Prenuptial agreements get a bad rap.
As agreements about what is to be done with assets in the event of divorce, they can conjure up views of rich men who want to protect their assets from gold diggers. Moreover, they can be construed as inherently destructive to the faith and trust one should expect between two people about to tie the knot forever. Like marriage laws, they can also be designed to protect a spouse, often a woman, from being left high and dry after a divorce after spending many years rearing children at home while her husband is out earning a living and keeping his career intact. But while prenups may specify a plan to compensate a woman for her contributions to the family, they once again implicitly lay bare the uncertainty in a relationship by explicitly addressing what is to happen in the event of divorce. This does not seem conducive to the faith and trust one would expect between two people in a relationship who are about to get hitched for a lifetime.
I want to offer a different, more uplifting, perspective. As a man who is just beginning to consider the possibility of being a stay-at-home dad, and as a man who is ready to sign a prenuptial agreement with my fiancée despite possessing many fewer assets, I think prenuptial agreements can also be about faith and trust and love, while also respecting the inevitable challenges of relationships.
I am currently engaged to a woman I have loved longer and more deeply than any woman I have ever known, but there have been times in the course of our relationship when I have seriously doubted whether it was fated to last, when I have doubted if we were meant for each other, and when I have been so sick and tired after an argument that I just had to take a breath and leave her alone, even when she grew desperate for me to reassure her that all was well. Needless to say, we have had our fair share of trials and tribulations. I can certainly understand the sentiment expressed by Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s fiancée Nicole Johnson when she said that there were times she ‘hated him’ during the years they were separated in their on-again, off-again relationship that began in 2007.
I am not sure I have ever hated Kara, but I do not think it is a stretch to believe there have been times when she hated me. Despite all that I have learned about her, it was not long ago when I was at work and received a call from her asking me to come home because she wanted me to be with her when two detectives visited our home to discuss their investigation of a case in which she had been assaulted. She is pregnant with our first child and did not want to be home alone with two strangers. It didn’t help that she had had a traumatic experience with a police officer in her past, so my presence would do much to relieve her anxiety. But I had made plans to spar in kickboxing with a friend, and I was beside myself to think that she needed me to rush home because she was anxious about being alone with police detectives. There were many ways to think about this situation, but mine was: they’re officers of the law; if we can’t trust them, whom can we trust? I understood she had had a traumatic experience with an officer in her past, but the current context was different and, statistically speaking, one bad experience does not translate into many bad experiences. So why did I have to cancel plans and rush home?
Without going into detail, this led to a visceral disagreement in which she called into question whether she can rely on me. I persisted in my view, she in hers, and it got to the point where I could see not only sadness and frustration in her eyes, but anger and resentment. Did she hate me? What could I say? I needed understanding as well because the particular lessons I have drawn from life have led me to cope with anxiety by becoming extremely self-sufficient in the management of my emotions. It does not often occur to me to seek emotional support from someone else when I am confronted with anxieties of my own in life, so it does not always occur to me that someone like my own fiancée needs emotional support for something as seemingly elementary as a visit by two police detectives.
Ultimately, I came to realize that, even if the statistical argument I was making was sound, it was not the right approach to the situation at hand. She needed a show of support. I had to give it. But it’s not as if I ‘learned my lesson.’ I was not suddenly a transformed man who would never be so stubborn again. I could make no promises that I would not make a similar mistake again. Not because I refused to appreciate the point, or because I was being obstinate or obtuse or thickheaded. Rather, it is because the future is uncertain. Every situation is a unique set of facts, moods, and context. A man, or a woman, is only a human being, and there is simply no guarantee that he (or she) will always have the perfect presence of mind to address a situation the right way. What I could say, however, was that I can promise to get it right more often than not, and that our disagreement was one more data point in a lifetime of experiences that would inform my judgment when confronted with similar situations. The point is that I want to be someone she can rely on, not that I always will. Of course, it is not sufficient to say ‘want’ and never do. One must do and not merely talk. Nevertheless, to say ‘always’ is to assume one can be perfect, and I will not make that assumption.
Kara was relieved to finally hear me acknowledge my error. I was finally able to convey not only that I was wrong, but that I understood why I was wrong. But while we had a happy ending, it was certainly not the first time that incidents like these have aroused doubts about the long-term sustainability of our relationship.
