Prenup Is a Four-Letter Word

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Modern Love

On the corner of my lawyer’s desk was a red button marked “No.” It was the type you might find in a display of gag gifts, next to the Whoopee cushions and boxing nun action figures.

My 18-month-old son, Jamie, was on my lap, fussing and squirming with enough force that I was struggling to remain upright. As my lawyer talked about the prenuptial agreement my fiancé’s lawyer had drawn up, that “No” button became my focal point, as if it were warning me not to sign.

I was 42, as was my fiancé, Matt. We had been together for six years. The first two were long-distance, with him in Mountain View, Calif., and me in Portland, Ore., where I was caring for my terminally ill mother. Until, at her urging, I moved south to join Matt. A few years later, we had Jamie.

I wanted to get married then, but Matt held back. Marriage scared him more than having a child together, and a big part of his fear was financial. He did eventually propose, beautifully so, but as we got further in our wedding planning, he said he wanted us to sign a prenup.

I cringed but ultimately agreed, believing it was the only way forward.

He said he would pay all of the lawyers’ fees and make it as easy as possible. It sounded simple. The reality, however — especially having to confess every detail of my sketchy financial history to this lawyer — was nothing short of awful.

On paper, I had approximately $3,500 in savings, no retirement account and a four-year-old Toyota Yaris with a Blue Book value of $8,000, on which I still owed $4,000. Humbled cannot begin to describe how I felt. More like demoralized, demolished and desperate.

My lawyer asked if I had read the document carefully and understood the terms.

I numbly nodded, but I was lying. I hadn’t read it. I didn’t understand the terms. I hated being forced to consider the implications of divorce before I was even married, no matter how much I loved and trusted Matt.

The agreement was essentially California law on paper if we ever left the state, which I understood to mean that if we were to divorce, we would leave the marriage with what we had brought into it and divide the rest. That seemed fair to me. We were in our 40s, not our 20s, and he was the one with assets to lose.

Money, Matt often said, was what people fought about most and what broke up relationships and marriages. True to form, we had been fighting about money since we started dating, our arguments complicated by the vastly different ways we had chosen to live our lives.

After a few post-college years working in marketing, I had quit the corporate world to wait tables and write, living paycheck to paycheck ever since. As a result, when Matt and I met, I had racked up $10,000 in credit card debt and my savings account was empty.

Matt had done the opposite, spending about 15 years at the same company, working in finance, no less. He had saved and saved, amassing an amount that he hadn’t disclosed to anyone.

However, Matt once told me that if he could have done anything with his life, he would have been a rock journalist, à la Lester Bangs. He wasn’t unhappy with his career, but his admission suggested he had traded passion for stability, whereas I had followed my passion at the expense of stability. Why should I be entitled to his money?

My lawyer pulled out a yellow tablet on which he calculated the hypothetical divorce payout from a man I wasn’t yet married to from the sale of a house we didn’t yet own. He worried that a house-sale clause could be unfair to me.

The other lawyers I’d contacted had been overly familiar and aggressive simultaneously, saying, “How exciting! Well, let’s hope the document just goes into a drawer for the next 20 years, right? So, what exactly are your assets?”

I thanked them for their time and $5,000 retainer estimates. I chose this lawyer because he had been comparatively relaxed about the process and its cost. Now, I sort of hated him. As he rattled off figures, Jamie started to cry.

The lawyer looked up, winked and pushed the “No” button, filling his office with mechanized cries: “No way!” “I don’t think so!” “Nope!”

My son laughed, and I managed a grim smile. Then the lawyer continued to point out all the ways I was going to lose should the marriage fail.

I finally stopped him and said, eyes brimming, “Can you just tell me what it all means?”

Our relationship’s albatross — money — felt like it was rotting on a rope around my neck. Over the years, Matt had fixated on its importance to an annoying degree: How much was I saving for my move to California? Were my weekly happy hour outings with girlfriends really necessary? Was I ever going to find a job with benefits and a 401(k)?

I felt controlled, sometimes trapped.

My mother said, “He’s got to let you breathe or he’s going to lose you.”

It became such an issue that we spent a few months in couples therapy when Jamie was an infant. Those sessions helped us understand that his money issues stemmed from family dynamics and a string of former girlfriends who had betrayed him.

Understanding the situation, however, didn’t change how Matt felt about it. He still wanted the prenup. Big numbers in bank accounts made him feel protected from the chaos of the world in a way they didn’t for me. Just as this process felt humiliating for me in a way it didn’t for him. I had told only one friend about it, a stay-at-home mother who, coincidentally, is married to a lawyer.

“People get them all the time,” she said. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

When I left the lawyer’s office that day, I felt miserable and unmoored. As I walked to my Yaris with my still-fussing son balanced on one hip, I called Matt, sobbing. I told him what had happened and how surprisingly worthless it made me feel.

“What a mess,” he said. “I thought it would be simple. I forgot that nothing is simple when you get lawyers involved. Listen, I don’t know what he’s talking about, but let’s just sign it and finish the process. Let’s be done.”

That’s what I wanted, to be done. Done feeling like a failure. Done having lawyers involved in my relationship. Done feeling too much like the wife in “The Joy Luck Club” who has to split everything down the middle with her husband, including the strawberry ice cream, which she doesn’t eat and in fact despises.

I called my lawyer and told him Matt and I were getting married in a week and I wanted to sign the prenup. He advised against, citing the troublesome house-sale clause.

Finally, for several thousand more dollars in fees, he negotiated with Matt’s lawyer to change language that Matt had never asked to be included so that when we sold the house we didn’t yet own, I would get my fair share.

A few days later, Matt and I sat in a conference room and made the agreement official. Jamie was with us, spinning in the boardroom chairs and giggling, moving back and forth between Matt and me. The lawyers were chatty and friendly as we signed, pressed our thumbs into an ink pad and had everything notarized.

It was early, and we hadn’t eaten breakfast. After leaving, we walked to a nearby diner with faded wallpaper and chipped tabletops. We ordered, then sat in silence. Our wedding at the courthouse in San Francisco was 48 hours away.

“I’m so sorry,” Matt said, eyes down. “This was an awful thing I did to you, to us. And for all the fights we’ve had about money, this was a huge waste of it.”

“But there was no other way,” I said. “If I fought you on it, everything would have imploded.”

“I know,” he said.

I was grateful for his apology. But the truth is that we would both be better off from what we’d gone through, even if we didn’t realize it yet. Matt had a signed agreement that made him feel safer, and I didn’t have to fight for an acknowledgment of how unnecessary it was in the first place. What’s more, money no longer felt like a huge “No” in the middle of our relationship.

Two years later, I don’t even know where we put our prenuptial agreement, and I hope I never need to know. One thing is clear: Our fights about money have eased. The prenup was hell, but in the end it was almost as if that document became a repository for our anxieties, holding on to them so we didn’t have to.