The Prenup Trap: Premarital Agreements and Coercive Control
Prenuptial agreements, romance, coercive control, and Donald Trump
Posted Apr 28, 2016
Coauthored with Mary A. Patton, PhD, psychotherapist in Dallas.
Donald Trump told New York Magazine in 2002, “I always wanted to have a prenup that said, 'You will love me forever, and if you don't, you die!' He added, “A prenup is an ugly instrument, but they’d better have one,” referring to the planned wedding of J. Lo (Jennifer Lopez) and Ben Affleck. Today, more and more people are discovering that you don't have to marry a billionaire to be victimized by a prenuptial agreement.
Take the case of 28 year-old Cheryl. Just a week before her wedding she receives a call from her fiancé, Tom, asking her to “sign some documents related to the big day.” Tom says his lawyer has insisted that they sign a prenup to protect his family's business. Busy with florists and caterers and swept away by feelings of love, Cheryl agrees and hurries over to the imposing downtown law office .
The attorney steers Cheryl to a brightly lit chair across from Tom, in front of a green screen, facing a large and elaborate video camera. A paralegal attaches microphones to their shirts and hands them each a script. Cheryl flips through the document, wondering if she should have consulted with someone before signing. As if reading her mind, Tom squeezes her hand and reassures her, "It's just a formality, honey." Feeling flustered and full of love, Cheryl reads the script for the first time, aloud, while recorded, saying that she is signing the document of her own free will, that she has had the opportunity to consult a lawyer, and that she understands and accepts all the clauses. As the party paying for the prenup, Tom receives a certified copy of the recording and written document. When Cheryl requests a copy she is told she will have to pay a hefty fee. The signing is staged to show the more vulnerable person, usually the bride, the kind of legal counsel a lot of money can buy. (The entire event could have been recorded on a smartphone). This prenup signing—a routine among the wealthy in some communities--makes many partners feel weak and controlled even before they walk down the aisle.
Years later, when Cheryl files for divorce, she learns about the clauses she had overlooked during the signing. These specified that if they later divorced, all the couple’s assets including their home and vehicles would revert to Tom, they would share joint custody of any children, Tom would not provide alimony and would provide only minimal child support.
The prenup agreement not only sets conditions for an eventual separation or divorce, it also establishes power relations within the marriage. When one partner in a couple deliberately dominates the other, this is called Coercive Control. Coercive Control is a strategy some people use to control their intimate partners. It can include any combination of isolation, manipulation, intimidation, stalking, sexual coercion, and sometimes even physical violence. Here’s an example:
Source: Liz Bannish, used with permission
Coercive control can be difficult to recognize. Many abusive people act charming and kind in public, while controlling, degrading, and intimidating their partners at home. A prenuptial agreement can reinforce their domination. Such an agreement is a socially accepted practice in some circles, and may preserve the economic integrity of both partners. However, prenuptial agreements (like other agreements among couples) should be entered with full knowledge. If there’s coercion or a lack of balance in the signing—something is wrong. We don't want to jump to any conclusions about Donald Trump and the effects of his prenups on his wives. We can only guess at the contents of the document that Melania Trump signed, and how it affects her.
For more information about coercive control, check out the book, Invisible Chains: Overcoming Coercive Control in Your Intimate Relationship.
Co-authored with Mary A. Patton, Ph.D., LPC., a psychotherapist practicing in Dallas.