In the 2001 film, Ocean’s 11, George Clooney’s character, Danny Ocean, attempts not only to pull off one of the greatest casino heists in Las Vegas history, but also to win back the heart of his ex-wife, Tess (played by the fabulous Julia Roberts). It just so happens that the casino owner has been romantically involved with Tess, and it’s looking somewhat serious.
Part of Ocean’s scheme involves having Tess observe a conversation between Ocean and the casino owner following the heist. Ocean essentially tells the casino owner he can help find the guys who robbed the casino, and all he would have to do is give up Tess. As Tess watches from a hijacked video feed in another room, the casino owner agrees to Ocean’s proposal. Tess decides that she’s not interested in love that comes with a price tag, even one that is over $100 million, and leaves the relationship immediately. (Cue chants of “You go girl!”)
I’ve yet to come across a person who is excited about pouring themselves wholly and vulnerably into a marriage relationship knowing that their partner values a particular item or dollar amount more than the relationship. It’s just not a recipe for great love. And yet, many Americans who might support Tess’ move still think about their own relationships more like the casino owner.
Obtaining legal counsel
Now, before I say anything further, let me be clear that I am not a legal expert. I’ve got lawyers in my family that I consult for these kinds of things, and hopefully you’ll consult one if this topic has been on your mind. Here is some info from divorcenet.com that provides the basics of prenuptual / premarital agreements in California (where I practice). Laws may be different where you live, but it’s something to get you started. That said, I can speak to the relational issues at stake here with confidence, so buckle up, and lets talk about PRENUPs!
A little history
Unfortunately, the last 50 or so years have seen tremendous rise in the divorce rates in America. The traditional view of marriage as a bond that requires and deserves consistent effort seems to have faded into the mist in the wake of the “me generation.” The American values of dedication and sacrifice pervaded the pre-boomer generations following multiple wars and the great depression. This all seemed to change as America entered a time of prosperity and self-indulgence. Even with the shift toward pursuit of self and temporary turn-ons, people still tend to get married more than not, even if it is later in life for many (after pursuing careers, exciting but temporary relationships, etc.). The irony here is that as we’ve sought to please ourselves above all others, we’ve lost the art of relational sacrifice and end up suffering in our most important relationships.
The prenup as a response to divorce rates
One “solution” many couples turn to in light of this increasing statistical likelihood of divorce is a prenuptual agreement. This agreement can take many forms and can specify a number of ways that things like personal property and financial assets can be divided in the event of marital dissolution. This is all well and good if the couple does not plan to stay together forever. If we’re honest, many marriages these days are less about lifelong commitment to the person, and more about infatuation with a current feeling.
What you think about marriage matters
Probably the most important consideration when it comes to a prenup is your personal philosophy of marriage. What does it mean to get hitched? Originally, it meant tying a horse to a wagon, it’s charge and burden. Later it came to mean getting married. In both cases, the idea is that one thing is tied to another, ideally with the intention that one cannot separate itself from the other without great cause or effort. After all, what good is tying your horse to a wagon if it can stop pulling whenever it hits an uphill road or simply gets tired!? This also rings true with marriage. This is why your marriage cannot simply be about how you feel about your partner right now. It’s a commitment to them even if (when) your feelings change in the future.
When we say “I love you” to someone, it often means “I enjoy the way you make me feel.” When we say, “I can’t imagine my life without you,” it often means, “I hope I always feel this excited, passionate, and happy.” Some friends told me recently about a wedding they attended where the bride and groom eschewed more traditional vows in favor of exchanging compliments. This probably made most of their loved ones in attendance say things like, “Aww, how sweet!” and “You can tell they are so in love with each other!” Unfortunately, saying nice things to build each other up is only a small fraction of the original purpose of a marriage. What you think of the remaining tasks of a spouse are vitally important as you consider a marriage and/or a prenup.
The meaning of marriage
Marriage’s original intent, for better or worse, was to bind people together legally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, and in all other ways, forever (or at least “until death parts us”). Marriage is not supposed to be convenient. In fact, it is most effective at it’s original purposes (creating a secure family environment for the bettering of each spouse, possibly the raising of children, and serving the community) when there is some healthy tension. People don’t grow without experiencing tension!
