I got engaged recently. Before I proposed to my girlfriend, Megan, who I’ve been dating a little more than a year, I wanted to ask her father for his blessing. I’ve met him before, and we get along, so I wasn’t concerned about him saying no.
Still, I was nervous.
Catching him on the phone as he was leaving work, I told him — my voice mostly steady — that I loved his daughter and wanted to share my life with her. I was planning to propose, I said, and I was calling to ask for his blessing.
“You have my blessing,” he said. “I would be honored to have you as a son-in-law.”
“A lot of men wouldn’t ask,” he said, adding that he appreciated the gesture. “That seems to be of another generation.”
His answer stuck with me. Was it old-fashioned?
A groom asking the father-in-law for permission to marry his daughter comes from a time when women had little autonomy. “As love became more important to marriage than money, this tradition has continued, although it is not nearly as common as it once was, at least in middle-class America,” an etiquette guide from The Knot says. “Today, when a man asks his girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage, he does so more out of respect than anything else.”
In its 2015 Jewelry and Engagement Study, the Knot found that 77 percent of grooms asked permission from the bride’s father or parents before proposing, up from 74 percent in 2013 and 71 percent in 2011.
Why is a seemingly outdated tradition becoming more common? Kristen Maxwell Cooper, deputy editor of the Knot, said that it may be because couples are getting married later in life. (The average age of respondents in the Knot survey was 27.5.)
“Today’s modern bride and groom are more mature, and often have a greater respect for marriage being the merging of two families, and therefore feel it’s appropriate, and a polite gesture, to get the green light from those closest to the bride before he pops the question,” Cooper said.
Megan was surprised when I told her I wanted to ask her father for his blessing. And I was surprised she was surprised. She agreed that I could ask, as long as I asked her mother as well, which I did.
An informal Facebook polling of my friends, mostly in their 30s from either the West Coast, where I grew up, or the East Coast, where I live currently, showed overwhelmingly that yes, they asked for their in-laws’ blessing. Some would-be grooms said they wanted the opportunity to declare their intentions. A friend succinctly commented that he asked his now-father-in-law “because my wife told me to.”
My friend Kristen said that her now-husband asked her parents for their blessing because she made clear that it was important to her. “While I didn’t know exactly when it happened (he took my Mom to dinner and met my Dad at a restaurant bar of his choosing),” she wrote “we had discussed the fact that both of those convos were important to me.”
Her husband did it, she said, as a way to make her parents feel more comfortable and included in the process. “It was a very deliberate decision,” she wrote, “that placed their comfort and commitment to tradition above our need to make a statement.”
When I spoke with W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, about this tradition, he noted that approximately half of families formed since the 1970s are divorced. In many of those cases, the man was not present in his daughter’s life. Therefore, asking for the father’s blessing is a way to affirm both the husband and the father-in-law, Wilcox said.
“One thing marriage and fatherhood are designed to do is to exult their status and affirm men and their connection to family life,” Wilcox said.
Personally, I didn’t ask out of tradition or courtesy. Rather, I asked because I respect and honor Megan’s father as a father and a man. I wanted to bond myself to her family, in-law awkwardness and all.
But my bigger motivation was the respect I have for marriage as an institution.
I recognize that marriage is difficult — my parents and my fiancee’s are divorced — and that much work and support is needed for a union to succeed. Truthfully, I delayed marriage in general because I didn’t know if I’d be up to the challenge. My views on that changed as I got into my 30s. When I met Megan, that fear went away.
Asking for my father-in-law’s blessing was a way to recognize how difficult it is to be a good husband and father. It was an acknowledgement that it’ll take more strength than my own to accomplish that.
So I’ll take every blessing I can get.