Marriage vs. a Piece of Paper
“Marriage really is just a piece of paper,” I said to my fellow Laurel as we sat in an unused room in the church, skipping Sunday school one morning, years and years ago. “I mean, really! If you take all of your things – like CDs and clothes and posters and candles- and share it with someone— that is trust! That shows commitment!”
I had been thinking about this for some time. Knowing myself at the age of 16, I had probably been thinking about this for at least a week, maybe more. This was my frame of reference back in the day—working at a fast food place after school and on weekends, I spent most of my money on music CDs, going to concerts and buying trendy clothes, which included exorbitantly-priced concert tee shirts that I would wear to advertise how awesome I was for having gone to said concert.
Imagine my surprise, amid my friend’s fits of laughter when that Laurel class lesson was on the importance of marriage that same Sunday morning. “Marriage isn’t just a piece of paper,” said the teacher, inspiring my friend to almost fall from her seat from laughing. “That paper shows commitment to yourself, as a protection.” Other than my embarrassment, I don’t remember much of the class from that day. I believed that the lesson was inspired by the spirit, if only because the words to my friend were the first I time I had spoken of my thoughts. After that, I felt like the piece of paper representing marriage was important, but it didn’t compute as to how it mean protection or commitment.
Last year, after being married for well more than a decade, we hit a rough patch. Don’t get me wrong- we had hit hard places before, but this time, I was spent. It’s not that I didn’t love my husband, and I did not want a divorce. But I was tired. Too tired to try to communicate, too tired to be patient in telling him the things again and again, and too tired to read his mind, listen to him or do anything else. I did not feel protected, and I didn’t feel like he had a commitment to me; I didn’t think he was romantic about or with someone else, but I felt he ignored me or was just too tired to try and hear me. Either way, it wasn’t working. He knew there was a problem, too, and enlisted a counsellor.
Because of location, our appointments were via an LDS Family Services counsellor, via video conferencing. The counselor was male, and I hoped that he might be able to address the communication issues in our marriage. He had us do some initial paperwork and independent questionnaires, then we would gather in front of respective laptops after our children were asleep for a session.
In the first session, he promised us that our responses in the independent questionnaires inspired him that we were a couple that was meant to be together –for eternity! I was shocked, sure that my answers of not being heard, and being far too tired to be patient with my partner expressed something much less content. I was then suspicious—he was an employee of LDS Family Services, after all. Perhaps because out marriage wasn’t physically abusive, and didn’t involve adultery, he was obligated to tell us to stay together? I didn’t trust his analysis of our papers, especially since he did not show us the results.
We met with him for several weeks. It didn’t go well. He kept asking me how I felt about certain things and told me to express these feelings to my husband. I had been “expressing my thoughts and feelings” to my husband for months with no result, so both my husband and I felt this exercise was useless, repetitive and utterly unhelpful. Then the counsellor wanted me to relate the situation in my marriage to some childhood trauma, and express this to my husband. For the life of me, I could not think of anything “trauma” in my childhood to express my adult thoughts in marriage! That whole thing seemed completely obtuse. Some childhood issue of mine was causing me to feel like my husband was not listening to me? Even my husband agreed that this exercise seemed way off the mark. I was becoming impatient, and being already exhausted, I preferred sleep to these late night rumbles. We cancelled the next few appointments.
I decided to take stock—what did this piece of paper / Marriage certificate mean to me? I didn’t want a divorce, but these talks weren’t giving me comfort. We were sealed, but the promise of heaven felt too far away. We had moved several times over the course of our marriage, always to chase my husband’s career. I was tired of moving where it suited his career, especially with the most recent 2 moves, which did not suit me. I wanted to do *my* thing for a time, be with my people, and find the footing I felt I had lost. The move before the most recent one was the hardest on me. It was the move that I did not want to make, voiced my objection, and came second. He told me afterwards that he would’ve been too embarrassed to turn down the job he had been chasing for a year, so he felt he “had” to take it, in spite of what I felt was best for our family.
As a sort of consolation, he promised that next time we moved, it would be my choice. This didn’t happen, and I became angrier and felt less heard. He promised again, saying he knew it was “my turn.” But as his was our primary source of income, and I felt totally helpless and hopeless about choosing a place that would suit me, and where he would find a suitable job. I felt even more trapped in this, and wondered if I needed to end the marriage- or maybe we could just live separately?
Longing to feel the same love as when we met, I searched through old emails, from when we were engaged. In this, I found a treasure. Sure, the love emails were there, but the real treasure? A prenuptial agreement. We were older when we married, and in all honestly, my in-laws pushed for it because they didn’t trust me: I was Mormon and they were very suspicious about that, supposing the church might try to get money from them! I knew we had a prenup, but I had long since displaced the hard copy in the many moves. But there in my emails—archived from long ago, was the document. I read it, and smiled. We had signed it in love. I was giving up a job to move with him after the marriage, and felt financial insecurity. The document was one-sided, giving me essentially everything he owned at the time. This- this piece of paper meant as much to me as the marriage certificate. In fact, it essentially meant more. This gave me the kind of comfort *now* that a spiritual tie did not. At the time of my marriage, I needed both of these papers. After they were signed, I was sailing in love, and all was well.
