DISCLAIMER: The information presented is for discussion purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.
“You have made my life and me infinitely better and I want to spend the rest of my time on earth loving, supporting and cherishing you. Will you make me the happiest person in the world by marrying me and signing a prenuptial agreement that specifies all our financial liabilities and asset distributions if we were to divorce?”
This kind of marriage proposal might give a lot of people pause, because when we think about love and marriage, it is often enshrined in a romantic fantasy where each person is living with abandon, risking and sharing everything until “death do us part.” On the other hand, a prenuptial agreement, or prenup, is often seen as a cold and calculating legal instrument because its primary function is to specify how your assets and debt will be handled if the marriage ends. So, the idea of discussing the terms of the dissolution of your marriage before you even start it can seem jarring and cause a lot of problems in relationships. But that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, a prenup has a lot of power to fortify a marriage and enhance a couple’s emotional connection. This article will explore how a prenup can bring you closer together.
What is a Prenuptial Agreement?
Prenups have been around for at least 2000 years. Scholars believe that ancient Egyptians would specify in a ketubah, Hebrew marriage contract, the husband’s financial obligations to his spouse in the event the marriage ended. Modern prenuptial agreements are legal documents that basically spell out what is “yours, mine, and ours” with regards to financial assets, wealth and liability. In its most basic form, it would stipulate that all the money, property, assets (i.e., things of value, such as your great-grandmother’s diamond necklace you inherited) and debt (e.g., credit cards and school loans) you have when you enter the marriage will be yours when you leave the marriage. Additionally, it might specify how you will divide future earnings and manage spousal support in the event of the dissolution of the marriage.
There are a few things that it can’t specify, such as future child custody arrangements, anything illegal, and non-financial arrangements (e.g., division of household chores).
Prenuptial agreements may seem like they are just for the extremely wealthy who want to protect their inheritance rights, but they can be beneficial for many couples. Most states already have laws that stipulate that you retain your premarital financial wealth and liabilities upon divorce; however, the lines between individual and marital financial rights and responsibilities can easily get blurred over the course of the marriage. In other words, most state laws would stipulate that you are entitled to retain the beach house you bought prior to meeting your spouse, but if you added your spouse’s name to the title of the property during the marriage, then it might be considered a marital asset and subject to division upon divorce. Therefore, a prenup can help a couple to clearly specify how they would like to manage the division of their premarital assets and delineate financial liability without having to rely on application of general state laws that might not be satisfactory to both parties.
Prenups are becoming more commonplace among couples. Part of that might be due to the high rates of divorce and remarriages. In those situations, prenups can be seen as an insurance policy or as a way to financially protect any children from previous relationships. Additionally, individuals who are involved with a family business or their own private professional practice may desire a prenup to protect that interest so that it doesn’t become subject to division or control by the other spouse upon divorce.
What are the Common Challenges with a Prenuptial Agreement?
Money is one of the top five causes of relationship distress. Many couples find the topic so stressful that they avoid it at all costs. During the romantic, premarital period, it can seem even more difficult to work through financial issues because the couple may not have the desire, skills or confidence to manage these potentially volatile conversations. Unfortunately, whoever brings up the notion of a prenup is often labeled the “bad partner” or the “cynic;” whereas the other partner often enjoys the position of being the “good partner” or the “romantic.” The prenup proponent is now seen to lack confidence or trust in the marriage and they are often thrust into a role of defending their position and commitment to the marriage. The other partner may be seen as childish or naïve, which can create a perceived parent-child dynamic in the relationship. Left unaddressed or challenged, these perceived roles can create tension in the marriage. In other words, this precedent can create a polarizing effect on the couple where each one is viewed negatively, which makes it even more challenging to effectively come together as a cohesive, harmonious team.
Generally speaking, prenups don’t break up couples, but they can exacerbate vulnerabilities in the relationship that can lead to a break-up. If a couple struggles with communication and conflict management, then there is a high probability they will engage in numerous disagreements with high tensions and hurt feelings that may force a wedge between the couple. Additionally, prenups may provoke feelings of loyalty conflicts. If there are provisions in the prenup for other people outside of the marriage (e.g., family members, children from previous relationships), then it may make the other partner feel insecure or question how much the marriage is being prioritized or protected as compared to these other relationships.
