Engagement Rings Are Not Down-Payments; They Are Bail.
So I like to annoy my wife periodically by asking her if I can get the engagement ring back, since I showed up, got married, and an in the midst of serving my sentence. Bless her heart, she thinks it’s funny and that her husband is oh soooo funny and cute.
Thing is, I’m perfectly serious. Now that we are married, and have been for over three years, I believe she should return the engagement ring. I may have to buy her some new piece of jewelry, an eternity band, or some very nice three-stone diamond rings, or some such — but the engagement ring should be returned.
The engagement ring signifies a promise to marry, and it represents a formal agreement to a future marriage. It isn’t a gift I gave her because I like her.
In fact, under American law, the engagement ring is a “conditional gift”. See Meyer v. Mitnick, 625 N.W.2d 136 (Michigan, 2001). The court has gone so far as to recognize that an engagement ring in an inherently conditional gift, which should be returned if the condition is broken, i.e., the engagement is broken off and no marriage results.
As the author of the article linked to above notes, the Restatement on Restitution thinks that engagement rings should be “unconditional gifts” but courts have traditionally held otherwise. Therefore, upon breaking of the engagement, the ring should be returned to the giver, i.e., the man, i.e., me. However, upon consummation, the title to the ring vests in the bride, and the conditionality of the gift fades away. Upon marriage, the ring belongs irrevocably to the woman.
I believe this is exactly backwards, and some very troubling theories about men and women underlie a conditional gift approach to engagement rings.
Essentially, the conditional gift approach makes engagement rings into down payments. The woman is the property being purchased by the man, and the ring is merely a downpayment, the size of which is governed by the value of the property being bought (i.e., the future wife) and the wealth of the buyer (i.e., the future husband). This sexist theory has its roots deep in human history when the family of the husband would make bride price payments to the woman’s family as “compensation” for their daughter.
The engagement ring, then, is merely a part of the bride price, a downpayment on the whole purchase price, designed to entice the prospective bride into entering into and consummating the marriage. The husband becomes the owner, and the wife, chattel property.
In modern times, this is exactly reversed. Every married man, especially those happily married, realizes that he is no master of his fate once he is married. He may have gained a love, gained a companion, a partner, a wife… but he has surely lost his freedom. No more lounging around in your boxer shorts on a Sunday morning with a six-pack and football on TV — not if you have a healthy and happy marriage. No sir — you’re doing some chore around the house, or taking care of the Honey Do list so that you might earn the reprieve of catching the Jets vs. Patriots on TV. This is no ownership of the woman, but a jail term (hopefully under a very kind and very generous warden, but still, it is what it is).
I propose, therefore, a new theory of the engagement ring: bail. This is not down-payment but surety given to secure performance. In criminal law, bail secures the appearance of the accused in court. In marriage, bail secures the appearance of the man to get married. He knows, and she knows, and everyone else involved knows, that he is indenturing himself to lifelong servitude — in the name of love, of course, but servitude nonetheless. Some of us might embrace such sweet bondage, and eagerly anticipate it. That doesn’t make the loss of freedom and independence any less real.
Therefore, engagement rings, a promise to marry, should be looked at as surety, as bond to show up to church and to perform, to carry through the marriage. It should be returned not if the engagement is broken — nay, the woman should keep the ring then, as part-compensation for her humiliation, pain and suffering, and any costs she might have incurred such as buying a wedding gown — but if the marriage occurs and holds for some reasonable period of time. I recommend three years.