'May I have your daughter's hand?'
A week before Josh Maggard pulled a diamond-and-sapphire engagement ring from his pocket and, on bended knee, asked Rebecca Shell to marry him, he popped another very important question. He traveled from his home in Findlay, Ohio, to Ms. Shell's parents' farm an hour away with a singular purpose: to ask their permission to marry her.
"Her dad was almost in tears when I asked him," says Mr. Maggard, an assistant store manager for Wal-Mart, recalling that eventful moment at the Shells' kitchen table. "Her mom jokingly said, 'Well, if you want her, you can have her.'"
Explaining that it was important to have their blessing, he adds that the custom shows respect for parents and lays the groundwork for the future.
Mrs. Maggard, media relations coordinator at the University of Toledo, agrees. "It helped them realize, 'This guy is going to be an OK guy.' They greatly appreciated it, and they still talk about it." The couple was married Oct. 19.
In an age of cohabitation, later marriages, and financially independent brides, this prenuptial custom strikes many couples as an anachronism. Even some etiquette books consider it old-fashioned. "Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette" states that "almost no one would suggest that a man ask a father's permission to marry his daughter."
Maybe not. But a surprising number of thoroughly modern couples still preserve the tradition, warming the hearts of etiquette experts like Mary Mitchell.
"I really love the custom," says Ms. Mitchell, author of "Class Acts: How Good Manners Create Good Relationships and Good Relationships Create Good Manners" and other etiquette books. "It speaks to the solemnity and sacredness of the commitment." Going before prospective in-laws and professing, "I would like to be viewed as worthy in your eyes," also makes a person think carefully about marriage, she adds.
The practice has its roots in a time when representatives of both families bartered the terms of a marriage. According to Susan Waggoner, author of "I Do! I Do!," even grooms who could choose their own wives approached the family rather than the prospective bride. Today, remnants of the practice live on in the custom of asking for a daughter's hand.
The tradition still shows up in movies, including "The Runaway Bride," with Julia Roberts, and "Moonstruck," starring Cher, says Joan Allen, a relationship coach in Baltimore.
"This is where we get our ideas and where we learn about romance," she adds. Asking for a daughter's hand also appears in romance novels.
Other couples learn at home. Maggard says his parents emphasized that the right way would be to ask a father's permission.
Yet some observers regard the question as largely a formality, noting that many men are no longer very concerned about the answer.
"It's been about 50 years since Dad held the ultimate veto power," says Lisa Daily, author of "Stop Getting Dumped!" a dating book. "Today, if the father says no and the daughter says yes, the marriage (minus Dad) is likely to go forward."
Rick Mulholland, a marketing executive for Novell wedding bands, finds that the conversation is more likely to be a dialogue than an inquisition. Both of his sisters' husbands discussed their intentions with his parents before officially proposing. Two recently married friends also waited to pop the question until they had had a "heart-to-heart chat" with their fiancées' fathers.
Like Maggard, Bob Yucikas, an artist in New York, posed his big question at a kitchen table, this one in the Skokie, Ill., home where Darcy Spitz had grown up. "That table heard a lot over the years," she says with a laugh.
On that evening eight years ago, Mr. Yucikas, Ms. Spitz, and her parents had just finished dinner. As they talked about Bosnia and other events in the news, Yucikas looked for a segue. Finally, directing his question to both parents, he asked if he could marry their daughter.
"Dad wasn't sure he had heard correctly," recalls Spitz, an artist. "He said, 'Could you say that again?' Bob repeated his request, and both my parents cried very happy tears. Asking like that was a very endearing entry into my family. It was romantic, it was sweet."
Words such as romantic, sweet, and old-fashioned come up repeatedly in conversations with couples who have followed the tradition. Age is irrelevant. Spitz was 40 and Yucikas 50 when they married. The Maggards were just out of college.
Other couples reject the idea of seeking parental approval. John Potter of Maplewood, N.J., and his wife were 26 and living on their own when they married in 1990. "I did not ask for permission first," he says.
Sometimes the scene gets funny. Jane Dieckmann of Kinston, N.C., says that her fiancé, John Hanrahan of Chicago, felt that asking her father was the proper way to propose. Yet he kept putting off the call. On July 26, as the couple stood in a jewelry store choosing an engagement ring, he grabbed his cellphone and walked outside.
"This brought a startled look to the jeweler's face, until I told him he had to ask my dad first," Ms. Dieckmann says. "Then the whole store went 'Awwww.'" She calls it a sweet memory. They will be married next month.
In an age of divorce, seeking permission can get complicated. One womanrecalls that her boyfriend asked both her father and stepfather. In another sign of changing times, Justina Grubor of Takoma Park, Md., proposed to her boyfriend, Dennis Fleming. "I didn't ask his mom first," she says.
Tom Branigan, a public-relations executive in Whitefish Bay, Wis., estimates that only 35 or 40 percent of his friends posed the question to their future in-laws. "That's a shame," he says. "That action says to the family of your bride-to-be, 'I want to be part of this family, and I want to build a relationship.' It also lets them know that it's important to me that you agree that we are a good match."
Mr. Branigan's own prenuptial request remains a "momentous milestone," indelibly etched in memory. He took a ferry from his home in Seattle to nearby Vashon Island, where his wife's family lives. He spent the day with her parents and younger sister, waiting for the right moment to share what was in his heart.
Describing the situation as "not without stress," he notes that he chickened out half a dozen times. Finally, just before he had to catch the ferry home, he recalls saying, "I want you to know how deeply I love your daughter, and I would like to ask for your blessing to ask for her hand in marriage."
As he ended that sentence, her father said brusquely, "No way." Branigan's heart sank. "Then her mother said, 'Oh, Lee, stop it.' She told me, 'He's just kidding. We would love it.' "
Emphasizing the value of close domestic ties, Branigan adds, "At the end of the day, all you have in this life is your family. Hopefully you have a handful of very close friends. But preserving and extending the intimacy that only families can share is more important than it's ever been."