In the first year we were together, we moved fast.
It took a month to get a date with her, but things went so well on the first date I kissed her in the bar and we left the bar holding hands. On the second date, we found ourselves sitting on the floor in a book store reading, her head in my lap. There was chemistry, compatibility, and consensus about values, mores, and habits of mind and heart. By the third and fourth dates, I was agreeing to take a trip with her to London and Paris. A month after the first date, just after we returned from our overseas trip, I moved in with her. It was the fall of 2014, and it was all a headlong rush.
But having quickly rushed into each other’s arms, it was also not long before we found ways to get on each other’s nerves and to argue about the most trivial of differences that stem naturally from the quirks and idiosyncrasies that one eventually discovers about a partner in any relationship. I gave too many treats to the dog, and she worried the dog would get sick. She does not like clutter; I do not like to throw things away. She likes to take long showers and I don’t, so when I did not want to relax in the shower with her, she took offense. Examples like these abounded. Sometimes our differences were stickier, as when she began to get familiar with my habit of shutting myself away in my office for a few hours to read. Our differences could escalate to the point where, on more than a few nights, I found myself sleeping on the couch.
When our arguments escalated to the point where I had to sleep on the couch, I was reminded of the fate of all my past relationships, when frictions and discord inexorably signaled the beginning of the end. It was like I was programmed to expect a breakup as inevitable. After all, every one of my previous relationships had come to an end. And while I had once been engaged, I had not gotten married. Why should I think this was going to be any different? It was entirely natural to think that Kara was just another woman in a long line of women I had met, dated, had a relationship with, loved, and broken up with. Twenty years of dating and relationships. Not one had lasted forever. That kind of track record wires the brain in a certain way.
So when blowups occurred from time to time, it did not seem to bode well. I immediately began to feel that same nauseating pessimism that seeped into past relationships when an explosive argument first planted an insidious seed of doubt which gradually spread like a disease through the relationship and brought the honeymoon phase, and eventually the relationship itself, crashing to an unfortunate end.
I had become so used to this script that my heart wouldn’t even sink as Kara raged on about whatever it was we were arguing about. I only felt resigned. I was simply expecting the end to come. It was only a matter of time before our discord evolved into cold shoulders when we arrived home at night, pensive moments on the couch when we were simultaneously consumed with whether it was time to have a ‘talk’ about where things stood, and eventually the desolate hours when I would sit with friends in a bar and speculate on what went wrong.
But alas, we never arrived at that point. The cauldron of emotions that erupted into altercations would begin to boil, but it never boiled over. We were able to cool down, talk, reflect, and reconcile. The pot of emotions simmered, and the stew of our relationship tempered into a healthy, nourishing meal of trust and understanding that was not without our own unique blend of spice, kick, and sumptuous desserts.
Meanwhile, our relationship was maturing, and often thriving.
Our physical chemistry was still excellent. We still enjoyed each other’s company, and we never came terribly close to breaking up. But occasionally we would find ourselves working through kinks in our understanding of each other. There were feuds that reminded me of my failures in past relationships. And I had not yet grasped that quarrels were not always indicators of irreconcilable differences. For Kara, who had been in more long-term relationships than I had, arguments were par for the course in any relationship. She was surprised when she learned that I usually saw them as worst-case scenarios that would cause a breakup.
The breakup almost did occur. We took a trip to see my family in Rhode Island in November of 2015. It began with a fight that had her cursing like a sailor because I was tardy in coming home, which delayed our preparations for getting to the airport on time. I felt great stress as we made our way to the airport, and for the rest of the weekend I was disgruntled and agitated. I said things I shouldn’t have, one of which caused her to kick the glove compartment box as she sat in the passenger seat. When we returned from the trip, on our way home, I began to talk about how I didn’t think it was going to work out between us.
The words seemed to strike her like a thunderstorm.
The panic attack made her silent.
When we got home, she curled up into herself on the couch as she began to absorb the possibility that this was it. It was over.
I slept on the couch that night. Before I dozed off, she came out in great distress, berating me for abandoning her.
I was suddenly struck that she remained loyal to me even in the midst of great tumult. I had already been thinking about what I might be giving up if I really went through with it and left her. Whether it was pity, inertia, fear, love, or a combination of any or all of these, I knew in my heart I couldn’t leave her.
