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.
Taking this a step further, the Talmud says that Rabbi Josse never called his wife his wife, rather he called her his home. In the same way that the essence of a home is where you can behave naturally, the spouse is the one person with whom you can really be yourself. Indeed, in my opinion, this constitutes the only real reason to marry. Otherwise, why give up so many freedoms? Is having someone to share the rent with or have a child with really worth the sacrifice of independence? Unless, of course, the main benefit is to gain your very humanity, to have someone in your life around whom there is no pretense. At work, everyone judges you by productivity. But when you come home you don't have to do or produce; you can just be yourself.
But a prenuptial agreement implies the very reverse of this. Not only can you not trust enough to be yourself around the person you marry, but worse--it places them as Suspect No. 1! Simply put, if you cannot trust the person you are marrying to know that they are not marrying you for your money, then you should not be marrying him or her. You may argue: "But what if something goes awry? How can we know what the future will hold in the way of resentment or vengeance?" Answer: better to lose your money, and at least have the possibility of finding someone with whom you can be totally natural, then to take those prenup precautions and create an air of skepticism from the get-go. Man and wife are intended to become one flesh. And it is not just "love" that makes this possible. More so than love even, it is the little things that sew the human seams. Joint bank accounts under the same name. A shared last name. And mind you--a woman need not take the man's name; surely a man can take his wife's, or they can combine names. It is the sharing, the exchange, that is important.
Even if later on, the lack of a prenuptial agreement leads to financial hassles or a loss of money, you will at least have tasted the freedom that makes love possible. Those who insist on prenups are more interested in money than in love. They think that since what motivates them is financial, the same must be true for everybody else. We do not ask a spouse to sign an agreement that they will look after us in our old age, or that they will stay with us if we fall sick or lose our looks. A commitment that transcends such superficiality is implied in the vows we take when we marry. We trust these things will come to pass based on the character of the mate we have chosen and not by a document they have signed.
Or perhaps things should change? Now that the prenup is becoming standard, perhaps wives who put their husbands through college should have them sign an agreement that says that they must pay them a percentage of annual income in the event of divorce. And maybe children, upon coming of age, should be asked to sign a piece of paper guaranteeing not to dump their parents in a nursing home, but rather care for them themselves?
A close friend of mine had trouble falling in love. This friend also has a great deal of money. He said to me once, "When I find someone to marry, I will make sure that she signs a prenuptial agreement." I told him, "You are enslaved by your money, my friend. You are saying when I do fall in love, I will make sure I do not fall all the way. I will have a safety net in place." The safety net will not cushion his fall; it will only bind him further. Release the net. Open up for love. Put down the pen. Forget the prenup. And at least try to live happily ever after.