Let’s say the thing that no one wants to say out loud: Fifty percent of marriages fail. It’s pretty fair to say the odds aren’t great. Imagine if we were going skydiving and someone said, “There’s a fifty percent chance your parachute won’t open.” Kind of changes things, doesn't it?
As humans, we’re unique in our cognitive ability to conceive of what lies ahead. “Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain,” explains psychologist and author Dr. Martin E. Seligman. Researchers believe we perceive this future through a lens that, while not completely rose-colored, infuses our outlook with a certain optimism. To survive, we need to be sufficiently aware of potential dangers to act accordingly, yet our fixation on loss must be tempered with a belief that things will work out okay— otherwise, what would motivate us to keep on going?
We experience this balance playing out every time we fly. What do you do when you get to your seat on the plane? You fasten your seatbelt and (hopefully!) pay attention to the safety demonstration. You don’t do this because you don’t trust your pilot or the mechanical integrity of the plane, or because you believe that your flight will crash. If that was the case, why would you fly in the first place? We do it because we want to be prepared. Seatbelts and safety demonstrations exist because risk awareness drives us to be prepared. Acknowledging the risks doesn’t dissuade us from doing it; instead, it prompts us to do what we can now to make our future less stressful, because we generally have faith that we’ll be alright.
Considering worst-case scenarios inspires us to proactively prevent them, thereby embracing our future. This is why we do smart things like purchasing insurance for our cars, our homes and belongings, and our bodies, and why insurers reward us for performing regular vehicle maintenance, installing smoke detectors, or quitting smoking. Identifying and mitigating the risks a venture presents maximizes our chance of experiencing its full rewards.
However, when it comes to marriage—one of the biggest financial ventures of our lives—this instinct goes awry. Emotions muddy the water; fear and shame prevent us from rationally confronting the unavoidable risks involved in a lifetime partnership. One reason prenups are so stressful is that they foreground the risk that our marriage might not work, or that our spouse sees us first and foremost as a financial liability and not as the love of their life. This strikes a chord of distress in all of us. Instead of addressing these concerns directly, and in a way that emphasizes prevention of the worst-case scenario rather than damage control after it happens, the process and purpose of a prenup only magnifies them. It taints the way we look at the future by overly weighing what might go wrong instead of focusing on how to make things go right, in the process torpedoing the prospect of financial intimacy—and potentially your marriage. How are you supposed to establish honest, respectful, and positive communication about money in a context that’s fraught with fear and reactivity? The answer is: You can’t.
Yet ignoring the potential consequences of your financial and emotional dynamic changing over time isn’t the answer either. That’s like not having health insurance because you’d rather not think about the bad things that could possibly befall your body. Of course we all hope to live a long life, and of course we all won’t. But it’s worth trying, right? It’s not fun to address the risks posed by your genes and your lifestyle, but doing so as early as possible lets you plan ahead to minimize their impact. It’s important to have a strategy that covers you in the event that something goes wrong. It’s just as important to think about the risks of a marriage contract and building a life together, which can be exacerbated by your choices as an individual and as a couple, from the start so that you can strategize together about minimizing their impact on your partnership. And it’s vital to have a plan that covers you in the event that something changes.
Prenups are problematic, but the principle behind them isn’t. Most relationships begin as emotional ones, and when you’re busy gazing into each other’s eyes and discussing names for your future children, it’s easy to forget that marriage is, in the eyes of the law, a legal contract with significant consequences. Nobody gets married with the intention of splitting up, but we all know people who have had their love story fizzle out in the cold business transaction that is a divorce agreement.
But prenups are designed to protect an individual’s assets if the worst-case scenario—divorce—becomes reality. If you feel protected, or so the reasoning goes, you’ll feel safer and more secure in your union. This reasoning is flawed. The nature of prenups makes them inherently adversarial. The partner who has more to lose in the event of a divorce stands to benefit the most from a prenup, and the self-serving nature of this contract is precisely why prenups are shrouded in controversy and negativity. Couples find it stressful enough to talk about money, let alone who will get more of it if the marriage ends. Pitting partners against each other, and highlighting existing financial inequality and power imbalances in a relationship, doesn’t exactly feel like the beginning of a supportive, mutually beneficial marriage, does it?
This is why we don't believe in traditional prenups. They aren’t conducive to building the foundation of financial intimacy every marriage needs to thrive because they don’t focus on the marriage at all; they focus on protecting individual finances if it fails. And they don’t take into consideration all the ways relationships can evolve. We also know there are benefits to a contract between potential spouses. We call it a Partnership Agreement. – Heather Pulier & Kristina Royce