As we talked through what had gone wrong over the weekend, Kara was astonished to learn that I had plunged into such a state of profound discouragement over the weekend. What had been a weekend of existential dismay for me had been for her only an eventful weekend with a few bumps in the road. More generally, I explained how a lifetime of failed relationships had bred a lack of faith in all relationships, including our own. I discovered that Kara did not share my pessimism. This was a revelation. I saw that perhaps the most significant gap in understanding between us was not a difference of compatibility, but a difference of perspective on the ramifications of occasional frictions, and blowups, in a relationship. Despite all the things that brought us together, I had been of the mind that they were outweighed by the altercations that sprung up between us. I saw our disputes in what was otherwise a healthy relationship as something akin to a healthy person being diagnosed with a terminal cancer. For Kara, they were more like the cold or flu: a healthy person recovers from these.
Kara’s faith and loyalty gave me pause to reflect on my inherent skepticism of all relationships, and inspired me to focus on all the things that made us right for each other rather than the things that made us wrong for each other. It was not hard to do once I realized she was not infected with the same debilitating doubt as I was. I was now able to give attention to all that was right with us: not only our similarities in background, interests, and values, but also the fact that, for goodness sake, we had spent the last year not only having our occasional bouts of disagreements, but also talking seriously about marriage and family.
Over the next two months, through the holiday season of Thanksgiving and Christmas, those conversations about marriage and family began to revive in a big way. She had recently received a medical diagnosis which might affect her ability to conceive. I knew she was scared by the possibility that she might not be able to be a mother if she waited too long. I also knew that I was never going to find another woman as beautiful and uniquely compatible with me as she was, who was willing to tolerate all of my flaws and shortcomings, and who was teaching me important lessons about faith and reconciliation and durability in relationships, so I told her it was time to get her pregnant.
Meanwhile, we also talked about marriage.
But whenever she asked me why I wanted to marry her, Kara was not happy with the answers I was giving: (1) it would be good for the baby, (2) it would be good for our finances, or (3) I wanted to claim her as my own and let the world know. Only reason number three came close to being satisfactory, but she was nevertheless dissatisfied that it did not automatically occur to me to say that I wanted to get married because she was my true love. She was, but it had always been a problem for me to say something like this. I was never at ease with the word ‘love.’ It sounded cringe worthy. Too effeminate or lachrymose or mawkish or something. Not masculine. I was one who managed his emotions, rather than one who expressed them. But she did not want to marry me just because there was a kid on the way, or because it was financially beneficial, or because it just seemed like the thing to do. She wanted to know that I wanted to marry the love of my life, and that she was that person. So until I made it clear to her that this was indeed the case, she expressed a reluctance to marry. Actually, that’s not entirely true. She wanted to marry me, but she wanted to hear me give all the right reasons. She wanted me to show my love.
But this was hard not only because it was hard for me to express emotions, but because I had not yet rid myself of an innate pessimism about relationships. It was still the case that when frictions arose between us, I was not sure that trust and understanding and compatibility would successfully build the bridges of reconciliation we would need to cross every time those fissures of misunderstanding opened up between us. Then I made the mistake, not long after she was pregnant, in the midst of a quarrel, of allowing the threat of a separation to once again be unleashed in the course of our exchange. So we were only a few months removed from the low point of our relationship. She was pregnant. We were talking about marriage. And I was still threatening to leave her. I did not actually mean it. It was something I said because I was angry and frustrated. It was said in the heat of the moment.
But by now, I had raised the prospect enough times that, once we did become engaged, she revived a topic she had broached early on in our relationship, when the subject of marriage first came up: signing a prenuptial agreement.
When she first broached the prenup, my reaction was: fine. It didn’t bother me in the least. I was not a gold digger. If we were going to divorce, I knew I would not want to become embroiled in legal conflicts about divisions of assets and that sort of thing. I just wouldn’t want the hassle. I would want to be free. After a lifetime of disappointments in matters of love, it was my takeaway that nothing, or no one, is at fault. Only fate itself. There is no point to being vindictive or embittered.
