Asking your partner's parents for his or her hand in marriage makes for a beautiful moment, one that most often delights future in-laws and can get the marriage started off on the right foot. It is, in many families and religions, considered a must, as a matter of respect shown to the parents.
But that's not always the case.
Lizzie Post, co-author of "Emily Post Etiquette, 19th edition" and co-host of the "Awesome Etiquette" podcast, says that asking permission is crucial in some families and religions, but for many couples, that's not the case. "Instead, they're asking the parents to support their marriage," says Post. "In standard American protocol, there is a recognition that permission doesn't need to be given."
Wedding etiquette has evolved to honor the diversity of families and their values, and there's no one-size-fits-all overarching rule. Couples can often feel lost in their dislike of traditional "rules," and now the leaders of etiquette have lifted the veil on making this age-old tradition fit couples' unique needs.
Families are not always headed by a father and mother. "There may be two wives or two husbands or single parents, and so on," says Post. So the old-fashioned question of how to approach the bride's father goes out the window, since there may not be a father to approach, or your partner might not have a close relationship with a father or parent who is present.
So to help get you started on the right foot with the in-laws -- who will be a part of your happily ever after -- here are some answers to the most common questions:
--Whom should I ask? "You know who your partner is closest to," says Post. Discuss together who you should approach. If a father is not in the picture, you might approach the mother, the oldest brother, all the siblings, or -- Post says -- other relatives such as grandparents. Some gather all of the relatives, perhaps for a dinner, to ask as a group for a unified family moment.
--Should I give the parents a heads-up? It's always a good idea to give some advance notice, so that parents can arrange some Champagne on ice to celebrate. Compare that with just ringing their doorbell on a Saturday morning when they're distracted or busy wallpapering, or perhaps on their way out the door. You don't want to blindside them, so asking for a meeting -- especially when they know you're on the verge of getting engaged -- can generate a lot of excitement and joy.
--Should I meet with them without my partner present? That's completely up to you! Some like the old-fashioned approach of meeting alone with the parents, and some like to share the joy with everybody. "I was there when my groom asked my parents," says bride-to-be Shea. "I got to see my parents so happy, and it was much better than having to grill my fiance for details such as 'what did you say? What did they say? How did they react?' afterwards."
--What should I say? Keep it simple, starting with perhaps a list of what you love about your partner and why you'd love to spend the rest of your life with that person. If you're close to the parents, you might state what you admire about their relationship, and you can tell them how much you love the family. Then, a standard that you might choose could be to ask could be "We'd like to ask for your support of our union," suggests Post. Of course, if you know each other well, you might weave in some humor with your formality for a light mood to keep your personality shining through.
--What if the parents say no? It's best not to try to argue your way to your desired response. Post provides a workable and honorable statement: "Even if we're not on the same page, I'm glad we know which page we're each on," which accepts and respects the parent(s) present position, as well as standing securely in your decision to marry and your commitment to each other. You can then move on from there to your engagement, authoring your happily-ever-after together, ideally with your parents or family supporting your union, or perhaps giving them time to observe your commitment to each other over time.
Sharon Naylor is the author of "The Bride's Guide to Freebies" and three dozen additional wedding books.