“Choose your life’s mate carefully. From this one decision will come 90 percent of all your happiness or misery.”
H. Jackson Brown, Jr. gave his son this piece of advice as he was going off to college, and it later became a part of his best seller, Life’s Little Instruction Book. While choosing a mate carefully may be far from the romantic ideal, this advice serves couples well. Falling in love is an intense experience that can blind us to what it takes to sustain and grow a marital relationship over the long haul. Because there is so much at stake — the very balance of happiness and misery in one’s life — it might be wise to examine what the decision to get engaged sets in motion; and this is particularly important in situations where one, or both, of the partners bring significant assets to the marriage.
Most people consider wealth to be an attractive attribute in a life-partner; yet statistics show that for married couples, talking about money creates even more conflict than talking about sex or parenting. The topic touches on deeply emotional themes. Financial generosity can become equated with love; but conversations about wealth can also raise fears of dependency and stir up feelings of unequal status in the relationship. Wealth can symbolize freedom and opportunity, or safety and security; but it may also introduce questions of inequality, power and control. Some couples worry that discussing these issues will reveal inner attitudes and beliefs that could make them vulnerable to rejection. As a result, sometimes a couple’s first serious financial discussion takes place in a lawyer’s office while negotiating terms of a pre-nuptial agreement.
At that point, trusted attorneys, asked to help their wealthy clients sort out their concerns after an engagement, can unintentionally increase, rather than decrease, anxiety about financial issues. Legal requirements in some states make it difficult for even well-meaning lawyers to offer a process designed to address the best interests of a couple and instead force them to represent the financial interests of only one of the individuals in a way that can become adversarial.
Approached differently, the pre-nuptial process presents an opportunity for a wealthy couple to talk openly about the financial and legal questions impacting their future together. By keeping in the forefront the important emotional components of wealth during the process, a couple can proactively address issues that might impact the likelihood of success not only of their pre-nuptial negotiation, but also of their relationship in the long term. The issues that often lead to the dissolution of a marriage — lack of communication, distrust, financial and/or emotional insecurity, power and control issues — are addressed directly in a manner that can actually provide a stronger start to the marriage. Some questions a wealthy couple might explore together include:
- If we were to write a definition of marriage that we could wholeheartedly commit to, what would it say?
- How ready are we for marriage, as we have defined it? Are we able to talk about our ambivalent feelings?
- Do we agree on our short and long-term goals as a couple? How do these fit with our individual goals? Can we each name a goal that is important to the other that will be challenging to support or require compromise?
- What are the values on which we will make big decisions in our marriage? What has been our decision-making process to this point? What do we consider before we do something, buy something, say something? Do we feel that we both have an equal ability to influence important decisions?
- If we have significantly different access to financial resources, how has this impacted our decision-making process to date? If unequal access to finances and/or to financial information remains throughout marriage, how will we support both independence and collaboration in decisions that involve money?
- Are there things we can do now that can ensure an appropriate level of independent access to finances for both of us?
- If one of us brings greater financial resources into the marriage, what does the other bring that provides balance? Do we seem to be equal givers and equal receivers? If not, how will we address this so that resentment or a sense of entitlement does not grow over time?
- What will we do when we face tough times as a couple, or when one of us is concerned about our marriage? How do we know whether we will support each other when “the chips are down?” What do each of us bring as assets and liabilities in terms of dealing with tough times? Can we make a Relational Challenges Agreement that we can rely on if we “smell smoke” rather than waiting till our relational house is on fire?
- If, like most married couples, we face something that tests our commitment to one another, what do we know about repairing relationship damage? What have our parents taught us? What will we do if we find our skills are not up to the task?
- Can we discuss our “exit cards?” What are the things that seem like “deal breakers” that would threaten our commitment to the marriage or that either of us might find irreparable?
- Knowing that our marriage will end at some point with the death of one of us, how do we want to handle this? What provisions can we make that could honor our relationship and also support the appropriate grieving and the future thriving of the one left behind, as well as of our potential children and grandchildren?