A custom that's no longer required in our modern culture is still sacred to some love-struck men.
By MARILYN GARDNER
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
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 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 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.
Rebecca (now 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." They were married in October.
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 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."
Usually a dialogue
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 fiancees' 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.
On that evening eight years ago, Yucikas, 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.