What would you say about proposing to a girl that is in a relationship with someone?
What would we say? We’d say “Go for it!” Or we might smilingly allude to movies like The Wedding Planner, Made of Honor, and Sweet Home Alabama in all of which the bride ditched the groom just before the wedding, for her true love. But we think we can do better.
You are clearly a straight-forward guy and we hope you don’t mind that our answer will be a mite longer than your question. The bottom line is that we see no moral, ethical, or religious reason not to pop the question. You see, any woman is in only one of two states: single or married. That’s all. There is nothing else. Engaged; in a relationship; seeing someone; got a boyfriend; are all meaningless.
It’s like someone who is interested in buying a certain house and being told by the mailman, “Oh no, you can’t make an offer on that house, someone else is thinking of doing so.” Or perhaps, “Oh no, someone else has taken a photograph of that house” or “Oh no, someone else has already printed personal stationery with that house address.” All irrelevant. Until the seller has accepted and signed an offer from some buyer, anyone is free to make an offer to the seller. What is more, by discouraging you from making perhaps a higher offer, the mailman is doing the seller a major disservice.
We once had personal experience of this non-intuitive reality. At the time we were involved in the administration of our local parochial school which was affiliated with a community umbrella group of private schools. This group proposed a rule that no affiliated school be allowed to offer a teacher from another school more money to entice them to move schools. They saw it as a way to prohibit poaching of teachers. We saw this as an immoral rule. It effectively kept top teachers at a lower salary than they might otherwise merit. It is nearly always moral for one person to make an offer to another that might improve the circumstances of the latter. A teacher, a house seller, and a single woman can all well evaluate their own best interests.
Similarly, the fact that a girl you now realize you want to marry is seeing someone else or is maybe even engaged to someone else is no reason for you not to propose marriage to her. If you and she are best for each other, you are offering her a chance to improve her life.
Of course, life is never that simple. If you are friendly with the man she is dating, you will most likely end that friendship. Even if you are just acquaintances or even if you don’t know one other, you must be aware that someone out there will probably hold a grudge against you. If you are acting thoughtlessly and spontaneously and are not truly ready to commit to this woman, you may be causing her harm as well as damaging your own reputation.
In this discussion, we are assuming that you are not motivated to propose to her because of this timeless truth from ancient Jewish wisdom: most men feel a stronger attraction to a woman already attached to a man than they felt while she was still available. This is one of the factors that drives adultery. It also helps explain why so often the woman divorces her husband only to discover that her paramour is not nearly as interested in marrying her as he was in having an affair with a married woman.
If you’ve known this woman for a while and only now feel driven to marry her once she is in a relationship with someone else, you might try peering into your soul.
We can think of any number of circumstances in which you realize that you messed up by not approaching a woman quickly enough or not recognizing the treasure you had. Fixing that situation does not have to wait. Obviously, if she was already married to someone else that would change everything. You would have no recourse and it would be very wrong to even let her know that you were interested. But, until a marriage has taken place, there is no bond that precludes you stepping forward. We wish you good fortune and do let us know how it works out.
May you and the woman involved make the right decisions,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin