Once Upon a Time, You Could Sue People for Breaking Up With You

a broken heart
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

Our current conception of marriage as a romantic institution founded on love is relatively new. For hundreds, arguably thousands of years (since marriage ceremonies were documented as early as 2350 B.C. in Mesopotamia), marriage existed primarily to establish strategic alliances between families.

Marriage was a practical fixture, usually having a lot to do with money. In many ways, it was a business arrangement.

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that romantic love was associated with marriage at all, and it took hundreds of years after that point for marriage to be associated primarily with romantic love.

Even if you’ve heard this already, the history of how marriage began and its original context, it’s easy in our cultural climate to forget that.

But there are many interesting phenomena that were in play not that long ago that highlight marriage’s former practicality.

For example, there were heart balm laws and breach of promise suits.

Breach of Promise and Heart Balm Suits

From the Middle Ages (conspicuously the time that love started to be first associated with marriage, hmmm…) until the early 1900s, a marital engagement was considered a legal contract. And as such, the engagement was legally binding. Therefore, if a man proposed marriage and then changed his mind, he would effectively be breaching that contract and could be subject to ligation by his jilted fiancee.

Interestingly, there was no such obligation for the female betrothed. She would be allowed to change her mind without penalty and would only be subject to litigation from her ex-fiance if a dowry (money or property an old timey bride’s family traditionally brought into a marriage) had already been exchanged. Still, even under those grounds, it was exceedingly rare that a man could successfully win in a breach of promise suit against his bride-to-be.

In any event, the damages won by the party bringing a breach of promise suit was called a “heart balm.” Typically, damages would be based on the following:

  • What financial benefit the dumped party could have gained from the marriage.
  • Any financial losses they incurred as a direct result of the broken engagement.
  • Injuries due to the broken engagement — including anxiety, depression, or humiliation

That last one’s amazing, really. You could literally sue and be awarded damages for the negative emotional consequences of a broken heart (and the social stigma). Wowza.

So Heart Balms Are a Thing of the Past, Right?

Wild, huh? I know.

Good thing heart balms are a thing of the past, right?

Except… in my research on the subject, I discovered that about half of US states will actually still permit breach of promise lawsuits surrounding marital engagements. Yes, really. In modern times.

For example, this case from 2011-2012 in South Carolina.

That said, the following US States have laws officially on the book abolishing the ability to file breach of promise suits:

  • Alabama
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Indiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • New Hampshire
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia

I guess if you live anywhere else in America, you take your chances. (Although being able to file a suit and being able to win one are different creatures indeed.) And that’s just American law of course.

Anyway, that’s a thing I learned. And now you know it, too.

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Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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