What Can We Learn from Break-Ups—and Can We Sue?

The silver lining of romantic break-ups—thanks to a law professor.

Posted Oct 02, 2012

So let’s say Amy does break up with Bill to be with Carlos. Bill won’t take the news well, naturally, even if he accepts that Carlos may make Amy happier than he does. Even if he was sincere when he told Amy she should leave him if she found someone better, nonetheless he hoped that she would always feel Bill was the best for her and that he would always be the one to make her happy. When Amy left, it revealed to him that no, he was not the best for her, at least not anymore. Inevitably, this will lead him to question the relationship, his actions in it, everything he did and said, and everything Amy did or said, looking for clues to explain what happened—especially if he felt everything was going well in the relationship. Even if he does not resent Amy for leaving, even if he does wish her well and hopes she finds happiness with Carlos (or someone else down the line), Bill still feels horrible because of what her leaving says about him.

Would Bill feel differently if Amy had broken up with him not for Carlos, but simply because she was no longer happy in the relationship? Differently, perhaps, but it is hard to say if he’d feel better or worse. On the one hand, Amy is essentially saying that being alone (at least for the time being) is better than being with Bill; if solitude is the baseline, then being with Bill falls below that. It is one thing to come to the realization that she finds another man more attractive and desirable, but another entirely to think that she prefers being alone to being with him (especially if he knows she is not the type of person who enjoys being alone).

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Can we put a positive spin on this for Bill? We can, and oh so surprisingly it comes from another application of contract law. (Technically it’s tort law, but it’s a case dealing with a broken commitment, so it's all good.) In a recent blog post at The Volokh Conspiracy, law professor Eugene Volokh discusses a 2012 South Carolina case, Campbell v. Robinson (S.C. App. 2012), in which a jilted fiancée was awarded damages for “breach of promise to marry.” This decision was based on a 1984 state precedent, Bradley v. Somers (1984), that reads:

Damages for breach of promise to marry are confined to those relating to the position the rejected spouse (Christine) would have held had she married the appellant. She is entitled to recover for the loss of the pecuniary and social advantages of the promised marriage. Also, her mental anguish, humiliation, and injury to health and psyche are elements of damages. In addition, she may recover for losses sustained from expenditures made in preparation of marriage. The jury may consider the monetary value of a marriage which would have given Christine a home.

Volokh finds this anachronistic; he is, however, sympathetic to suing to recover the financial costs involved, such as those of planning a wedding, plane tickets for guests, and so forth.

More generally, he puts a positive spin on the situation—lawyers are, after all, such an optimistic lot! He writes that ending an engagement—or, more generally, a relationship—can be seen as an advance warning that the relationship was headed for rocky waters:

Given that the groom no longer wants to marry, it seems much better to avoid what is likely a doomed marriage than to go through with it and then deal with a likely divorce. Better figure out the incompatibility before the wedding rather than after.

This is how Bill can look at his break-up with Amy: as a signal that the relationship may not have been as solid as he thought. After the pain has subsided, he may come to realize that it was better to find this out early, rather than after they made further commitments (such as marriage or buying a house). As I wrote in an earlier post, he shouldn’t take the failure of the relationship as a personal failure, but instead as a signal that he and Amy were not a good fit.

Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn

Too obvious?

All of these things have the potential to make his next relationship stronger than the one he had with Amy—especially if his next relationship is with a nice contracts professor.

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If I’ve turned you into a contracts geek—don't be embarrassed, I'm sure you're not the only one—here are some books I’d recommend:

Lawrence Cunningham, Contracts in the Real World (a recent book exploring key concepts in contract law using examples from current events and personalities)

Charles Fried, Contract as Promise (the classic work arguing for a duty-based theory of contract, and the subject of a recent conference at Suffolk University Law School)

Randy Barnett, The Oxford Introductions to U.S. Law: Contracts (a recent book that outlines Barnett’s consent theory of contract)

Peter Benson (ed.), The Theory of Contract Law (a collection of philosophical essays on contract)

Thomas Miceli, Economics of the Law (chapters 4 and 5 discuss the economic approach to contract)

Finally, be sure to check out ContractsProf Blog for news and commentary on developments in contract law (and the occasional limerick).

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A categorized list of some of my other PT posts can be found at my personal website here.

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