Monday, July 28, 2008

Dodging the Bullet, But Getting Hit By the Train

The Common Man was profoundly interested by the story of RoseMary Shell and Wayne Gibbs this past week. She, of course, is the jilted bride who claims to have left a well-paying job and life in Florida to move in with and marry her fiancee in Georgia. When he got cold feet (and announced it by leaving her a note in the bathroom), reportedly after learning about some substantial debt, she sued him and won $150,000 for her pain and suffering.

Now, obviously, this is no kind of man. Money is more important to him than the woman he purportedly was in love with. He didn't have the courage or the decency to tell her what was going on to her face. Instead, he bailed. He refused to face up to his responsibilities and to address the mess that he had created.

But, The Common Man is wondering if, in fact, this guy did the right thing by breaking the engagement. It's not like the marriage was destined for great things anyway. He obviously didn't love her, to be able to leave her so coldly and for such a shallow reason, and she didn't even have a clue that the man she loved was such a weasel. And if the marriage wasn't going to work, it seems to The Common Man that the responsible thing to do was to break the engagement.

To echo a common refrain, marriage seems to be too cheap to come by in the U.S. these days. The high divorce rates seem to indicate that men and women are not taking their obligation (to themselves, to their spouses, and, in many cases, to God) seriously. The don't think through the biggest decision of their lives, and end up marrying someone it turns out they can't live with for the next 5 years, let alone 50. And of course, it doesn't help that a large proportion of prominent marriages fail (next up, John Edwards?), and that those failures are trumpeted so loudly in the mainstream press. Sure, proposing marriage implies a promise, but getting married is making that promise explicit. You will love, honor, and cherish this person for the rest of your life (barring any abuse, most cases of infidelity, and dishonesty from the outset).

Anyway, this strikes close to home for The Common Man because when he first met The Uncommon Wife, back when she was The Uncommon Girlfriend, they were living in totally different parts of this great country. After a year of dating long-distance, The Uncommon Wife decided to leave her home and move closer to her beau. After seven months or so of living in close proximity, The Common Man proposed marriage and they were wed the next year. It has worked out pretty well so far.

But the Gibbs/Shell verdict seems to suggest that The Common Man was obligated to marry The Uncommon Wife once she packed her bags and drove East. And that seems wrong. What if she didn't like to brush her teeth? What if The Common Man didn't like to shave. What if they ended up like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, except that one of them had girl parts? Should The Common Man have been responsible to pay her for her trouble? And what about The Uncommon Wife (and Ms. Shell)'s complicitness in the deal. They were adults at the time and, presumably, made a risk/benefit analysis, and came to the conclusion that following their sweeties was a heck of an idea. The issue seems to come down to whether the proposal of marriage constitutes a promise to get married and live happily ever after. And The Common Man is not sure that, these days, it is or that it should be. After all, just think how miserable these two people would have been if they had actually gotten married.

Anyway, the new poll question is about this issue, and The Common Man invites you to vote and to post your thoughts, about the story, marriage, and/or engagement in the comments below.


Anonymous said...

I am intrigued that you have taken the side of the woman in this story, TCM. Didn't she hide some substantial debt from him? Does this make her a dirty, dirty liar and should he be obligated to marry a dirty, dirty liar?

BillP said...

The message isn't that he was required to marry her; rather, if he promises to marry her and then changes his mind, he's required to compensate her for the losses she took on in reliance on that promise (so the circumstances that led to the union between TCM and TUcW are missing most of the key aspects, i.e. the pre-move explicit promise of marriage and the forfeiture of the high-paying job).
It's just a(n unwritten) contract; you're (almost) always free to breach a contract, you just have to be willing to pay the consequences.
I realize that they asked for damages in part for "pain and suffering," but if bolting fiance appeals and jilted fiancee doesn't get literally laughed out of court, the above is the only plausible explanation.

The Common Man said...

@ anonymous

Not at all, but it's not at all clear (and never will be) that she lied. She claims she told him about the debt in the beginning. He says otherwise, but his credibility should be somewhat in suspect since he indicated he wanted to marry her and changed his mind. That doesn't mean she's not a dirty, dirty liar, however.

Look, There's plenty of blame to go around here. He's pretty clearly a weasel. But, if it's true that she hid her debt from him (and it's not clear that she did), she would need to bear some of the responsibility for the end of the relationship (a responsibility she has, to this point, clearly denied).


Lawyers. Man, there's something wrong with them. So you're saying that a marriage proposal is a de facto unwritten contract? Should all jilted engaged peoples be eligible to receive damages? And how do you distinguish the line between engaged and engaged to be engaged or shackin' up, etc.? Seems like a slippery slope without the documentation of a marriage certificate.

BillP said...

No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that in this particular case, there was a real and explicit contract, not a de facto one. Unwritten contracts are still contracts. He promised marriage, and in reliance on that promise, she undertook great expense and forfeited a large income. If you had an employment contract with a company in Hawaii, and you quit a high-paying job and moved out there only to have that company change its mind, you'd expect compensation for all your expense and lost income. In a way, that's no different.

I don't agree with it, actually, and I think if he appeals it would be thrown out (and probably should be thrown out by the trial judge, but whatever). I'm just pointing out that it's more than just "you said you'd marry her, so you have to," or even "you said you'd marry her and didn't, so you have to pay." (Actually, not so long ago "breach of promise to marry" was a fairly common subject of suit in a lot of states, the idea being you'd impugned her reputation and chastity and caused her great shame and cost her her only chance at a decent livelihood and so on...obviously sexist and horrible.) Rather, it's that he made a promise and she incurred all these costs in reliance on that promise, and so if he's going to break his promise, he should compensate her for all those costs. Again, I don't agree, but there's a lot more to it than you suggest.

The Uncommon Wife said...

If you ask me, mister, you were contracted to marry me on the second day we met when you proposed at Disney Land.

But don't worry, I wouldn't have sued you if you'd broken it off. I would have just broken both your knee caps with a baseball bat. I'm an old-fashioned kind of girl.

I love you.