Elopement and divorce have a dark and complex historical relationship. Even today, when elopements are generally harmless efforts by couples to avoid expensive formal weddings or attempts by celebrity couples to shield themselves from intrusive press coverage, eloping couples may be at higher risk for divorce and overlook legal protections, such as prenuptial agreements.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, elopement was a serious social and legal problem in England and its American colonies. Marriages were usually arranged by families for economic and religious reasons, with the requirement that couples under age 21 obtain their parents' consent before marrying, so single people who fell in love against their families' wishes frequently eloped. Some American colonies passed laws against secret courtships in an effort to stop elopements. Elopements that survived these obstacles sometimes led to legal disinheritance and job loss.
Some elopements involved criminal conduct, including kidnapping, seduction, murder and adultery. In 1665, the Earl of Rochester abducted a pretty, wealthy heiress, Elizabeth Malet, after she refused to marry him. Malet was rescued and Rochester was sent to prison. Two years later, Malet fell in love with Rochester and married him, but not all elopements ended as well. A woman's family might murder a man in a duel if he seduced her during an elopement and then failed to marry her.
Adulterous couples often eloped and lived together as an informal method of "divorce" from their previous spouses because English law restricted divorce to wealthy individuals who could afford special Parliamentary divorce bills. Some American colonies allowed divorce for limited causes, such as adultery or impotence, but divorce rules and procedures were so restrictive that divorces were difficult to obtain. Adulterous English and American couples who eloped and could not legally divorce were socially ostracized. An adulterous man could be killed in a duel by his female lover's estranged spouse or family members.
English and American divorce law reforms eliminated many past reasons for elopements, though parental opposition and other elopement problems common in 18th century England and America still occur in India and other developing countries where patriarchal family traditions continue to exist. However, elopements do contain elements of risk, even in America. A University of Maryland report, "Qualities of a Healthy Marriage," warns that four-fifths of all couples who elope end up divorcing.
Possible Legal Problems
Couples who elope today are increasingly older and more established professionals than the impulsive young lovers of the past, as the average age of marriage in the U.S. continues to rise, reaching age 27 for men and age 25 for women in 2003. Absent from many of the romantic getaway "elopement packages" offered by the wedding industry are mentions of prenuptial agreements, asset protection trusts and necessary estate planning for wills and advance healthcare directives.
While eloping couples can sign post-nuptial agreements and estate planning documents after the wedding, they may wish to consider obtaining asset protection and estate planning services before they say, "I do."
- Renaissance Magazine: John Donne's Marriage Letters in the Folger Shakespeare Library
- Luminarium: John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)
- The Intimate State: Love-Marriage and the Law in Delhi, Perveez Mody, 2008
- U.S. Bureau of the Census: Estimated Median Age at First Marriage, by Sex --1890 to Presen
- Connotations: Liberty, Corruption and Seduction in the Republican Imagination
- Impulsive Hearts: A Regency Marriage Primer
- Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images