There are two specific situations in which a prenup can be damaging to a relationship. First, if two adversarial lawyers cannot come to an agreement or advise their clients to take an aggressive position, it can tear a relationship apart, especially for those individuals who have given the lawyers all the power in the prenup negotiations. Second, if a prenup is used as a coercive control tool, then it can damage the integrity of the relationship. In this scenario, one partner deliberately dominates or tries to take advantage of the other partner to obtain control through financial means. Examples of coercive control would be drafting the prenup too heavily favoring one person; minimizing the amount of time to review and negotiate the prenup so as to pressure one person to sign prematurely before fully vetting the terms in the contract; or dissuading one partner from obtaining legal representation.
How Can Prenups Strengthen Relationships?
One way prenups can strengthen relationships is it can act as a launching pad into a larger financial discussion that allows the couple to explore their expectations, values, goals, and priorities regarding how money will be earned, saved and spent in the marriage. In essence, the couple will have the opportunity to establish a financial blueprint that is memorialized in the prenuptial agreement. As previously mentioned, many individuals have challenges with discussing monetary issues with their partners. Without the impetus of the prenup, these conversations might be avoided or minimized, which has the potential of creating significant strain in the relationship later.
Another way prenups can strengthen relationships is they have the potential to increase trust and confidence in a relationship. When you get married, you automatically enter into a financial relationship with your spouse that is governed by state laws that will (in most states) apply the basic tenets of a prenup (i.e., you get to keep, both wealth and debt that you had prior to the marriage) in the event of a divorce. Essentially, everyone has a very basic prenuptial agreement provided by state law. However, couples may prefer to create a prenup that they feel better protects their interests, is jointly deemed equitable, and is tailored to the couple’s unique life circumstances. Knowing prior to getting married that your financial rights and liabilities are protected can help decrease feelings of vulnerability and increase confidence that the marriage is less likely to end in a contentious divorce. Additionally, if there is a significant wealth differential, prenups can strengthen relationships by reducing any fears or doubts that money was the primary factor in deciding to get married. Also, it can reduce anxiety about premarital liabilities, especially if one person enters the marriage with a significant amount of debt.
The process of negotiating prenups can strengthen relationships because it can vaccinate the marriage against future potential threats. Learning how to approach and discuss sensitive issues where both partners feel understood and empowered is an invaluable tool in a marriage. Additionally, prenup discussions afford couples multiple opportunities to hone their conflict management skills. The very premise of a prenup can help transition a couple out of fantasy, “happily ever after,” into reality which can help foster protective behaviors in the relationship. If you are openly discussing the possibility that the marriage could end before you even exchange your vows, then you might enter the marriage with a different expectation and commitment to invest into the relationship to ensure its stability versus just believing that “all you need is love” to sustain the relationship.
Finally, prenups can strengthen relationships by providing insight into the couple’s core values and visions of their future together. For example, a provision in a prenup could stipulate that if one partner gives up their lucrative career to care for the children, then they will be compensated for that sacrifice if the marriage ends. This could prompt the couple to have an in-depth discussion about child rearing expectations and values. Prenuptial provisions that discuss allocations of marital funds towards investments and retirement accounts could lead into discussions about the importance and expectations of saving and spending habits within the marriage. Overall, the process of negotiating a prenuptial agreement affords the couple opportunities to enhance their relationship skills while growing a deeper awareness of what is important and valuable to them, which can bring them closer together.
Couples who pass through the rite of negotiating a prenuptial agreement can come out stronger and more emotionally connected. The prenup can alleviate a lot of fears and anxieties; increase confidence about the future outcomes of the relationship; increase communication and conflict management skills; highlight core values and promote important premarital discussions. However, for many couples, this process can be very stressful, and they may need to look for additional resources to help them reach their goals.
If you and your partner are struggling and need support to help you have these prenuptial conversations, then make an appointment with one of our highly trained therapists.
*This article uses traditionally plural pronouns (e.g., “they, them, their, theirs”) as singular pronouns for purposes of gender inclusion and neutrality. We work clients living in FL, GA, NJ, PA, NM and VA.