“Sir, I have come to ask for your daughter’s hand. Nice pajamas.”

Julie’s post on courting brings up an interesting question that I have, thankfully, only struggled with once: Should you ask a father’s “permission” prior to proposing marriage to his daughter?

There are all sorts of reasons that one might be embarrassed about this ritual, e.g. the implication of ownership over the child, patriarchal control of female freedom (why doesn’t she ask my father if she can marry me? Why not ask her mother?), etc. etc. More than this there is the whole issue of what you should do if he says “no.” Perhaps it is simply better not to ask, after all — as my mother taught me — it is generally easier to get forgiveness than permission.

True to form, I fudged the issue with She Who Must Be Obeyed’s father. Our courtship was a bit logistically complicated. At the time, I was working in Williamsburg, Virginia and SWMBO after several years of college and post-college independence was once more living with her parents in the DC suburbs, attending graduate school at George Washington University. Hence, I more or less lived at my in-laws-to-be’s home on the weekends, making the three hour drive up from Williamsburg on Friday night and spending the weekend sleeping on the couch in the basement until I returned to Williamsburg on Sunday night. Once it became clear that SWMBO and I were going to get married, I was in a bit of a quandary as to how to deal with her father. Should I make a formal request? “Sir, I would like to ask for the hand of your daughter in honorable matrimony.” Very Victorian sounding. On the other hand a thoroughly ’90s silence seemed wrong as well.

In the end, I figured that we ought to have some sort of a conversation, even though I was not quite clear on the content. The problem here was finding a natural moment of privacy in which to have the Talk. Early one Saturday morning in the midst of these problems, I got up early and went running by Arlington Cemetery, across the river, along the Mall, and back to the home of SWMBO’s parents. I returned drenched in sweat and filled with the chemical courage of an endorphins induced high. As I made my way up the stairs to the shower, I noticed SWMBO’s father sitting up alone in his bed. He is a very tall, skinny man. He was dressed in pajamas which were somewhat too small. His propped up leg exposed a bony and pasty calf as he sat doing a crossword puzzle. There we stood. Him in pajamas and me in my sweat drenched running shorts. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Good morning.”
SWMBO’s Father: “Good morning. You’ve been running?”
Me: “Yes. You’re doing a crossword puzzle?”
SWMBO’s Father: “Yes.”
Me (taking a deep breath): “So, I think that I am going to marry your daughter.”
SWMBO’s Father: “Yes. SWMBO’s mother and I had much figured that out already.”
Me (Thinking “Yikes! They’ve noticed that I have been living in their basement on the weekends for the past few months after all!”): “So, err, how do you feel about? Do you or SWMBO’s mother have any problems with me.”
SWMBO’s Father: “No. Not at all. Welcome to the family.”

And that was it. It was a bit awkward. I didn’t look especially suitor like, and he was not at his most patriarchal moment. Nevertheless we got the job done. I can’t help but thinking, however, that the moment would have been better and easier if there was some sort of accepted script. Our society has done a great deal in the last century or so to bludgeon down formal social rituals in the name of freedom and spontaneity. No doubt many of the rituals were bad and hurtful. Still, I can’t help but thinking that in our eagerness to break the shackles of dead tradition we have underestimated the ability of rituals to provide order and meaning to momentous (and not so momentous) occasions. The requirement to navigate each moment using social tools created ex nhilio can be a difficult and — as my experience with SWMBO’s Father’s father illustrates — not so pretty.

55 comments for ““Sir, I have come to ask for your daughter’s hand. Nice pajamas.”

  1. Boris Max
    March 24, 2005 at 11:01 am

    Shouldn’t SWMBO (I call my wife by her first name, but to each his own) have asked your mother for your hand? I mean, your mother actually gave birth to you and all that..

  2. annegb
    March 24, 2005 at 11:03 am

    Nate, you always make me smile. What a cute guy you are. I wonder if my daughter’s potential fiance feels that scared of us.

  3. Rosalynde Welch
    March 24, 2005 at 11:06 am

    Nate, great post. (Why, oh why, can I not draft as quickly as you? Aside from the facts that I don’t get paid for it and that I have two small children dangling from my arms?)

