12 May 2023

Proposal protocol

It was traditional for the man to ask his future father-in-law’s permission for his daughter’s hand in marriage. This convention is no longer strictly observed.

The convention of asking a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage dates to a period when parents played a role in choosing and approving their future son-in-law, perhaps introducing him to their daughter, facilitating the courtship and ensuring that he was a suitable candidate. Daughters did not enjoy the same social freedoms as sons, and parents were protective of them. 

Society has changed since then. Gender equality and financial and social independence mean that parents no longer control their children’s relationships, and couples increasingly see decisions to move in together, become engaged, marry, or form civil partnerships as their own free choice. While most couples will naturally seek their parents’ endorsement and approval, they no longer require their permission to be together. Some men still choose to follow the formality of asking their future father-in-law for his daughter’s hand in marriage before proposing; the choice to do so is a matter of personal taste and is also based on their understanding of their future in-laws’ expectations. Some couples may choose to seek permission, as a mere formality, after they become engaged. But it is now a matter of choice, not a convention.

Our Victorian ancestors adopted a very different approach. A look at the pages of How to Behave: A Pocket Manual of Etiquette and Guide to Correct Personal Habits, by Samuel Wells (1865) gives us an insight into the proposal question:

We shall make no attempt to prescribe a form for “popping the question”. Each must do it in his own way; but let it be clearly understood and admit no evasion…The lady’s answer should be frank and unequivocal, revealing briefly and modestly her real feelings and consequent decision.

Asking the consent of parents or guardians is always a graceful thing, and ought on no account to be omitted. But what if the consent be refuse? In such a case, submission for a time ought to be manifested. It will commonly be found that all obstacles may be overcome by manly openness and candour, while a little patient waiting will test the stability of the lovers, and in the end only knit them more closely together.”

As this passage makes clear, fathers clearly had the right to refuse permission, and it is advised that the couple should submit to this decision, in the hope that, by demonstrating their commitment and ‘stability’, they will eventually persuade the father that the marriage should go ahead.

How to Propose

A proposal of marriage is an occasion that will be recalled time and time again, so thought and planning are required to make it memorable. The manner in which a proposal is made is dependent upon the couple; the most important thing is that it is suited to the personality and style of the bride-to-be. If the prospective bride has already indicated a preferred style of proposal (eg private, not in front of family) then her suitor must not be swayed by pressure from others to ignore her wishes. It is worth remembering that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to ask for someone’s hand in marriage.

Most suitors choose to ask the question quietly – getting down on one knee may well be appreciated. Some may choose a public proposal. It is important that the proposal is not made on an occasion when it upstages another important event such as the prospective bride’s graduation or a family wedding.

Proposing is no longer solely the role of the man; it is perfectly acceptable for women to propose marriage (and not just on a leap year). Same-sex couples may choose to draw on traditional practices to create their own ritual.

Conventionally, a man proposes with an engagement ring, but many do so without one so that the couple can choose the ring together. If there is no ring for the proposal, the bride-to-be can be given a token to mark the occasion, for example a bracelet or necklace. A ring should be on her finger within a reasonable time – weeks, not months – of her accepting the proposal.


The length of an engagement varies greatly but, on average, will usually last between six and twelve months. An engagement is the time between accepting a proposal and the marriage, rather than just a separate stage or status of the relationship. Less than six months would not allow enough time to organise a wedding comfortably, but anything over twelve months may feel too long. The length of time generally depends on the work commitments of the couple, the scale and size of the wedding, the availability of the wedding venue and the season in which the couple wish to be married.

A couple that is engaged should be regarded, socially, as good as married. They should be invited jointly to parties, weddings and gatherings, even if both are not known to the host. Unlike married couples, engaged couples were conventionally seated next to one another at dinner; this tradition is now quite relaxed.

The parents of both the bride and bridegroom should always be the first to hear of an engagement. News should be conveyed in person wherever possible or, at the very least, by telephone. The bridegroom may already have told his own parents of the bride’s parent about his intentions, so the announcement may not come as a huge surprise.

Telephone calls to the rest of the family, godparents and close friends will follow; a round-robin email or text announcing the news is fine for everyone else. Following that, social media and the grapevine can be relied upon to spread the word, or you may choose more targeted methods.

If opting to spread the news by social media, it is eye-catching and effective to post an engagement photo. If you’re going to have a wedding hashtag (useful for updates, instructions and uploading photographs), don’t use it in the announcement or you may find yourself spammed by planners, caterers and suppliers.

Some couples may still wish to go down the traditional route of placing formal announcements in the newspaper, most usually The Times, Daily Telegraph and, if appropriate, a local newspaper.

It is customary for the announcement to include the names of the betrothed, their parentage and the geographical location of their family home.


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