A few years ago, a family member said to me (before meeting the love of his life and his now wife), “If you don’t like the pre-nup’ designed by your state, you’d better make one that fits you and your circumstances.” This was his way of reminding me and his generation that, like it or not, everyone already has a pre-nuptial agreement. Partly as a result of that conversation—and the urging of many other families since then—we’ve added a module on pre-nuptial agreements to the Great Families Curriculum.
Which is why I read with interest Matt Richtel’s NYT piece “Till Death, or Twenty Years, Do Us Part.” Richtel is also a novelist whose fictional work embraces unthinkable concepts, frequently nailing “weak signals from the future.” (Stay tuned for my next blog if you don’t know what weak signals from the future are.) Exploring the topic of marriage contracts, he writes from the shelter of what he calls, “a great marriage that, I’d bet the farm, ends no sooner than hospice.” Nonetheless, ”Marriages,” he tells us, “are more vulnerable than at any time.” Richtel then draws upon a quote by Stephanie Coontz, the research director at the Council on Contemporary Families: “Given how long we live, ‘Till death do us part’ is a much bigger challenge than it used to be.”
In the article, Richtel recounts conversations with expert after expert, each recommending innovation in marriage contracts. Referring to the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes marriage contract, implemented in their recent break-up, Richtel asked Kenneth Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, if it make sense to codify renewable marriage contracts. Altshuler’s response (presumably from the perspective of deep experience) was to say, “There’s still a fantasy of Ozzie and Harriet, and if that’s what we’ve decided we’re striving for, we are failing miserably.” Richtel explains that much of the factors that influence a marriage are changing: “we’re living longer; we live apart from families and are less inclined to religion, both marriage support systems; and technology makes it easier than ever to flirt or cheat and fuels instant gratification.”
Yet, even after talking to numerous experts (he is a thorough reporter), Richtel says, “I found myself surprised and even unnerved by the extent to which some experts I spoke with say there is a need to rethink an institution that so often fails…. I fear that my own marriage would end if I, or, worse yet, my wife gave up the fantasy [that marriage will last a lifetime].”
Mr. Richtel has uncovered some unique ideas and possibilities for 21st-century thinking about marriage and marriage contracts, and his article is well worth the read for everyone affected by the coming together of two people in ways that will reverberate economically and emotionally well beyond the twosome. But his rational reporter self is clearly at odds with his romantic self—and in this, his article succeeds brilliantly in reflecting how hard it is for families to talk about pre-nups.
Happily, one thing we learned in the creation of the new Pre-Nup module for the Great Families curriculum is that what was once an automatic win/lose prospect for the pairing couple doesn’t have to be. Handled thoughtfully, a marriage contract helps the new couple be mindful and intentional about the goals for their union—it is a way to talk as a family about the fantasies and realities the two are embracing. The contract helps families be real, and real is always a better foundation on which to build a union than any 1950s-style TV fantasy.
I’d love to hear about your experiences, good and bad, in the realm of the marriage contract.