    I think you’re right on about the difficulty of social improvisation that ensues when social rituals disappear–but I’m more loathe than you to reinstate it. The intention and effect of most of the formalized social rituals you seem to be talking about (distinct from informal and casual social behaviors) is to reinforce and enact social hierarchies–that is, to confirm power relationships. Rituals, then, worked really well for those in power. Of course, the formalization of that power relationship could also put the powerful party under some obligation to the powerless party–noblesse oblige, and all that–and so could provide a measure of protection for the powerless. In my view, the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society have remained greatly disadvantaged during the great social upheavals of the past century–and those of us who have benefited from these upheavals (myself included) should feel a moral burden to try to change this situation. But the way to fix things is not, in my view, to reinstate formalized, social rituals of power.

  4. March 24, 2005 at 11:08 am

    My daughters have all been married in the last 3.5 years. The youngest being married in July. 3 up, 3 down! Temple! Each of these wonderful guys have come to us, nervous and shy (hah!) and asked to meet with us. Ask for the daughters hand and of course we said okay. Where it changes at that point is that we take the opportunity to point out some character traits and personality quircks of each of them letting them know they’ve been forewarned. Not that there is anything truly awful, however, they have grown up in a therapists house and LOVE to analyze and takl things through. No silent treatment here guys!

    It’s been an interesting process. One we have enjoyed participating in with each of the guys. it may seem old or antiquated but it felt right at the time.

  5. Mark B.
    March 24, 2005 at 11:09 am

    Well, Boris, as Nate could tell you, If it’s good enough for Rumpole, it’s good enough for any of his American cousins.

  6. Scott
    March 24, 2005 at 11:14 am

    Do you really “obey” SWMBO, or is this just a title of implied power to make yourself feel good about running the show? Who does SWMBO obey? By not referring to your wife by her name at least once, aren’t you objectifying her?
    I am sure that there will be some erudite response as to why this term isn’t offensive but what do the women of this blog think about this- is it really a cutsey thing or not?

  7. Mark B.
    March 24, 2005 at 11:18 am

    Perhaps Rosalynde we should get some unpaid, unemployed member of the educated class to provide a quick list of the social forms that will help to oil the works of society without gumming them up with outdated allocations of power to the wrong people. Then we could avoid having to make stuff up on the fly, which few of us are good at, and save our energy for the transactions that really deserve it.

    Let me suggest one, for starters:

    When someone on greeting you, asks “How are you doing?” or “How do you do?” the proper answer is “Fine, thank you. And you?”

    Not “Good.” Nobody’s asking whether you are good or evil.

    Not “Ok, but the damn’ sciatica been bothering me a bit lately.” Unless the greeter is your physician, and you’re in her office.

    Not “OK. Wut’s happenin wit’ you?” Unless you’re really from Brooklyn (and 25 years here doesn’t qualify me to say I’m really from here).

    I’ll leave the more complicated stuff, like when to remove one’s hat and whom to speak to before eloping, to one more qualified.

  8. Mark B.
    March 24, 2005 at 11:20 am

    Too few Rumpole admirers on the blog. Time for them to quit blogging and get down to bn.com and pick up some of John Mortimer’s great books.

  9. Rosalynde Welch
    March 24, 2005 at 11:21 am

    Uh, Mark B., if negotiating social transations like “How are you?” is diverting your social resources away from more more important avenues, then I don’t think anything I can do would help you. :)

  10. Mark B.
    March 24, 2005 at 11:22 am

    I told you I’d pick an easy one, Rosalynde. And, no, I don’t have any difficulty with it. It’s all those other people that bug me! :-)

  11. Doc-Kwadwo
    March 24, 2005 at 11:23 am

    When it was time for me to chat up the future in-laws about wanting to marry Bug Glue (that’s my wife — a nickname, obviously, like SWMBO — it would take too long to explain…), I had only one choice of a parent to approach… my wife’s father died when she was 14.

    My wife’s mother is from Vietnam. She speaks 5 languages, and I would guess that English is probably 3rd or 4th on her fluency list. At that time, I had next-to-no experience in conversing with people from Southeast Asia, and I was not familiar with her accent.

    Me: Uhhhh, Sister B., I want to marry your daughter.
    Mom: Come with me.
    Me: Um… OK.
    (She takes me into Bug Glue’s childhood bedroom, and sits me down on the floor. She sits across from me on the carpet, and the grilling begins.)

    We were in there for almost 3 hours. I understood only about 20% of what she said, but when she was smiling, I was smiling and nodding, and when she sounded angry, I frowned and looked concerned. Lordy, but I was sweating bullets.

    Apparently, I passed. We were wed 13 months later, and I now understand my mother-in-law without a hitch. Well, her English, anyway.

    Thanks, Nate, for sparking a smile on my little trip down memory lane.

