To ask her parents' permission? It's tricky: some brides find it chauvinistic and condemn it, some prefer it, some demand it. In your case, you should...
Back in the good old days when men were men and the bride couldn’t vote, you would ask for her father’s “permission” as if haggling over cattle.
We’ve changed. We’ve evolved. Western Civilization has surged forward: equal pay, women’s suffrage, the polio vaccine, mobile porn on the iPhone.
Asking the father, however, is one of those baffling traditions that just won’t die, like the NCAAF bowl system or the Electoral College. But it’s tricky: some brides find it chauvinistic and condemn it, some prefer it, some demand it.
To ask or not to ask?
If you want the proposal to be a surprise, obviously, you can't seek her input. So you’ll need to take your cues from the bride’s background. Where’s she from? Is her family traditional or progressive? Rednecks or hippies? For two cartoonish extremes, you can use this handy cheat-sheet:
Red Family Scenario
From: Texas, the South
Guns owned: 3+Religion: Prayer before dinner, church on Sundays
On the TV: O’Reilly Factor, 24, NASCAR
On the radio: Hank Williams, Rush Limbaugh
Your move: Ask. Tradition matters. If you don’t ask then he’ll think you’re as disrespectful as Carlos (the tool who smacks around Connie) from The Godfather. Your relationship with the in-laws will be poisoned from the very start.. So ask, and even if they don’t like you, even if her dad’s a scary bastard with a shotgun, you’ll earn some points by showing backbone.
Blue Family Scenario
From: East Coast, West Coast, basically any coast but the Gulf Coast.
Guns owned: Guns are barbaric; the 2nd Amendment was for the militia only.
Religion: Just a dash
On the TV: The West Wing, Countdown with Keith Olbermann
On the podcasts: NPR
Your move: Your choice. Don’t ask if you don’t feel comfortable. When you scratch your head and think about it, yes, there’s something oddly misogynistic about asking a woman’s father if you can “have her.” You can involve both parents if you like. Progressives will understand if you feel that the bride, not the parents, should have the final say. They’ll also understand if you feel that thevery first person that should know of your intentions is the bride. That said, even the most left-leaning, tree-hugging atheist will understand if you decide to ask; family bonds transcend politics, and fathers and mothers like to be respected.
Gray Family Scenario
If your intended doesn’t fit neatly into a stereotype, this next bit of advice is guaranteed to satisfy the father, satisfy the bride, and satisfy your own spirit of independence. Ready?
Approach her father and mother. Be respectful. But at the key moment, instead of saying “I’d like to ask permission for your daughter’s hand in marriage,” you pluck this rabbit from a hat: you say--with earnestness, with sincerity--that you’re asking for their “blessing.”
Blessing. It’s the perfect word. It’s respectful and inclusive and shows that you recognize their clout…but that your wedding is not contingent on the answer. You hope to have their blessing—but it’s not a deal-breaker.
This sneaky approach has another thing going for it: it happens to be the truth. Even when you’re asking for “permission,” everyone knows it’s a kabuki dance; you don’t really need anyone’s permission, you want their support. Invoking this word is courteous, less anachronistic, and preserves your autonomy.
What to say if the father says “NO.”
He won’t. He can’t. You’ve got him bent over a barrel. Even if he wants to puncture your balls with an ice-pick, he still has to grit his teeth and wish you the best of luck.
But if he truly is a Meet-The-Parents-Deniro-prick who thinks his little princess is still 12 years old, just to be on the safe side, you should prepare a retort. Either of these will work:
“Sir, I respect that you’re looking out for your daughter. Someday when I’m a father, I’m sure I’ll feel the same way. [Pause. Meaningful eye contact. Earnest as shit.] I want you to know that I love your daughter. I will devote the rest of my life to providing for her, loving her, making sure that she’s happy. [Final pause] I respect your opinion, sir, and I will work hard to earn your respect.”
Will he change his mind on the spot? Nope, you’ve got an uphill battle. But he’ll be grudgingly impressed by your maturity, see you in a new light, and it lets you end the conversation gracefully.
Another idea? This one never fails. If he says “no,” you say:
“Tough shit, old man. Pretty soon you’ll be dead, we’ll be married, and I’ll be boffing your little angel. Just kidding…I already am.” He’ll have a good laugh, slap you on the back, and soon you’ll be drinking buddies.
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