Years later, this insecurity was exactly how I was feeling again, after many, many moves. I did not feel like my husband was committed to me, I felt like he was committed to his career. I did not feel protected. Spiritually, sure– I felt good about our marriage. But the day to day was crushing me. I felt totally restrained and immobile within our marriage – because I was the one packing and unpacking boxes, settling children and washing everything, he bought the cars, and put the house in his name, for tax reasons. Even with community property laws and with shared access to all of our combined money, because my income had not been steady in our moves for his career, I felt financially pathetic, powerless and perfectly unprotected. I wanted a paper that promised me something material; I needed a paper that showed that *I* meant something tangible within my marriage- not just the sealing slip signed by men who had no concern, obligation or witness of my mortal sustenance or psychological survival. We’re far from being wealthy, but my career and income, compared to his- was pathetic.
That’s when I wondered– is there such a thing as a post-nuptial agreement? A quick google showed that there is. It is not a common as a pre-nup, but still exists. In many cases, it reflects an update to a pre-nup. I discussed a post-nuptial agreement with my husband. Much to my surprise, he thought it was a great idea. After all, we had tried nearly everything else we could to get out of the marital rut we were in. We decided to create a new, post-nuptial agreement. It is similar to a pre-nuptial agreement, but obviously we were already married. It is further similar to a financial agreement in a divorce, but without divorcing or the separation of assets. The goal was for me to feel like I could leave (or stay), if I needed to do so. Since we had been married for quite some time, and because we had a mortgage and cars and children, this document needed to detail and divide the cost, care and ownership of everything.
In going through the post-nuptial agreement, our communication improved. Daily emails- something previously only used in casual communication, had weight. We were honest about what we wanted in life, and because we had to document what property we each liked best and wanted, we discover dead weight items that we could free from our lives. We discussed where we wanted to live, what schools I prefer to send the children to, and what we wanted to accomplish in life. At night, we discussed the document in person, reading it together, editing, being honest in what each of us wanted out of the marriage, out of life, out of everything.
My husband, true to his form, created a document that financially was heavily sided with me: Enough alimony that increased over time so that I would not need to provide an income for myself or my children for 10 years. Money for me to go back to school. The children would live with me. A car and its maintenance would be covered by him so long as the children lived with me. He agreed to childcare payments greater than the legally required amount, and more. This was the paper I needed. This was the paper that made me feel like I was a part of my own life again. This was the paper that reminded me that we are a team. This was the paper that promised me the kind of commitment and protection that seemed faded from my marriage.
In the business of moving, having a family, managing careers, and supporting parents,- emailing a document detailing our lives brought us together. If I am being honest, I think the spirit directed us in doing this– after all, God knows me and what I need. God also knows him and knows his strengths in communication. In discussing this, the things we’d been holding on to- both physical and emotional, that neither of us wanted— we were able to discard. In the end, I had a piece of paper that reminded me that I was in a partnership. Further, we found that emailing, and working a google calendar together made communication easier. Things cleared. My mind cleared. I felt like a door to a new life opened for me; I felt heard. That piece of paper was a vital infusion of commitment, protection -and love- into our marriage.
Shortly after this, we received an email from the counsellor at LDS family services, asking us to sign a document that didn’t hold him or LDS Family Services responsible in case our marriage failed. I laughed. My husband laughed. We did not print or sign that piece of paper. Nor did we book any other sessions. Our marriage was good, our communication on track. Sex was on the menu at night, not hopeless counselling or sleep.
In a church that makes such diligent records for baptisms, children of record, sealings and marriages, the weight of a piece of paper is heavy. But for a time, my eternal marriage felt like a weightless piece of paper- a promise for the next life, rather than a tool for this life. I know there will be some who say that their temple marriage certificate is a tool for helping them manage marriage today; in fact, I think it is. But. Where I was, I needed something mortal. In “this life.” I needed a paper with tangible promises today, not just a hope for the eternities. I needed to feel like sharing my life with someone was not the same as giving my life away. The post nup helped me to feel safe in my own marriage, and because of that, the light came back into the promise for eternal marriage. The love was always there, but this time there was safety and peace.
Every now and again, marriage needs a tune-up. For me, I needed a reminder that marriage is more than a piece of paper, more than words, more than a spiritual commitment– that it does mean real commitment, and protection now as much as in the next life. For me, that reminder came in the form of a post-nuptial agreement. That is the power of a piece of paper.