  12. March 24, 2005 at 11:24 am

    I did not ask for permission. I asked for his blessing though. It was actually a very moving experience. And that is how Andrea wanted it.

  13. March 24, 2005 at 11:30 am

    So the strategy is – move into the basement, marry the daughter?

  14. Elisabeth
    March 24, 2005 at 11:33 am

    Could we start a trend of asking both parents for permission to marry their daughter OR son? I like the tradition of asking a future spouse’s family’s permission to marry, but, wearing my modern woman hat, I find asking for only the woman’s father’s permission and ignoring the mother (or the man’s family)hearkens back to the Johnny Lingo days of measuring a woman’s worth in cows.

  15. Nate Oman
    March 24, 2005 at 11:42 am

    A few points:

    The designation of She Who Must Be Obeyed does indeed come to me from John Mortimer, although my literarily informed mother tells me that Mortimer gets it from a Victorian writer named John Ryder, who used it as the name of a matriarchal chieftan in a story about a sort of male dystopia in which women run the world. Or something like that. I confess that literature is not my strong suit. I hasten to point out that my wife is not at all Hilda Rumphold-esque, thanks be to heaven, although She Who Must Be Obeyed is a largely accurate description of her power and authority. As for objectification, I use SWMBO much in the manner of the Jewish use of the word “adonai” in place of the verbalization of the tetragrammaton. One ought not to take sacred things too lightly to one’s lips. I am grateful, however, that Scott is worrying about this. With such a finely tuned sense of moral concern, he could do so real damage if he started mucking around with other injustices and outrages.

    I am confused by Rosalynde. One one hand she lauds the fall of the social rituals as a victory of egalaterianism against hierarchy. (BTW, should we really always favor egalaterianism against hierarchy? Maybe hierarchy ain’t so bad in its way?) She then goes on to affirm that the fall of those social rituals has by and large been hardest on the least fortunate and that fortunate beneficiaries like herself have an obligation to help those at the bottom. Why not formalize her noblesse oblige in ritual?

    Finally, I don’t think that ritual always reinforces hierarchy. For example, consider the fact that in the segregated South any black man, regardless of age, would be referred to by whites as “boy” and any black woman, regardless of age, would be referred to by whites as “girl.” Against that backdrop, The dignified southern ritual of “Yes, sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” by a white person to a black person becomes way for ritual to break down hierarchy, and reinforce respect and equality.

  16. March 24, 2005 at 11:45 am


    Such formalized social rituals of power need not be reinstated. They are alive and well. At my house the pre-proposal talk between potential son-in-law and my Dad can only be described as a formal rite. The meeting must be pre-arranged and carefully prepared for by both parties. Although I don’t know *exactly* what transpires in these secret conversations, I do know that my Dad asks about the poor boy’s worthiness and financial resources. There is definitely an exchange about the daughter in question with an expectation by my Dad that the suitor give the right reasons for why he wishes to wed her. Like Cooper, my Dad thinks he has a responsibility to inform the would-be groom of any character flaws he may have missed. He also spends a lot of time talking about the meaning of marriage. Although I’m strongly against these negotiations (that seem more like property exchange than anything else), my Dad counts these conversations as among the most spiritual experiences of his life.

    Having said that, like Nate, most of my siblings’ spouses practically lived with our family for a while. These marriages have been thoroughly family events where we all sortof decided together who fits best in our family. Now that we’re all spread out, that will be hard to replicate for the younger siblings, but the point here is that none of my siblings have married people my parents (even slightly) disapproved of. The idea of two individuals coming together independently of family and community may be the norm in the US, but it is not the norm in our household.

  17. March 24, 2005 at 11:51 am


    Indeed, we did barter in cows when I discussed marrying my wife with my father in law.

  18. March 24, 2005 at 11:52 am

    Oops- Elisabeth… sorry.

    That’s what happens when you are only a 1/2 cow person- you tend to forget how to spell names.

  19. Rosalynde Welch
    March 24, 2005 at 12:04 pm

    Nate, I was qualifying the argument: my claim was that social rituals are good for those in power, and not good for most of those out of power. The qualification was that social rituals were good for a few of those out of power, and that those few have suffered since social rituals have been (partially) relaxed. The conclusion was that re-formalizing power relationships in ritual is still not a good idea, even though it might benefit a few, because the net effect would be negative.

    (Incidentally, I am not suggesting that when the ritualized recognition of power relationships disappears, then all hierarchical relationships disappear: power can persist apart from its social performance. But, it seems to me, hierarchies become more vulnerable without their supporting social rituals.)

