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With This Ring (and This Contract), I Thee Wed

The emotional toll can be even higher when couples try to use their prenups to dictate behavior within the marriage. These “lifestyle clauses,” as they are called, might include a “no-diaper clause” that specifies no children, or “fling fees” for infidelity (Catherine Zeta-Jones is believed to have such a clause with husband Michael Douglas). But the clauses can also get excruciatingly specific: whether the children will be raised vegetarian; how often a couple should have sex (no more than once a month in the case of one septuagenarian couple); whether children will attend Hebrew school (and which one and how often); how much time a couple will spend at their in-laws’ (not more than two consecutive days, in one example); which exercise equipment they should purchase (a treadmill, then a bike); which nights a husband can watch football with his friends; how many hours a spouse will work during the week; how long a husband is expected to work before he retires; and, of course, how much weight a wife can gain (in one case, a fine of $500 per excess pound). These clauses are nearly impossible to enforce in court. “It’s a declaration of expectation,” says divorce attorney Raoul Felder, “something you can point to: ‘You promised me this’ or ‘You broke your promise to me on this.’ People are looking for commitment like that.”

Because signing a prenup is so emotionally fraught, some attorneys are concerned about the trend of younger, first-time fiancés’ parading into their offices. “When you get a prenup, you’re negotiating a divorce before you even get married, which is a very destructive thing to do and isn’t conducive to having a good marriage. It’s an ugly document,” says Eleanor Alter of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman. And most people don’t need them, she says. For a 23-year-old who works at a hedge fund and has $750,000 in assets, no children, and no prior marriages, a prenup is going to cause more trouble than it’s worth. “The only people who really need prenups are successful people in second marriages with children to provide for,” agrees Kenneth Burrows of Bender, Burrows & Rosenthal. Even family money doesn’t necessarily require a contract: “Inherited wealth isn’t marital property in New York,” he says, “so you’re not going to have to share that money with your spouse, so long as it’s in a separate account.”

“People were scandalized when people first bought life insurance, too. It was seen as obscene” says sociologist Dalton Conley. “But today people are called foolish if they don’t.” The same thing will happen with prenups.

Many couples who decide to go through with it aren’t prepared for just how tense and awkward the negotiations can be. Gigi, who met her future husband in a Bronx hospital (he was a doctor, she was a physical therapist), wasn’t bothered when he asked her to sign a prenup before their marriage in 2001. “He had all the money,” she says. “I didn’t want to be greedy.” But the negotiations were so difficult that there were times when she thought about walking away from the table and the relationship. “They tell me if I am not married to him for ten years, then I’m not getting anything. I’m like, ‘Screw you! You should live with him then.’ ”

In the end, Gigi was satisfied with the outcome. The ordeal was unromantic, but she thinks having an unromantic experience before marriage may not be such a bad thing. “When you get to a certain point in life, the reality is that relationships are more than just romance.”

Those who advocate for prenups say that this kind of crucible is good for marriages, and that it’s important to get money issues out in the open early on in a relationship. “The basic philosophy is that if you take the time to get married, you should take the time to discuss what role money will play in your relationship and what your endgame is for divorce,” says Courtney Knowles of the Equality in Marriage Institute. This means discussing questions like, Who will contribute what to the relationship? How will bills be paid? Who will be responsible for what expenses? And what can each party expect if the marriage is dissolved?

Donald Trump says that his prenuptial agreement with Melania Knauss has made his marriage stronger. (Though it is worth noting that he’s been down this road twice before; both Ivana and Marla Maples contested their agreements—and lost, Trump points out.) “It’s a hard, painful, ugly tool,” says Trump. “Believe me, there’s nothing fun about it. But there comes a time when you have to say, ‘Darling, I think you’re magnificent, and I care for you deeply, but if things don’t work out, this is what you’re going to get.’ ”

Plus, the prenup can act like a crystal ball, he says. If a couple can make it through the cold, sobering legal process and still manage to be on speaking terms at the wedding, the marriage has a chance. If not, it was never meant to be.