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If You Don’t Know, Just Ask
October 12th, 2011

About eight and a half years ago GAP told me he had to go out of town for a job interview.   He was in business school at the time and looking for a summer internship, so I naturally jumped to the conclusion that it was for summer employment.  When I asked about the job he told me it was for a position that would be the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding job of his life.  He was very careful not to tell any lies.   When he left town for  this “interview” he actually drove to my hometown, called my parents an hour outside of the city, and asked if they were free for an impromptu lunch.  He asked their permission to propose to me.

I was then, and am now, flattered that he did this.  Most of all, it meant a great deal to me that he met with both of my parents, and not just my father.  My mother is not the type to take a back seat to her husband.  GAP knows this and wasn’t about to offend his future mother-in-law by confusing chauvinism for tradition.  I didn’t take their meeting as any indication that I don’t have control over my own life choices, and they didn’t either.  We all took it as a nod to a custom wherein a young man makes his intentions known and asks for the blessing of his girlfriend’s family.

However, I recently read an article that throws this whole custom into question.

I am certainly not of the delusion that everyone else has the same regard for tradition that I do, that my husband does, or that my parents do.  I know that women are not property.  We are empowered individuals who make our own decisions in life.  Whether or not GAP asked my parents’ permission, these things are as true about me as they are about any other modern young woman.  Yet I still have an old fashioned streak that likes to honor certain traditions, even if their relevance has been diluted over time.

So what struck me most about the article I read was how confused the author seemed to be over where to draw the line on the issue of asking permission.  She didn’t necessarily seem to think that there is a single right or wrong verdict for this tradition in the 21st century.  But she did seem a bit flummoxed over how to chart the right course under varying circumstances.  My response is this: why not just ask?  Very few women are caught off guard by a proposal these days.  Sure, we may not know exactly when and where the question will be popped, but we know whether or not we intend to marry the person we’re dating, and whether or not he (or she) intends to marry us.  How?  Because we talk about these things.  So why, amongst the conversations about religion and kids and all the other big issues that must be discussed before marriage, shouldn’t a young man inquire about his girlfriend’s views on asking permission, and about the views of her parents on the topic?  Shouldn’t this issue be on the easy end of the spectrum of marital pitfalls?

Marriage has served a number of purposes throughout human existence – economic, political, genealogical, and so on.  Today most marriages are about forming a mutually beneficial partnership and this has changed many of the dynamics of the institution itself.  One of the many improvements is increased communication between spouses, so I don’t know why this issue would ever become a minefield on the modern dating scene.

GAP asked my parents’ permission.  So did my sister’s husband.  I have friends whose husbands only asked their fathers.  I have friends whose parents only found out about the engagement after the woman had a ring on her finger.  The great thing about getting engaged today is that there are no hard and fast rules.  Perhaps this means there is more room for error.  But, as with many situations, I think a simple conversation can mitigate a lot of hurt feelings.

5 Responses to “If You Don’t Know, Just Ask”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I think it’s sweet to ask. And I think you are right–it’s not like engagements are really that much of a surprise these days, so what’s the harm?

  2. Holly Says:

    My parents would have likely told any suitor that asked their permission or blessing that he could have it, but that I would be unlikely to marry him after learning he’d asked. I felt super strongly about this, but I’m genuinely and regularly surprised by the number of modern, educated women who feel strongly the other way. I think, however, that the article definitely gets it wrong on one point: I don’t think there’s any decision making to be had if the prospective bride and her father would have different preferences. I think the groom’s responsibilty should be to honor his partner’s preference and allow her to explain to her parents her preference to share the news with them herself.

  3. Gale Says:

    Holly – Thanks so much for your comment. I’m not at all surprised to learn about your position on this issue. And I’m glad that your husband had the good sense not fumble it. You raise a good point too; one that I considered while writing the post, but which didn’t make it into my final version. I completely agree that the prospective bride’s views should always trump those of her parents. Particularly in situations such as yours where the young woman finds the custom offensive it would send a very bad signal to her if the prospective groom ignored her wishes. I think one of the most important aspects of marriage is to make sure that you always have your spouse’s back. If the guy blows off her views with this issue it doesn’t bode well for how he’ll respect her wishes in the future.

  4. Holly Says:

    Exactly my point.
    Happy Friday!

  5. anne Says:

    My husband did ask, but honestly I kind of think it was because I told him he should. He might have anyway, but I certainly let him know it was important to me, and important to my parents. And so I believe he asked them for no other reason than he knew it meant something to me. And being the feminist I am, I think he was a little surprised, but he did it. He went to some trouble to do it, as did Gale’s husband, and it still warms my heart to this day. So I agree with Holly (and Gale)–talk about it. Decide what makes sense to you and your partner. Being able to have those conversations is what marriage is all about.