    And doesn’t your example support my argument? The social ritual, as it developed (that is, calling black men and women “boy” and “girl”), was precisely a rehearsal of power. Of course, we could revise any number of social rituals with the hope that by doing so the real power relationships will change, and perhaps we should. But that is not how social rituals have generally worked.

  20. March 24, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    I didn’t plan on asking her father for Gigi’s hand, but after Gigi consulted with her older sister Grace, she advised me to get his approval. So one sunny afternnon in Florida I broached the subject with him and was promply cut me off. I recall him waiving his hand–out of brusqueness, or because his English is poor and my Chinese worse, I don’t know.

    It turned out that he wanted to discuss it–but not informally and not in the study between men. In short order I found myself sitting at a table with Gigi, her brother, two sisters and both her parents. Grace acted as translator. It reminds me of nothing so much now as a conference room full of lawyers.

    The meeting was close to two hours. There were some memorable missteps; when asked why I wanted to marry Gigi I began by explaining that I had dated a lot of women. I repeated the point for emphasis. Gigi glared at me and I shut up. After the fact I learned Grace had tactfully edited my comment. I decided to adopt a less loquacious profile.

    There were the usual questions about how I would support my family. I thought the fact that we had met in law school made it sort of obvious, but let the family know I wasn’t planning on loafing about after graduation. He asked about my religion–I assured him I was interested in only one wife and everything the guy in the bar had told him was false. Did I give away 10% of my money? Well . . . that was true. Didn’t I have debts from law school? Yes. Did I know that he paid for all of Gigi’s school? Yes. Consultation among the family members in Taiwanese. I spoke up telling him I didn’t expect him to pay for her after we were married. More consultation.

    After about an hour came the verdict–we could get married. I didn’t remember asking if we could get married–rather I was seeking only her father’s blessing, but it seemed a moot point. Then the penny dropped. We could get married, but only after graduation. 18 months. To my Mormon mind, accustomed to marriage after only a few months courtship, it seemed an impossible distance, besides, we had dated for close to a year.

    In my best lawerly fashion I explained that we had decided to get married in a few months. Gigi agreed. More consultation–this time in Mandarin, a definite sign that talks were deteriorating. Gigi, being the youngest knew only Taiwanese. But then hope–Gigi’s mom was speaking more. I knew she thought we should wait, but she liked me and Gigi is her favorite. Gigi’s father began speaking again: we could get married, but we should wait until the end of our 2L year . . . and her family would be glad to pay for the wedding. Pay for the wedding? I hadn’t even thought about it? What was there to pay for–the cultural hall at the ward building was free. Still, it seemed like a good compromise. We agreed. Gigi’s father began speaking again and my heart sank. Grace began translating: “I’ll pay for the rest of Gigi’s school too.”

  21. A. Greenwood
    March 24, 2005 at 12:18 pm

    You can complain about the actual content of some rituals, but you go too far (way too far) when you welcome the doing away of ritual altogether as the solution. Rituals and traditions are to be reformed and reformulated, not swept away. Because, a world without ritual is largely a world without significance or ways of relating. I see ritual as very much akin to language in this regard.

    When I wanted to marry Sara, I went and asked her parents for permission. I trusted them enough to not invoke their implied right to withhold it. They, in turn, were moved by my trust and accepted me into my family. Because I had asked them for permission, they felt empowered to ask my a series of questions about my life plans, my views on fatherhood and husbanding, and my views on my future relations with them, that had bothered them but they hadn’t exactly been able to bring up before. Because I was asking them for permission, I wasn’t irked that they brought these things up. We talked for three hours.

  22. Elisabeth
    March 24, 2005 at 12:19 pm


    No apologies necessary. I grew up with Johnny Lingo – “Mahana, you ugly” – was one my family’s favorite lines. Johnny Lingo is one of those films you love to hate for all the crudely drawn allegories/analogies, but there are few productions of the Mormon genre that are as frank and charming all at the same time (except maybe our Stake’s production of Saturday’s Warrior).

  23. Rosalynde Welch
    March 24, 2005 at 12:24 pm

    Adam, I hope I made it clear that I don’t disagree with you. In fact, I think it would be nearly impossible to eradicate ritual from social life: ritualized behavior seems to be one way that humans are designed to relate to one another, and new rituals often spring up where old ones whither. I was arguing against reinstating certain kinds of ritual that formalize hierarchical power relationships. But this is neither to insist that all power relationships are dangerous or destructive (indeed, I think they, like ritual, are an inevitable part of human sociality), nor to insist that all social rituals support dangerous or destructive arrangements. Social and religious rituals can be unspeakably sweet, and, perhaps more than any other kind of human behavior, can induce reverence and awe.

