Betrothal is promise that a marriage will take place. In societies in which premarital sexual relations are condoned or in which consensual union is common, betrothal may be unimportant. In other societies, however, betrothal is a formal part of the marriage process. In such cases a change of intention by one of the parties is a serious matter and may be referred to as a breach of promise, a civil transgression subject in some instances to a fine or other penalty
Historically betrothal was a formal contract, blessed or officiated by a religious authority. Betrothal was binding as marriage and a divorce was necessary to terminate a betrothal. Betrothed couples were regarded legally as husband and wife - even before their wedding and physical union. In Jewish weddings the betrothal is now generally part of the Jewish wedding ceremony, and is known as erusin or kiddushin; it is accomplished when the groom gives the bride the ring or another object of at least nominal value.
Typical steps of a betrothal were:
- Usually done by the couple's families with bride and groom having no input.
- This is no longer widely practised, with the exception of a small number of cultural communities (e.g. limited groups of conservatives in Israel, India), and most of these have a requirement that the bride be at least allowed veto power.
- Often one of these is omitted
The exact duration of a betrothal varies according to culture and the participants’ needs and wishes. For adults, it may be anywhere from several hours (when the betrothal is incorporated into the wedding day itself) to a period of several years. A year and a day are common in neo-pagan groups today. In the case of child marriage, betrothal might last from infancy until the age of marriage.
The responsibilities and privileges of betrothal vary. In most cultures, the betrothed couple is expected to spend much time together, learning about each other. In some historical cultures (including colonial North America), the betrothal was essentially a trial marriage, with marriage only being required in cases of conception of a child. In almost all cultures there is a loosening of restrictions against physical contact between partners, even in cultures which would normally otherwise have strong prohibitions against it. The betrothal period was also considered to be a preparatory time, in which the groom would build a house, start a business or otherwise prove his readiness to enter adult society.
In medieval Europe, in canon law, a betrothal could be formed by the exchange of vows in the future tense ("I will take you as my wife/husband," instead of "I take you as my wife/husband"), but sexual intercourse consummated the vows, making a binding marriage rather than a betrothal. Although these betrothals could be concluded with only the vows spoken by the couple, they had legal implications; Richard III of England had his older brother's children declared illegitimate on the grounds their father had been betrothed to another woman when he married their mother.
- Revelation of a prior commitment or marriage,
- Evidence of infidelity,
- Failure to conceive (in 'trial marriage' cultures),
- Failure of either party to meet the financial and property stipulations of the betrothal contract.
Normally a betrothal can also be broken at the behest of either party, though some financial penalty (such as forfeit of the bride price) usually will apply.