But now, given my threat to leave after a recent disagreement, it was a legitimate concern. She was just being practical. She didn’t want to have to worry about a divorce prompting marriage laws to send a portion of her assets to a person who was already threatening to leave her. I was not interested in that either. I even said that I would sign away all my assets to her, in addition signing a prenuptial agreement. This upset her, as if I was trying to prove something ridiculous. I was.
It had been an exaggerated gesture meant to emphasize my point. I didn’t care about the money. I didn’t have an interest in fighting over ways and means. I believe in the virtues of market economies, and have nothing against capitalism, but I am not motivated by the pure drive to accumulate wealth. I regard wealth as something that should be a secondary benefit to the pursuit of one’s passion. In the context of a relationship, I wanted to marry because I was in pursuit of a flourishing relationship, not because I wanted to ensure that I would walk away a rich man in the event of a divorce.
Then one day, I found pictures of her with her ex that she had discovered as she was cleaning our home. I saw in these pictures a relationship that had once blossomed, as evidenced by many of the pictures, but had then wilted to its end. It made me suddenly think of all the times we had spent together, and all the things that I loved about her, and all the things that made us right for each other, and how I did not want to see all that recede into a vault of nostalgia to be unlocked from time to time years in the future when I was a divorced dad living a broken, lonely life in some studio apartment in a high rise, trying my best to be happy and to stave off the destructive effects of a broken home on my child. I was much more interested in avoiding a poverty in the heart than a poverty in my bank account.
I was engaged once before I met Kara.
At the time, I thought I was done with the interminable wars of dating and courtship. I thought I had found the person who was pretty enough and personable enough and likeable enough to last a lifetime.
But ‘enough’ turned out to be not good enough. I have been told by wise friends that the minute one settles, he immediately gets less than he settled for. I was settling, and got less than what I settled for. It wasn’t that she was pretty, but rather, she was pretty enough. It wasn’t that she was personable, but rather, personable enough. And it wasn’t that she was likeable, but rather, likeable enough.
Fortunately, my ex-fiancée had the courage to conclude that we were not meant for each other and to call off the engagement. The breakup was amicable though not without the sadness and disappointment of calling off an engagement with the person you considered spending your life with.
When that engagement ended, I found myself feeling relieved, knowing how correct she had been that we were not meant for each other. But I also felt like love had truly passed me by. I simply was not meant for love. It was not in the cards. All my life I had panged for love. Years and years of searching, and not finding, wore me down and broke me. Then I found love, or thought I found it, with my ex-fiancée. And then I lost it. But I had looked upon that engagement as something transactional, as meeting the need for a lasting relationship rather than fulfilling the need. I had reached an age at which it was appropriate to marry, and I had found a woman who many people would consider a keeper. What I was not willing to admit to myself was that she was not for me to keep. She was for someone else to keep.
I could go on tangentially about why I had struggled in love, and why I had been originally desperate for it to work out with my ex-fiancée, but that’s a subject for another article. The upshot is that I was still immature in my understanding of love, so while she and I had doubts about each other as time wore on, I was the less courageous one who was willing to settle, until she took the initiative and gave us the chance to part and go out in search of a partner better suited to each of us.
Two years later, I found Kara. And as the saying goes, when you know, you know.
I used to be perplexed by that saying. How do you really know? And how can you know so instinctively, as if it is all gut and intuition?
You just know. But how?
I believe you know because you know how much you really don’t know. You don’t know the challenges that life will present to you. You can’t predict the Great Recessions, the foreclosures, the new jobs, the children with birth defects, the illnesses, and all the hurdles that life throws in your direction. As John Lennon once said, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. But what you do know when true love strikes is that a partner has been allowed to see inside you, to see you in your most vulnerable moments, to see you when you have admitted your most shameful transgressions, to see you when you have threatened to leave her, to see you when you have told her that maybe you don’t share the same values, and through all of that she remains loyal to you. Not because she is desperate, but because she believes in you, because she is a woman who has freed herself from past relationships that plodded along for years, that had their own complicated histories, and ultimately posed compromises she was not willing to make. But she believes in you, in you alone, with some instinct of insight she never before had, as if she can see a future with no one else. To arrive at a love like this is to learn not only how to love, but to know that love will last even in the most difficult and trying of times. It is to learn about loyalty, about personality, about values, and about mutual understanding. It is to learn to appreciate and respect differences, while cherishing similarities. It is to learn that, at the most fundamental level, there is something there that ‘works,’ that feels like a woman has been designed by Mother Nature herself to be your soul mate almost in the same way that a child unmistakably comes from your own loins.