  24. March 24, 2005 at 12:40 pm

    Well, if everyone’s telling stories…

    Michele and I were both at BYU when I asked her to marry me. (Actually, we were at her parents’ house for the MLK weekend when I asked, but we were back at school when she answered. More on that story some other time.) I kinda wondered whether I should do this whole “asking permission” thing — I mean, I had never done this before — and Michele said that it was kind of expected in her family.

    Her father… well, he’s kind of an intimidating guy. Nice and all, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he doesn’t wait for you to catch up, and he’s got this little smile that says, “I know more about you than you’d ever wish me to know.” Fortunately, the smile didn’t come into play, as I did this over the phone.

    Yes, the phrase “ask for her hand” did come up. And his response? “Well, I’ll have to talk it over with my wife.”

    So I sat next to the phone for about twenty minutes…

    Eventually, her mother called back and started chatting. After about two minutes, I broke in, “I’m sorry — does this mean ‘yes,’ then?”

    Yeah, it did.

    (Now… when is someone going to start a thread on stories of popping the question?)

  25. Nate Oman
    March 24, 2005 at 12:41 pm

    Rosalynde: My example shows that ritual is more ambigious than you suggest. It may reinforce undesirable hierarchies (something that I alluded to in my original post) but it can also cut against hierarchies, etc. Even your qualified denuciation is, in my opinion, too strong. Another interesting thing is that the absence of ritual makes real iconoclasm increasingly difficult and renders most attempts at iconoclasm banal and somewhat comic. Foucault makes a related point, as I remember, in his essay “We Other Victorians,” arguing that the discourse of sexual liberation requires some sense of sexual propriety against which it must react inorder to remain coherent. In the absence of standards against which to rebell it becomes essentially incoherent. One needs icons in order to have iconoclasm. Yet another reason for ritual.

  26. A. Greenwood
    March 24, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    When it comes to asking the parents for permission, (1) its not a question of reinstating a ritual. The ritual is still there, so its more a question of deciding whether to embrace the tradition or to do your own thing; and (2) there is very little danger that if we start asking the parents again, we will bring back the pater potestas. Do you think its more likely these days that fathers are dominating their daughters lives willfully or that daughters and suitors are doing unwise and uninformed things to their own detriment and to that of the extended family?

    I think your account of what’s going on in asking permission is pretty pallid, but even in your version, it which it does just two things, I’m still not sure why you’re opposed to it. First, you say, it reinforces the power of parents over children. But, in a surprising concession for an English major, you acknowledge that this could be either good or bad. Second, you say it makes the parents feel more responsible for their children and what happens to them as they date, court, and marry. So what about these two makes you want to get rid of asking permission (or blessings)?

  27. A. Greenwood
    March 24, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    Quite, Nate Oman. Ritual is a lot like law in 2 Nephi 2 and elsewhere in the Book of Mormon. it provides the framework against which our actions have meaning.

  28. March 24, 2005 at 1:04 pm

    Perhaps, as is often the case, Joseph Smith is a good example: Ask for her hand, but don’t feel bound by a negative response.

    I asked permission, from the father only. Like Nate, a central difficulty was arranging the situation; my informally grabbed opportunity was a parked car during an errand on which we were alone. There was no negotiation; I’d known their family for a couple of years. The conversation was brief, but included happy tears from my father-in-law. This makes me think it was probably a good thing, and at least not a bad thing, to ask him.

  29. Rosalynde Welch
    March 24, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    Nate: Then perhaps this is where we disagree. Ritual as a general category, including various forms and degrees of behavior, can be associated with a number of social forms. In my view, though, specific social rituals are less flexible, corresponding to specific social arrangements; the rituals can be transmuted, subverted or jettisoned, but any of those actions depends for meaning on the original and persistent social meaning (as you point out). Your point about iconoclasm is a valid one, but hardly an egalitarian one: power structures have always provided ritual occasions for rebellion as a kind of containment mechanism, a release valve for popular energies that are ultimately contained (think about the transcultural Lord of Misrule festivals). Ritual rebellion is distinct from rebellion against ritual, of course–and perhaps those who thrive on rebellion and oppositional activity would do well to leave a few hierarchies standing to spar with! I am not by nature rebellious, though, and would be quite happy to live in a world where no harmful rituals/relationships were left to oppose.

