggoner. And chosen ladies, don’t even think that you’ll be getting any alone time with this dubious suitor. Your dad is probably inviting him to Grandpa’s 80th b-day or Cousin Ruthie’s baptism where you can make small talk about the weather with your Aunt Josephine; doesn’t that sound romantic? And if the fam is a fan, they’ll negotiate your engagement without you. Negotiations can take a while, involving a lot of bartering and back and forth between the family representatives, so just hang tight there, sweetie. And if this all sounds 100% different from today’s typical “meet on OkCupid, hook up, fall in love, move in together, buy a house, pick out a ring, get engaged scenario,” “remnants of this [time period] live on today in the custom of asking for a daughter’s hand,” reminds Waggoner.

So hive mind, what do you think? Should dad get veto rights, or nay?

I recently had a friend’s husband tell me that when he sat down with her parents to discuss his intentions of marrying that goddamn queen, they had a three-hour dialogue about marriage and its trials and tribulations, like a mini counseling sesh. I was kind of like, dang, that sounds nice. My husband and dad mostly talk about eccentric small business plans they’ve invented in their minds.

Dana of Ohio says that her husband asked her parents’ permission before proposing, and she “thought it was all endearing and sweet and proper,” but most people I talked to felt that getting the parents’ buy-in was more a sign of respect rather than a necessity. Jessica of Texas clarifies: “It wasn’t a ‘permission asking’ thing; it was more like my husband informing my dad.” Shainna of West Virginia agrees: “It wasn't done in a transactional way, but more in a ‘this is why I love your daughter and why I want to spend my life with her’ way.” Alison of Ohio summarizes, “I think it’s a nice gesture if it means something to you, but I don’t think it should be the expectation.”

While our boyfriends are out there sweating it, ironing their button-ups and preparing to shake hands with our fathers while we’re working overtime at our jobs, sometimes our parents are one step ahead. Brandon of Ohio asked his future wife’s father for his blessing: “I told him it was obviously out of respect for him, but he said we were both adults and didn’t technically need to do it.” Abby’s father told her while she was dating her boyfriend, David, that David did not need to talk to him about marrying her. She says, “Having my father say, ‘don’t worry about asking’ was as powerful as having him say, ‘I love you; welcome to the family.’”

Anesha of Florida wisely points out: “A lot of people come from broken homes, and the ideal ‘ask the father’ is not always an option.” At the time my husband proposed, I was not in contact with my father, so my husband chose to show respect to me by not asking my dad. Instead, my mama got treated to dinner, and I definitely care a lot more about what my mom thinks about my life choices. Remember folks: every family is different, respect looks different to everyone, and life is messy. Write it down. Stick it in your wedding planning binder.

So let’s hear from the folks who are more like “yeah no thanks” on the whole talk to dad business. Allyse of Kansas says that the idea of her “parents and boyfriend deciding if it was okay for us to get married made me really uncomfortable.” Instead, “we both individually called our parents prior to our engagement weekend to let them know what we had decided together.” By choosing to mutually make the decision to get engaged, they ruled out all of the traditional steps of a “surprise” proposal. Stephanie’s husband agrees with Allyse, explaining that he decided against talking to Stephanie’s dad beforehand, joking that “he wanted Stephanie to be the first to know he wanted to marry her.” Darren also did not find it necessary to have a conversation with the father of his girlfriend of seven years, saying “his daughter is self-sufficient and in control of her own life.” Instead, they shared the news with their parents together about a week after getting engaged.

Regardless of family dynamics, the implications of asking a father for his blessing to marry his daughter is just too off-putting for some. Alex of Tennessee says, “It’s sexist. No woman is asking a man’s mother for permission to marry him. Why the double standard?” Amber of New York agrees: “I would feel just as shocked if he asked my father for permission to marry me as if he expected a dowry that included a goat to be kept in our tiny apartment.” Speaking of goats, Tracee says, “I would have been a fan of the talk, but my future husband kept saying, ‘You are not a goat. I am not buying you.’” In the end, her “husband’s feminism on this issue won out because it was so important to him.”

And what about the proposals for same-sex couples? Are two grooms supposed to ask each other’s fathers for their blessing to marry? What about two brides? Melanie and her girlfriend decided together that they wanted to get married and then planned to surprise each other with special proposals. Of their parents, she says, “While we love them, their support doesn’t feel necessary for us to decide to get married.” She then adds, “Asking permission from someone other than that person to get married just feels gross to me.”

So what do you think? Is asking for a blessing from the parents a nice gesture and a sign of respect, or is it gross? And if anyone got a goat for their apartment out of the whole deal, we definitely need the details.

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