Nonetheless, faith only takes you so far. You have to believe. You have to love. But you also have to be smart. And that is why I have agreed to sign a prenuptial agreement with her. It is the best way I can show my own faith in the relationship and let her know that I am not in this for the money, or because it is a great financial decision, or simply because it is good for the kid, or any of the other half-ass reasons I had given her when we first began to discuss the prospect of marriage.
It is, rather, because I want to be with her forever.
With a child on the way, it is our plan to ensure our assets will be properly entrusted so they are devoted to the care of our child in the event of the premature death of one or both of us. If her assets are to go anywhere, they should go to our child. Which means that if she dies prematurely, I will manage the assets to ensure that they are used in the best interest of our child. If I die prematurely, she will do the same.
In the meantime, we plan to grow and mature as a family.
This means managing finances under the assumption we remain alive, and together. While much remains to be determined, being a stay-at-home dad may be the way to go. It would allow us to save on child care costs. It would require an adjustment in finances even with the cost savings, but it might also provide for a happier life for me and my fiancée. She gets to continue her current career; I get to pursue a career I have always wanted to pursue (more on that below).
In the nearly two years that we have been together, Kara has sporadically voiced her willingness to be a breadwinner and support a man as a stay-at-home dad. It always arose as a general and brief topic of conversation, not as part of a discussion where we were planning for the future, but as a tangential part of other conversations about related, or entirely different, topics. Now that we have a little one on the way, the possibility of being a stay-at-home dad has occurred to me more than once, and the topic has wormed its way back into our conversations not as a tangential point of curiosity, but as a real option for us to consider in our family planning.
Among the things that I love about Kara, I love her for the support she gives to my ambitions. I am in the process of trying to complete a novel, and a second one after that. She has suggested the possibility of supporting me while I write novels and stay home to raise our child (or children). It is not an unwelcome thought, though it raises a lot of issues to be addressed, such as the challenge of meeting our living expenses on a one-income budget, as well as whether I can adjust to working from home after spending my entire adult life commuting to a job every day (however much I romanticized the prospect of working from home as a professional novelist).
It might prove to be impractical, but it makes me realize what I have found in Kara. Here is a woman who wants to support my writing. It is one of the many reasons I do not ever want to leave Kara, and also why I am considering being a stay-at-home dad—to work on my own projects, while also being more involved in my child’s life, to more equally share the parenting responsibilities with Kara, and to ensure a stable, two parent household for my child in which both mother and father are extensively involved in the child’s life. By stable, I don’t mean that the household will be without the occasional disputes that arise between me and Kara. That is a part of life, and cannot be avoided. What is important is that it happens in the context of love that is cultivated over time and over the full range of emotional space, in which differences are reconciled in a way that harvests the fruits of trust and understanding. That is just as important for a child to see as any of the idyllic photo shoots of a family strolling on a sunflower farm or picking apples in autumn.
But it all depends on me having faith in the durability of our relationship. In the case of a divorce down the road, I would be without the accumulation of assets that would come with having remained in a job with a salary and benefits and pension and 401(k), and also without the experience that would continue to make me as employable as I was. It is with great irony, then, that perhaps now I have to worry about whether she will abandon me, rather than the other way around.
But somehow I am not worried. I am simply thankful that I have met a woman who wants to be at the center of my life. This is no small thing. Sure, we all have family and friends who care about us. Parents, siblings, best friends, and acquaintances who all check in from time to time to see how we are doing and to give us their best wishes. But a soul mate is something else. It is someone who checks in every day. It is someone who is there, day in and day out, to the point, even, of becoming a pain in the butt at times. It is also someone who is there day in and day out, not just because he or she knows you well, but because he or she is integrated in your life in a way that no one else can be, in a way such that our disagreements are as integral to our chemistry as our agreements. This sounds like good enough reason to have faith in Kara and our relationship, so that if we can find a way for me to write and raise our child from home, I may very well do it.
Get me the prenup. I’ll sign.
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