    Adam: It was Nate, not I, who suggested that the ritual had withered and should be reinstated–in fact, that seemed to be the observation that structured the entire post. Thus my analysis of ritual did not respond to the actual exchange between Nate and his father-in-law (which was NOT ritualized, Nate suggested) but between the traditional ritual of exchange between father-in-law and prospective husband, which was what Nate seemed to suggest would have eased the social awkwardness of the moment. For what it’s worth, I’m not opposed to the kind of thing Nate describes between himself and his father-in-law–it seems to me merely a residual nicety, not particularly meaningful, and quite harmless. In fact, my husband had a similar (longer, more personal, but no more substantive) exchange with my father.

  30. Seth Rogers
    March 24, 2005 at 1:28 pm

    I didn’t ask “permission” to marry my wife. It would have implied a lot of things that just didn’t square with reality.

    Instead, I asked for his “blessing.”

    I figured this struck the appropriate balance of showing respect for her parents, acknowledging my fiance’s independence, while at the same time not coming off like a total sissy.

    I like to view myself as a grown man who can make his own life decisions. I’ll admit, it’s kind of a John-Wayne attitude of “I’m a man and I’ll take what belongs to me.” (roll image of clubbing the girl over the head and dragging her off to the cave)

    But I did have my fiance’s approval on the approach (I asked her first).

    In any case, asking Dad’s approval to get married just didn’t seem to send the right message in my mind.

  31. Kevin Barney
    March 24, 2005 at 1:38 pm

    My then fiance and I called our respective parents, who were all back in Illinois, from Provo with the news that we were going to get married. My folks knew Sandy, as she used to attend our ward back home, and they were absolutely thrilled with my choice.

    Her folks, on the other hand, didn’t even know I existed. I was still an undergrad (only a junior), and they later tried to talk Sandy out of it. Looking back on it now, I can’t say that I blame them.

    So I wrote them a long letter, letting them get to know me in some small measure and assuring them of my goals and ambitions for the future.

    Although I have long had a great relationship with my inlaws, as I look back on it in retrospect I am a little embarrassed by my then cavalier attitude towards their feelings in my marrying their daughter. It would have been better if they could have at least met me first. I guess that is the clash of the Provo marriage-a-go-go culture and the rest of society.

  32. Shawn Bailey
    March 24, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    I asked my father-in-law even though I was aware that the ritual had all kinds of baggage (as Nate discussed) that I didn’t buy at all. Although it looked rather spontaneous, it was actually carefully coreographed. I was skiing with Andrea’s family. When the group reached the bottom of the hill, I suggested this time that her dad and I ride the lift together. Andrea joked that it was probably unwise to take up the subject where a fatal fall could so easily be made to look like an accident. I liked that there was a short window of time after which the entire family would be together again at the top of the hill. At this point it had been clear for a long time that Andrea and I were fixing to get hitched. Still, I asked. He said yes, and then told me how lucky I was. He was right. I still appreciate the kind things he said about Andrea that day.

  33. A. Greenwood
    March 24, 2005 at 2:07 pm

    “For what it’s worth, I’m not opposed to the kind of thing Nate describes between himself and his father-in-law–it seems to me merely a residual nicety, not particularly meaningful, and quite harmless.”

    I disagree strongly. When I asked Sara’s parents for permission, it was not at all a meaningless nicety (not that any nicety is really meaningless), precisely because there was at one time a strong cultural tradition of asking permission which has left resonances and, in fact, is still half hanging on to life.

  34. Nate Oman
    March 24, 2005 at 2:14 pm

    Adam: I love it when you get Burkean on us! It is like Russell’s arias on William Jennings Bryan and the cross of gold. I like having friends of such strong convictions, even if it makes me feel rather spineless most of the time.

  35. March 24, 2005 at 2:21 pm

    I think a lot of grief would have been saved in my mom’s marriage to my dad if both of them had talked to each other’s parents. Certainly it wouldn’t have taken three years for my paternal grandmother’s blatant hostility towards my mom to leak out all over the place in dribs and drabs, and my dad might have noticed exactly the way that my maternal grandmother treated the people around her, and would have been forwarned about problems that cropped up later. Of course, the marriage was a profoundly bad idea IMHO, and where would I be now if someone had convinced them to rethink the whole thing? (then again, perhaps part of why it was a bad idea is that no one could get them to rethink any of it)

    I think, if I ever get married, I’m going to tell the guy he has to try and get the approval of of my dad, my mom, my stepdad, my stepmom, and all five of my brothers and sisters — spread across California, Ohio, and Ontario — in person. It’ll be fun, like a road trip! Though my friend and I are already coming up with complete pre-marriage briefing books for each other, under the realization that there is some information that simply must be shared.

