The Emotional Prenup

Since peak wedding season is here, the idea of “contracts” between couples has been in the news, and no story has made more ripples than a recent post in the New York Times “Motherlode” blog: “Diaper Duty, Divided and Decided: Sign Here.”

In her post, New York Times reporter Jan Hoffman asks, “Would a signed agreement designating which parent is in charge of which homework help?” She elaborates on such contracts created by several couples.

In my experience as a couples therapist, dividing chores fairly isn’t the secret to a successful marriage. Fighting fairly is. Couples might choose to hammer out a written agreement — preferably before they walk down the aisle — but preparing for a successful union requires creating guidelines for how the couple will communicate and resolve conflict in their marriage — guidelines that go far beyond stipulating whose turn it is to sort the laundry. I call this an “emotional prenup” and create these agreements with couples who are stepping into a committed relationship.

In an emotional prenup, couples safeguard their emotional capital in much the way that a traditional prenup protects their financial capital. A recent emotional prenup created in my office began:

We contemplate marriage in the near future and wish to establish our respective rights and responsibilities regarding each other’s need to be treated with dignity and respect, to be addressed without contempt, sarcasm and superiority, and to value the emotional and spiritual bond we are now acquiring together as much as we do our individual and mutual wealth.

An emotional prenup is a nonbinding agreement, of course. (It’s written in a therapist’s office, no lawyers involved.) The value lies in the process of creating the agreement, not the piece of paper. It’s an exercise in building trust and setting the tone and intention of a marriage purposefully and lovingly.

Unfortunately, marriages, like children, don’t come with instructions or a code of behavior. The laws governing marriage address mostly property rights, not personal relationships. Yes, it is possible to transfer the idea of “laws” and “rules” into a marriage and try to codify human behavior. But do you really want to bring jurisprudence into your bedroom? I think it’s much easier to operate from a base of positive and respectful emotional intention (which can be a challenge at times), than to try to legislate a spouse’s behavior from without.

So while it’s important for both spouses to pull their weight in running a household, it’s also essential to understand that germy kitchen floors and overflowing trash cans don’t doom a marriage: toxic words do. Even a quick facial expression like rolling your eyes at a partner spells doom for a marriage. It’s a venomous dart that communicates scorn, a surefire marriage wrecker.

So, while penning an agreement for swapping dish duty and diaper duty is commendable, it’s much easier to follow the letter of the law than the spirit of the law — and the “spirit” is what keeps a marriage joyful: coming from a place of appreciation rather than negotiation.

When you’re handing off a screaming toddler with soggy Pampers, make sure you do it with a look of gratitude, and, after the deed is done, seal that deal with a kiss that says, “I couldn’t do this without you.”

More posts about weddings, marriage, and pre-nups:
Are you prepared for a marriage, or for a wedding? (October 28, 2012)
Saying ‘I Do’ to a Prenup (October 1, 2012)
Buddymoons (July 14, 2012)
Cohabitation and a Healthy Marriage: Fact or Fiction? (May 6, 2012)
Does Couples Therapy Work? (March 21, 2012)
Marital Pre Nup (February 8, 2012)
What makes a marriage viable—or not? In a word: trust. (February 6, 2012)