Should we return our wedding presents if we divorce?

March 2, 2014

Question: I was having doubts about my fiancé before our wedding and should have pulled out but I thought it would be less disruptive if we went through with it. However, we agreed to divorce only three months afterwards. Should we return the presents?

Rabbi Naftali Brawer

Naftali Brawer is the CEO of the Spiritual Capital Foundation.

Firstly, let me commend you on doing the right thing. Of course, it would have preferable to have called off the wedding. But given the fact that you realised your mistake, it must have taken a lot of courage to admit it.

Judaism does not demand that one remain in a hollow and unhappy marriage. If a couple cannot work out their differences, they are entitled to find love and fulfilment with other, more suitable partners. While divorce is always tragic, it can also be necessary, which is why it is a feature of Jewish law.

Your question assumes that you are somehow at fault for duping your wedding guests and that you owe them an explanation. This is simply not the case. You are not at fault and you do not owe anyone an explanation.

Wedding gifts are not bestowed on a couple in exchange for a happy and long marriage. They are given because the giver is happy for you and wants to share in your joy. If it transpires that you were in fact unhappy at the time or subsequently became unhappy, that does not retroactively invalidate the gift.

What if a couple stayed together for three years instead of three months, would they have less of a reason to return the gifts? If so, why? Because they somehow “earned” the gifts by remaining together even though they were miserable? The friends who gave you wedding gifts want you to be happy. They are not expecting you to prove yourself worthy of their generosity by remaining in an ill-suited marriage for their sake. And they certainly do not want the gifts returned. I can think of few things as embarrassing as having a wedding gift returned owing to a failed marriage.

It might well be that some of the gifts intended for your new life together will serve as a constant reminder of a period of your life that you would like to forget. If that is the case, I am sure you can find a worthy cause to donate the gifts to. Not because you have to but because you want to. One of the greatest mitzvot is to help a needy bride get married and set up home. This would be an ideal cause. In the merit of helping others may the Almighty bless you, so that you find your true soulmate with whom you can happily spend the rest of your life. p>

Rabbi Jonathan Romain

Jonathan Romain is rabbi at Maidenhead (Reform) Synagogue.

When we think of being risk-averse, we tend to think of financial investments or dangerous sports, but agreeing to marry someone — uniting our lives with theirs and promising to love them for decades ahead — is one of the most impossible-to-predict things we ever do. It is no wonder that so often we either make the wrong decision, or that what was the right choice for many years becomes no longer so due to unforeseen circumstances, be it external events or changes in our own personalities.

Some people will be astonished that you did not call off the wedding in view of your doubts in advance. However, there are many individuals who have genuine last-minute worries but go on to have blissful marriages. A less dramatic option for anyone currently in that situation is to postpone the wedding, without necessarily telling everyone the real reason, so as to give you time to resolve your particular concerns either way.

In fact, it is far more useful to have marriage guidance in advance to pre-empt problems, rather than once they have erupted. The Jewish Marriage Council offers counselling services for individuals or couples, while there is also the Jewish Helpline, a telephone crisis line. Many rabbis will be happy to talk not only about ceremonial details, but the relationship too.

It is also fair to acknowledge that some people with doubts about their forthcoming wedding find that they are so railroaded by the expectation of family and friends, not to mention thoughts of hotel bookings, money already spent and loss of face, that they feel they cannot turn back.

With hindsight, putting the train in reverse rather than having a crash three months later would have been better. It could have happened by confiding in someone supportive and summoning up the courage to extricate yourself with the least pain for your fiancée and embarrassment to yourself. At least you did admit your mistake shortly after, rather than opt to pretend for the rest of your life. Judaism does not approve of marriage being a prison and permits divorce: better an end with pain, than pain without end.

As for the presents, they were given for your marriage, and as it was, in effect, non-existent, it is only right to return them, along with a sensitively written letter explaining the circumstances.

Last updated: 4:45pm, March 2 2014