  36. Rosalynde Welch
    March 24, 2005 at 2:38 pm

    Adam, I may fail in my repeated attempts to reach some common ground on this with you! But I will still keep trying. (And, like Nate, I love the fact of your strong convictions.)

    “Meaningless” was a poor word choice on my part. Nate’s and my husband’s interactions with their future fathers-in-law certainly had personal, emotional and familial meaning–showing respect to elders, cementing a newly-forged personal relationship, and, as you suggest, suggesting a certain allegiance to a traditional understanding of marriage. But those conversations had no real *structural* meaning: there was no actual transaction, no real possibility that the outcome of the conversation would change the course of events. At least there didn’t seem to be in Nate’s experience, and there wasn’t in my husband’s. Maybe there was in yours.

  37. A. Greenwood
    March 24, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    Maybe we’re talking past each other, Rosalynde Welch. In the hopes of clarity, let me explain why you’re comment #36 is puzzling to me:

    (1) I don’t see that a ritual has to include a real moment of decision to be important. When I was married, for example, there was almost zero chance that I would decide not to go through with it. When I was baptized, I had no doubt that God would accept it. In fact, to the degree that one actually had to secure the parent’s consent before being able to be married, to that degree asking permission would be less a ritual.

    (2) You say that there was no real possibility the course of events would change. By that, I take it you mean that you and Mr. Welch, and the Omans, had already decided to be married and nothing the parents could say would stop that, realistically. But in equating this to ‘no real possibility the course of events would change’ it looks to me like you’re smuggling in some assumptions.
    You’re assuming that marriage is just about the two of you and the extended family is irrelevant; that being the case, it doesn’t matter what your parents say because you’re getting married anyway. But if you view your relationship with inlaws as part of the marriage–which is partly what asking permission acknowledges–then a marriage which the inlaws have approved *is* different than one which they haven’t.

  38. Susan
    March 24, 2005 at 10:57 pm

    Do you remember our cat named “She,” Nate? So maybe Heather is really named after the cat, named after the other SWMBO? She was a pretty tricky cat. She could manage to come in the window of our second floor apartment. She would climb up a tree, leap through the air to the rain spout, climb up the rain spout, and onto the sill.

  39. John Morley
    March 24, 2005 at 11:28 pm

    I’m puzzled as to why we think parental interference in marital decisions is such an outrageous infringement on children’s autonomy. Parents infringe on children’s autonomy all the time. Why is marriage so unique?

    Perhaps some children are too old. But what about otherwise attentive, authoritative parents who abdicate their roles when relatively young (early twenties) children contemplate marriage? Perhaps control is always too strong. But what about strong advice? I’ve seen many parents who are generally willing to provide strong advice on everything from career choices to fashion, but not on marriage. Why? Also, it can’t be the fear of starting off on the wrong foot with a prospective son/daughter-in-law that drives parents into silence, because fences can be mended, but bad marriages can’t easily be broken.

    In my own experience, some strong parental interference can be very helfpul. My sister’s (she’s only 21 now) husband popped the question twice: the first time she turned him down, the second time she accepted. He consulted my parents before both attempts. I honestly think that if my parents had had a little more guts and told him to hold off a few weeks/months the first time he came to them, maybe the first debacle might have been prevented, saving everyone a lot of grief. My wife, when she was 19 or 20, decided to marry a guy who was good to her and responsible, but a horrible match. Her parents talked her out of it, and just a few months later it had already become apparent to my wife how horrible the match was. She insists, though, that if her parents hadn’t said anything, she might have gone through with it. I shudder to think.

  40. Tanya S.
    March 25, 2005 at 10:26 am

    I’m finding this conversation fascinating, and don’t really have anything to add except a question. I think everyone who’s commented with their own experience has actually been involved where the parents were asked for their blessing or permission. Did anyone not do it? Why did you not? I’m single, so I have no example of my own, though when my sister got engaged her fiance did not come beforehand to my parents. My parents (and I) found out when my sister called us on a Saturday morning with her happy news. We met him a couple months later. Now, my sister and her now husband lived in a different state, and they were not the normal young Mormon couple – she was in her late 20s and he in his mid 20s.

    I admit, when we heard their happy news, the ritual of asking for the parents permission crossed my mind, but I dismissed it as something that just wasn’t done anymore. My parents certainly didn’t seem to care. Now I’m finding that I seem to have dismissed it too early.

