The Prenup Prison

A prenuptial agreement is a malignancy that feeds on matrimonial happiness. So put down the pen


The New York Times recently carried an intriguing article on the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Newly Engaged." The article reported on a seminar that addressed the issue of raising children in wealthy families. Much of the advice imparted at the seminar was extraordinarily wise. For example, "Parents should show their children, by example, that meaning in life comes from work, education, and concern for others." But when I reached the article's main point, I nearly choked on my Starbucks Frappuccino. Here the focus of the article shifted to marriage, in particular when young wealthy people have intentions to marry one of those "little people" from the plebeian class. In this case, the experts all concluded that when someone of great wealth marries one of "more modest" means, then a prenuptial agreement should be signed.

In a world where the phrase "prenuptial agreement" rolls trippingly off the tongue, I am forced to admit that we are a generation of marriage saboteurs. And sabotage is not a word I use lightly--for in my experience, prenuptial agreements are not only recipes for disaster, but they are self-fulfilling prophecies that presuppose eventual divorce.

A prenuptial agreement is a malignancy that will feed on matrimonial happiness. The prenup says that even while in theory and name I give myself over to you completely, in practice I do no such thing. I continue to imprison myself within the walls of my assets. They don't call it "trappings of wealth" for nothing, you know. I have seen it happen too many times to argue otherwise.

Take the example of Sarah, whose family was worth several hundred million dollars. She went to college and was not allowed to show her wealth in any way--to a great degree it was kept even from her. She knew her father was wealthy, but she had no idea to what degree. During her senior year at Oxford, she fell in love with a good man--a future lawyer whose parents were divorced and who more than anything wanted to succeed in his own marriage. Her parents liked him, and they were very supportive of the engagement. But a few weeks before the wedding, her uncle, the guardian of the family trust, sat him down, explained the magnitude of this family's wealth, and said that he would be expected to sign a prenup. If he did not, the wedding would be called off. If he did sign, the couple would receive a half-million-dollar wedding gift.

The man was in shock. He had known nothing about the money, had loved his fiancée purely and without ulterior motives. He signed it, as he would not be able to marry without it. In the days leading up to the wedding, the couple fought terribly over the implications carried with the agreement, such as an assumption that the marriage would end and that the husband would attempt to take money that wasn't his. After the wedding, Sarah's father gave them a half-million-dollar check and the young man refused it, saying he felt his father-in-law was attempting to buy him off. The couple survived only three years of war between Sarah's husband and her parents, until finally she felt so split that the marriage ended in divorce.

The greatest gift of marriage is having someone with whom you can be totally natural. The Talmud says, "He who does not have a home is not a man." What this means is the following: Whenever we are someone else's guest, or eating in a restaurant, or shopping at D'Agostinos, we cannot truly be ourselves. We are expected to behave in accordance with social mores. We are self-conscious about how others view us. The only time that we are free to be ourselves, to be completely natural, is within the comfort of our own home. We don't have to dress up. Heck--we don't have to wear anything if we don't want to. Hence the Talmudic statement is to be interpreted that whoever does not have a home is not a real person, for he is always contrived, artificial, behaving more for others than for himself.

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