Wedding season is upon us! In the next few months, scores of couples will say their vows in front of their loved ones, which reminds me of American marriage customs, but especially one in particular.
Here in the U.S., fathers no longer own their daughters and young men wishing to court/hump/marry someone’s daughter are no longer expected to give her father a dowry. “I want to marry Lisa, so I gave her father two chickens, a bull, and a brand new Armani suit, and he gave me his permission to court her and begin marriage plans” is not something we normally hear in modern conversations. We also stopped stoning the victims of epileptic seizures, feared to be demonically possessed, and we also stopped owning slaves. But there’s a seemingly harmless relic from earlier days that modern society likes to lovingly refer to as a “gentlemanly thing to do”.
It’s still common for women to affectionately tell the story of when her fiancé asked her father for her “hand” in marriage. “Sweet”, “honorable”, and “respectful” are just a few of the words people use to describe the longstanding tradition. I’m not a huge fan of traditions. To me, tradition is usually just a word for something our culture holds on to and values for reasons we don’t even know, something that may have unethical or even cruel beginnings, but we all collectively do anyway because we’ve never stopped to think about it. Some cultural traditions are harmless fun, like Halloween, and some family traditions are valued for bonding time, as in a family’s tradition to go skiing every Christmas–and even then, if some of the family members suggest another way to spend the holiday (“How about someplace warmer this year—Disney World?”) and it’s rebuffed because of “tradition”–that’s a fine example of the rigid thinking I’m talking about. What I have a problem with are the traditions that are blindly followed and accepted, even when society has evolved in a way that makes the tradition a reminder of cultural norms that most of us are relieved reside in the past.
In ’07, Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and advice columnist for Huffington Post, had answered a woman’s letter about her son-in-law talking to her husband about marrying their daughter, but keeping it a secret from her. The letter-writer was hurt and the good doc agreed that it was an outdated tradition. But Dr. Saltz got letters like this one from “Steve” in Rhode Island in response to her opinion: “Like it or not, there are still some things that men must do because they are men. Even today, you still have to ask a girl’s father for her hand in marriage. Maybe mom being left out is not what you want to happen, but men still must maintain the dignity of a promise by not telling anyone else, wives included. No one wants to hurt their wife. However, honorable men do not break their word, short of being court-ordered to do so.”
Why, exactly, do so many believe there are “still some things that men must do because they are men”? Do they mean like peeing while standing? And why must a man “still have to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage”? Why? Aren’t you marrying a woman, not a “girl”?
This reader’s response is a healthier attitude: “Lisa” in Texas wrote, “All of these childish people acted with questionable intentions. The groom didn’t ask his intended first? And, he thinks his future mother-in-law is a blabbermouth? How much respect for women does he have? The husband didn’t “trust” his wife? In 2007, we should be over this tradition. If anyone ever asks my husband for one of our daughters’ hands in marriage, the answer will be, “Ask her.” But then again, 10 years ago my husband proposed to me, not my father.”
The continued infantilization of women is part of the problem. Women aren’t girls. Just as most men would cringe if referred to seriously as a “boy” (or even the halfway term “guy”) women should get the same respect, but alas, our culture has conditioned women to be desperate for eternal youth so they happily accept being reduced to a child as a “compliment”.
A major sign one is a fully-fledged, card-carrying adult is letting go of any childish need for parental approval, not allowing stated or implied expectations make decisions that go against one’s own needs and desires. In other words, you’re not mature enough for marriage if you feel it’s important to go to Daddy first. There should be a healthy level of detachment and individuality present before considering lifelong matrimony. If you’re a healthy, happy, mature couple, then that should be clear to the parents and asking for a “blessing” is pointless. And how many men would actually listen to the father if his answer is “No”? I’ve heard many stories in which the boyfriend was shocked to hear his girlfriend’s parents refuse to give their blessings, and the couple got married anyway. Time has turned it into a phony tradition; he’s not really asking for a blessing.
Why doesn’t the wannabe groom have to ask his own parent’s permission to marry his girlfriend? They say that when you marry someone, you’re not just marrying the individual but marrying a family. So if the concern is in making sure you get her family’s approval so that everyone is in harmony, shouldn’t he also make sure his own parents approve of their future daughter-in-law? Of course, we know the answer to these questions: because fathers own their daughters but mothers don’t own their sons.
Plenty of mothers have been known to speak up against their son’s choice for a wife. People usually refer to these mothers as clingy, jealous, or domineering, and say they should “cut the cord” and quit interfering. That may be an accurate assessment, but when it’s the father being clingy, jealous, and overprotective of his daughter we accept it as normal and praise him as a “good father”, and we continue a tradition that still symbolizes that patriarchal control.
This ritual has been unquestioningly accepted for so long that even now, you’ll find men’s sites devoted to the “art of being a man” and a page giving directions on how to ask her Pops for permission to pop the question. The whole thing reminds me of a teenager coming over to meet her parents and asking to date her, while the dad polishes his gun. I say, it’s time men and women be grown-ups about this.
What do you think? Are there other marriage customs you’d be thrilled to see society abandon?