    So, anyone not do it? Why?

  41. gst
    March 25, 2005 at 10:28 am

    Mark B. (#7): the question of when to remove one’s hat was answered definitively by P.J. O’Rourke: “One should remove one’s hat when entering a room, and leave it off for the rest of one’s life, as nothing looks more stupid than a hat.”

    I don’t buy the objection made by some that asking permission should be avoided because it doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation, that is, you intend to marry with or without permission. So what? Why not cross that bridge when you come to it? Asking permission seems to me a low-cost way of showing respect to your new in-laws.

  42. Nate Oman
    March 25, 2005 at 10:31 am

    Tanya: To my knowledge, none of my brother-in-laws on either side did any pre-engagement permission/blessing asking from parents. I don’t know why but having done it, I felt like an exception rather than the rule, so in a way I am surprised by the responses here.

  43. Nate Oman
    March 25, 2005 at 10:39 am

    Mom: I do indeed remember “She” as well as “Ryder” (our other cat). Ryder in particular was a very cool cat in that he was almost dog like, following you to the store and the like. Of course, he got picked on a lot by “She.”

  44. Kaimi
    March 25, 2005 at 10:46 am

    I can check with my family. I know that I did a little chat, actually very similar to Nate’s, with Mardell’s father prior to asking her to marry me.

    (Of course, we had talked about the possibility of marriage, so I knew that she was more or less in favor of the idea).

    I said: So, I think I’m going to ask Mardell to marry me.
    Him: Well, she’s a big girl. She can make her own decisions.

    (He was actually fine with the marriage himself, but couldn’t really approve of it strongly because Mardell’s mother was opposed at the time. And for quite a bit afterwards, too. Strange situation).

  45. Kaimi
    March 25, 2005 at 10:48 am


    That’s a cute story.

  46. obi-wan
    March 25, 2005 at 11:50 am

    So, anyone not do it? Why?

    I did not ask, but rather politely informed my in-laws that there would be a wedding because 1) my future wife was an adult of sound mind and fully capable of making her own decision, and more importantly 2) I had already inquired and gotten the permission of her Heavenly Father. So her earthly father’s agreement was desireable, but extraneous.

  47. Andrea Wright
    March 25, 2005 at 12:14 pm

    Tanya, my husband, brother-in law, and my 3 married/engaged brothers all did. I assumed it was still the norm. But then again, making assumptions of the norm based on my family is well, problematic. :) Is it a Utah mormon thing?

  48. gst
    March 25, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    Obi-Wan, even given your points 1 and 2, what harm would there be in asking? You pretend to need their permission, they pretend that they could stop it if they wanted to, and you still get married but without your in-laws feeling “extraneous.” It’s a lie, but so what? Social fictions like that make living with other people bearable.

  49. Kaimi
    March 25, 2005 at 12:16 pm

    Yes, Andrea — I’m not sure myself that we can assume that your brothers fall into a normal distribution on the Bell curve . . .

  50. Rosalynde Welch
    March 25, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    Tanya, I did not ask my father-in-law for permission to marry my husband. ;)

  51. March 25, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    We did not ask. We informed. And both sets of parents took the news very well — it never even occurred to me to ask.

    Of course, both of us were over the age of 24 at the time [which doesn’t seem old outside of Mormon circles, but I think that there is a different dynamic once you are past the age of 21-22] and neither of us was dependent on our parents for support and we knew that we would be paying for our own (modest) wedding. All those were probably factors in the way things went.

  52. March 25, 2005 at 2:58 pm

    I did not ask.
    I think my wife probably would have been a little insulted if I had, and I know her father would have laughed in my face. An informal poll of my office-mates reveals that at least half either did not or will not ask. I have to say I agree with Obi-Wan: marriage is a contract between two autonomous adults, not a joining of families.

  53. A. Greenwood
    March 25, 2005 at 4:44 pm


    The whole idea of ‘autonomous adults’ is antithetical to marriage. Why insist on it?

  54. March 25, 2005 at 6:31 pm

    Which part is the “yech” for? The autonomy? Or the adults?
    You may argue that autonomy is antithetical to marriage (I may not agree), but you must certainly agree that is is necessary before marriage.

  55. March 26, 2005 at 12:09 am

    Asking is a form of courtesy and grace, of which the world needs more. It is also practice for future interactions.

    In my case, my father-in-law was very supportive. Interestingly enough, I’m the only one who asked him, the only one who remained married to one of his daughters. I was very blessed to find my wife.

Comments are closed.