A good spouse should not always make you happy, but should also challenge you, hone you, and grow you. If you’re looking to always be happy, marriage isn’t for you! But if you’re looking for a partner in life whom you can trust and rely upon, no matter what, then you might think about making a lifelong commitment to someone. Done right, marriage can bring lasting security and joy, which is not about a feeling in any given moment, but a way of experiencing life.
If your philosophy of marriage includes these more traditional ideas and practices, I would encourage you to consider the relational message a prenuptual agreement sends to your future mate. And I say “future mate” because until you have been bound together (hitched) legally in marriage, there’s no security for either of you, and really no reason for your partner to be fully vulnerable with you. No matter how long you’ve been dating or even living together, there’s always the option of leaving, with no notice and possibly few strings attached.
The benefit and costs of a prenup
Nowadays we have “no fault divorce,” an oxymoron if ever I heard one. In light of this reality, a prenuptual agreement is essentially a way to protect yourself from your future spouse. It guarantees that when you split up, you’re not left high and dry. And protect you it will, but that protection comes with a price higher than your attorney’s fees. A prenuptual agreement indicates to your fiancee, in legally binding terms, that there is a price on your love, an amount you are not willing to sacrifice to be fully theirs. It also signals that you are entering the marriage believing that there’s a decent chance it may end in some way other than the death of one or both spouses. Though I’ve never been in the military, I imagine committed marriage to be similar to a soldier squaring himself with the fact that he may die defending his country and the soldier next to him, and still making the choice to run toward the sounds of danger. You may lose in your marriage, and you may lose big, but committing to vulnerably take that risk is the only way to have truly great love.
What if I’m a lot more well-off than my fiancee?
Some will certainly argue that a prenup allows the wealthier spouse to have peace of mind that their partner is not marrying them just to get at their money. To that I simply say, if your marriage is not built on trust and commitment, it’s not likely to be very successful anyway, and yes, you’re probably going to need that prenup. Neither you, nor your partner, will ever feel secure as a husband or wife until you both are willing to give up everything for the other and fully commit. If they maliciously deceive you, that says more about them than you. Does that get your money back? No. But the complete vulnerability it takes to trust your spouse is the very foundation of a healthy marriage.
Can’t I just keep one foot out the door to be safe?
Prenuptual agreements reflect a more modern view of marriage, and frankly, one that has likely contributed to the rise in divorce rates. If you enter the marriage with even one toe out the door, you’re not fully committed to your spouse. Why, then, should they fully commit to you, put your needs first, and make sacrifices for you (the things most of us vowed to do on our wedding day)? (see Hokey Pokey marriages for more on this).
So should I get a prenup or not?
All told, if your philosophy of marriage tells you that marriage is simply a way to legally change your social status to “in a relationship,” or marriage just feels like “the logical next step,” consult your family law attorney and look into possibly getting yourself a prenuptual agreement. The stats say there’s a 50/50 chance you’re going to need it.
If, however, your philosophy of marriage tells you that marriage is a covenant between two people who not only like each other, but also commit to loving the other when they don’t deserve it, are unable or unwilling to give love in return, when life is just hard, when you haven’t talked for a while or haven’t had sex in three months, or one of you is depressed or physically ill and needing endless care and attention, then I urge you to think otherwise. Officially, I need to say you should consult an attorney as this has not only relational but financial/legal ramifications. That said, there is much more at stake with a prenup than just your money. Your vulnerability and secure attachment to your future spouse are on the line as well.
Vows are not something to take lightly. If you don’t really mean them, exchange compliments instead. It’s still nice, and it may more accurately represent the meaning of your ceremony. Are you looking to spend a lifetime getting to know someone as they grow, change, and fail? Or are you just looking to have an expensive party, dress up, and go on a nice vacation? It really is that simple. If you commit to the former, the remaining details shouldn’t matter. As Tess showed us in Ocean’s 11, nobody likes to learn there’s a price on their love, whatever the sacrifice.
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.