I knew there would never be a better opportunity. We had a rare moment alone, and marriage had been on my mind for months. Finally I would have a chance to pop the big question — but I wasn’t about to drop down on one knee. This was not a question for Grace, the beautiful young woman I was hoping to marry. No, this was the question before the question. And the answer would come from the 220-pound Irishman sitting across the table from me with a New York Times newspaper stretched out in front of his face.
In a moment I would ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Maybe I could have gotten away with not asking. Some people believe that the whole idea of seeking parental blessing is a little archaic — a ritual akin to marriage arrangement or dowry-giving. A lot of guys I knew viewed their girlfriends’ parents as nothing more than a necessary annoyance. Sure they put in the odd meal with “the folks,” but they had little interest in forming a relationship with them or receiving their guidance. In fact, the first conversation about marriage with their prospective in-laws often came after the proposal, when they announced their plans to get married.
However, for me, getting that stamp of approval was important. I realized that, should Grace and I wed, her parents would be a big part of the equation, both before and after the wedding. Besides, Grace’s father was a big man. He expected me to ask, and I didn’t want to make him angry!
I actually met Grace’s father, Brian, before Grace and I began dating. He was on to me from the start. “That guy likes you,” he told his daughter, pointing a heavy finger in my direction. He was right. I was harboring “more-than-friends” intentions. But just seeing him was almost enough to scare me off. He reminded me of actor Robert De Niro in one of his tough guy roles. It wasn’t the physical resemblance that caught my eye; it was the mannerisms, just the way he carried himself. His facial expressions were the same as the actor’s, right down to the famous squint and frown (à la Taxi Driver‘s “You lookin’ at me? You lookin’ at me?”). Great, I thought, if I’m ever going pursue this girl I’m going to have to deal with De Niro’s doppelganger!
Turned out he wasn’t as bad as I thought. When I picked Grace up for a date, there were no strange tests or scare tactics. He wasn’t brandishing a shotgun at the door. But he was no pushover either. His background was quite different from mine. I was a sheltered pastor’s kid from the Canadian prairies. He had grown up in Ireland, brawling and butchering cows. At 18 he jumped ship for the States where he joined the Marines.
In the living room, his huge hand engulfed mine — then crumpled it like a piece of scrap paper. Later he said that he was fine with me dating his daughter. And he would remain OK, he assured me — as long as I was careful to “mind my P’s and Q’s.” The expression was unfamiliar to me, which of course made it even scarier than it probably was. I interpreted it as a combination of “Behave yourself,” “Watch your back,” and “Don’t mess with my daughter. I’m capable of great violence.”
Grace was still living at home, so I was careful to play by her father’s rules, which meant observing a curfew, spending time with the family and making sure we didn’t spend too much time off by ourselves. Of course my desire to behave myself came out of more than just raw fear of Brian, though that served as a decent motivator as well. I also believed that respecting his wishes was the right way to conduct myself as a Christian man. The Bible is filled with commands like the one found in Proverbs 1:8-9, which exhorts us to “honor your father and mother.” I think that extends to your future in-laws as well. There are even special blessings promised for respecting parents (Exodus 20:12). And there are some great examples of people breaking their backs to impress the folks. Jacob is probably the best example. Talk about a tough father-in-law. He had to work 14 years just to get his Laban’s permission to marry Rachel (Genesis 29).
There are other reasons to honor your girlfriend’s parents. It just makes sense. My advice to any guy in the beginning stages of a relationship is this: Work just as hard to impress your girlfriend’s parents as you do to impress your girlfriend.
The courting period not only sets the tone for your relationship with your partner, it also dictates how you will get along with your partner’s parents for the remainder of your life. And if you think you’re marrying just the girl and not the whole family, ask anyone who has been married for a while; they’ll laugh out loud. Or ask someone whose marriage didn’t pan out. A marriage may survive without the parent’s blessing, but leaving them out can only hurt. According to Divorcemag.com 25 percent of couples that split reported that their in-laws were “somewhat responsible” for their broken marriages. Yeah, it’s a cliché, but it’s true: When you marry someone, you marry the whole family. That can either be a good or very bad thing. Your behavior at the outset goes a long way in determining which it will be.
Well, despite the initial apprehension, Brian and I formed a great relationship, one characterized by friendly competition — I beat him in basketball, he destroyed me in arm wrestling — mutual respect and a lot of good-natured banter.
Still as I sat across the table from him that day, I could feel beads of perspiration form on my brow. Before popping the question I retreated to the restroom and delivered a pep talk into the mirror. When I returned, I blurted it out: “May I have your permission to marry your daughter?”
The New York Times lowered slowly. He shifted awkwardly in his seat. “I knew this was coming,” he said. “And the answer is ‘Yes’.”
Today Brian and I are good buddies, though he still accuses me of “stealing his baby.” Looking back, I’m glad I dedicated the time to get to know him and the rest of the family. Not only do I have the love of my life. I have a whole new family that I count as my closest friends.
Before ascending the platform of the church on my wedding day, Brian once again held out his massive hand. “Well,” he said to me with a grin on his face. “I guess the better man won.”
“He sure did,” I said. “He sure did.”
Of course, I was joking. We were both better men for having met each other. And we had formed a friendship that I know will last a lifetime.
Copyright 2006 Drew Dyck. All rights reserved.