Love, Actionable

Love and Marriage

Contract law is no stranger to love, and vice-versa. We in the Western world, and most other places, have formalized romance for centuries in various different ways. What was once the union of a couple in love, witnessed by peers, blessed by relatives and ordained by God, is now a stack of paperwork.

That being the case, it’s no surprise that myriad legal and bureaucratic idiosyncrasies have, over the years, crept into the institution of marriage. One of the most important of which, which is also probably the oldest—aside from perhaps religious scripture—is the law of contract.

“Marriage” is the not-so-legal terminology for an “agreement.”

Damages for Cold Feet

MSNBC recently reported on the story of a woman who was awarded $150,000 in damages after her fiancé acquired a pair of cold feet and decided to use them, despite their frigidity, to back out of their wedding plans.

It’s a classic case at contract law:

  • A asks B to marry him,
  • B says yes (we have an agreement);
  • B quits her high-paying job to relocate (we have an “acting on” to her detriment);
  • A changes his mind and backs out of the contract without fulfilling his promise;
  • B is screwed… figuratively, anyway;
  • B seeks damages to compensate her loss and succeeds.

I sat on the fence for my first read of the story.

The romantic in me told me you can’t put a price on love and that the verdict was ridiculous, while my moral side reminded me that this woman was done wrong by someone who needs to think more before he acts regarding such sensitive situations, especially those that require other people to make significant life changes.

But eventually the romantic in me won out, aided, of course, by the irrational jackass in me.

Because let’s face it. Anyone who has ever been in love has also been an irrational jackass.

Love and Law

There are many conflicts in the world of law that pose impossible questions:

  • Can law and morality intertwine without individuals and groups using “morality” to justify anything and everything, legal or not?
  • To what degree can and should familial relationships be governed by the law?
  • Can the law, which is itself a desperate attempt to provide formal solutions to informal problems, address matters of love and friendship?

The common trend in Canada has been to keep the law out of the most personal aspects of relationships, until of course they become formalized by something like marriage.

In the 2003 case of M.(N.) v. A.(A.T.), the plaintiff quit her job and relocated based on a promise made to her by her lover (who eventually kicked her out… snap).

Her action failed because it was missing one key element that was necessary for her promissory estoppel claim to succeed: A legal relationship.


So perhaps it’s a question of the varying degrees of formality. But in the current case, the American court decided that the actual legal relationship wasn’t necessary because there was no marriage.

Love and Rationality (or Lack Thereof)

The heightened degree of irrationality that generally accompanies love and its many manifestations render it almost entirely incompatible with anything rational, and further, legal or formal.

Who among us have not been irrational in the name of love? Should we all be forced to pay for things so human in nature?

I’m not talking about waking up next to a total stranger after a night of drunken debauchery. I’m talking about passion-infused statements and actions that may well lead another person to alter their life just because it “felt right at the time.”

Imagine… Cheap Love

A ruling like this could have unfortunate consequences. I’m not suggesting that we paint the bleakest picture possible of course, which I suppose would entail a judge ordering specific performance on a promise to marry.

Imagine that… you fall in love, like the irrational creature you are, you throw caution to the wind and you act on it. Suddenly reality strikes and you have second thoughts.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, the judge orders you to perform specifically the task you promised you would: Marry him/her, have 2.5 children, buy a dog, build a white picket fence and stay married for a minimum of a certain period of time, all in accordance with national averages.

That would, of course, be the legal equivalent of crying out that the sky is falling, but it’s kind of funny to imagine regardless.

Maybe the law hasn’t yet killed the romantic in me, but can we try not to cheapen love any further by putting a price on it?

About the Author

Thomas Wisdom
Second-year law student at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University (Toronto, Canada).

3 Comments on "Love, Actionable"

  1. Great post.

    But after seeing this video, I think claims of promissory estoppel are probably the least thing on most men’s minds. The commentary makes it even better:

  2. I’m not sure I understand how characterizing something as a “love” relationship somehow immunizes it from a duty of responsible action. Actually, I would argue something like the opposite position: if you love someone, I would say that the “standard of care” in these situations is higher than with strangers or acquaintances. If you ask someone to marry you, you better be damned sure you actually want them to say yes. This isn’t like asking someone to a movie, or even to go in together on buying a car. It’s (partially) like the duty to inform patients that physicians carry: the duty is to inform is proportional to the severity of the possible outcome. If you tell someone you love them, and want to marry them, you’re proposing perhaps the most serious relationship possible between two people (with the exception of the relationship between parents and children, of course).

    The irrationality that manifests itself in people who are in love is of the comic kind, most of the time. They sometimes do crazy things, but those crazy things are supposed to be done in the ultimate furtherance of the loved-one’s interests, or at the very least to express how you feel about them: I sell my car to buy my loved one a pet fruit-bat (it wasn’t a very nice car); I get arrested at the bus depot trying to arrange city buses into her name; I stand outside her window and play “In Your Eyes” really loudly on my ghetto blaster; etc.

    The only redeemable aspect of the defendant’s behaviour in the relevant case is that he was honest before committing them both to a much more serious set of relations. Even so, I think he still has to bear the responsibility for his lack of regard for her welfare.

  3. Hahaha sweet video, Omar.

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