Betrothal is a formal state of engagement to be married. Historically betrothal was a formal contract, blessed or officiated by a religious authority. Betrothal is no longer common beyond some Arabic cultures, and both Orthodox and Messianic Jews.

Typical steps of a betrothal were:

  • Selection of the bride
    • usually done by the groom's family with the bride having little or no input
    • this is no longer practiced except in the most conservative cultures, and most of these have a requirement that the bride be allowed at least veto power
  • Negotiation of Bride Price and Dowry
    • in modern practice the bride price has been reduced to the symbolic engagement ring
  • Blessing by Clergy
  • Exchange of Vows and Signing of Contracts
    • often one of these is omitted
  • Celebration

The exact duration of a betrothal varies according to culture and the participants needs and wishes, but may be anywhere from several hours (when the betrothal is incorporated into the wedding day itself) to a period of a year and a day (which is common in neo-pagan groups today).

The responsibilities and privileges of betrothal vary. In most cultures the betrothed couple are 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 a strong prohibition 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.

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.