An engagement or betrothal is a promise to marry, and also the period of time between proposal and marriage – which may be lengthy or trivial. During this period, a couple is said to be betrothed, affianced, engaged to be married, or simply engaged. Future brides and grooms may be called the betrothed, a wife-to-be or husband-to-be, fiancée or fiancé, respectively (from the French word fiancer). The duration of the courtship varies vastly.
Long engagements were once common in formal arranged marriages and it was not uncommon for parents betrothing children to arrange such many years before the engaged couple were old enough to marry.
Betrothal (also called espousal) is a formal state of engagement to be married.
Typical steps of a match were the following:
• Negotiation of a match, usually done by the couple’s families with bride and groom having varying levels of input, from no input, to veto power, to a fuller voice in the selection of marriage partner.
o This is not as widely practiced as it was historically, although it is still common in culturally conservative communities in Israel, India, Africa, and Persian Gulf countries, although most of these have a requirement that the bride be at least allowed veto power.
• Negotiation of bride price or dowry
o In most cultures evolved from Europe, the modern practice has reduced bride prices or dowries to the engagement ring accompanying the marriage contract Judaism, while in other cultures (such as those on the Arabian Peninsula), these are still part of negotiating a marriage contract.
• Blessing by the parents and clergy
• Exchange of Vows and Signing of Contracts
o 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.
A betrothal is considered to be a ‘semi-binding’ contract. Normal reasons for invalidation of a betrothal include:
• 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.
Customs for engagement rings vary according to time, place, and culture. An engagement ring has historically been uncommon, and when such a gift was given, it was separate from the wedding ring.
The tradition of giving a ring for marriage engagement originated from Judaism that was originally a golden nose ring (Chayei Sarah 24:22) given by Eliezer of Damascus to Rebecca, with Saadiah Gaon also citing as a possible source of the practice in the phrase in Nehemiah 7:46 be’nei tabbaot (children of the rings). The latter case refers to betrothal (see above) rather than engagement; one of the three ways in which betrothal may be accomplished in Judaism is by the husband giving the bride money or an object of at least nominal value. In fact, it is a long-standing practice within Judaism to contract the betrothal with a ring.
Romantic rings from the time of the Roman Empire sometimes bore clasped hands symbolizing contract from which the later Celtic Claddagh symbol (two hands clasping a heart) may have evolved as a symbol of love and commitment between two people. Romans believed the circle was a bond between the two people who were to be married and signified eternity, but was first practiced on the fourth finger/ring finger by the Romans, who believed this finger to be the beginning of the vena amoris (“vein of love”), the vein that leads to the heart. In cultures with European origin, and many other countries, an engagement ring is worn following the practice of the Romans who “…wore the ring either on the right middle finger or the left ring [4th] finger, from which, according to ancient Egyptian physicians, a nerve led directly to the heart.” The custom in Continental Europe and other countries is to wear it on the right hand. One historical exception arose in monarchical regimes, in which a nobleman entering into morganatic marriage, a marriage in which the person, usually the woman, of lower rank stayed at the same rank instead of rising ranks, would present their left hand to receive the ring, hence the alternative term ‘marriage with the left hand’ (Ger. Ehe zur linken Hand), the offspring of such marriages considered to be disinherited from birth.
The modern Western form of the practice of giving or exchanging engagement rings is traditionally thought to have begun in 1477 when Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, gave Mary of Burgundy a diamond ring as an engagement present.
In other countries like Argentina, men and women each wear a ring similar to wedding bands. They are made of silver (“alianza de plata”) when manifesting an informal “boyfriend-girlfriend” relationship, though this first step might not always happen; howbeit depending on finances, this may be the only ring given at all. The gold band (“anillo de compromiso” or “alianza de oro”) is given to the bride when the commitment is formal and the [optional] diamond ring (“cintillo”) is reserved for the wedding ceremony when the groom gives it to the bride. The gold band that the groom wore during the engagement – or a new one, as some men choose not to wear them during engagement – is then given to the groom by the bride; and the bride receives both the original gold band and the new diamond at the ceremony. The bride’s diamond ring is worn on top of the engagement band at the wedding and thereafter, especially at formal occasions or parties; otherwise the engagement band suffices for daily wear for both parties. At the wedding, the rings are swapped from the right to the left hand. In Brazil, they are always made of gold, and there is no tradition for the engagement ring. Both men and women wear the wedding band on their right hand while engaged, and, after they marry, they shift the rings to their left hands. In Nordic countries such as Finland and Norway, both men and women wear an engagement ring.
In the modern era, some women’s wedding rings are made into two separate pieces. One part is given to her to wear as an engagement ring when she accepts the marriage proposal and the other during the wedding ceremony. When worn together, the two rings look like one piece of jewelry.
Some engagements are announced at an engagement party, traditionally hosted by the bride’s parents. These parties are given in the family’s usual style of entertainment. Traditionally, engagement parties were normal parties at which a surprise announcement of the engagement was made by the father of the bride to his guests. Therefore, it is not a traditional gift-giving occasion since no guests were supposed to be aware of the engagement until after their arrival.
In modern times, engagement parties often celebrate a previously publicized engagement. Whether presents are given at these engagement parties varies from culture to culture.