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The Prenup Trap: Premarital Agreements and Coercive Control

Prenuptial agreements, romance, coercive control, and Donald Trump

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. By the same token, you don't have to be or marry a millionaire to benefit from a well-executed prenup.

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, most the couple’s assets including their home and vehicles would revert to Tom, and he would provide minimal alimony for just a year.

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

    After the rush of newlywed romance passed, Judy felt increasingly trapped and isolated. When she married Alex, Judy had agreed to quit her job to take care of their home and Alex’s children from a previous marriage. Alex provided her with a great deal of material comfort but made all major purchases in his name or the name of his business. Alex pushed Judy into cosmetic surgeries, punishing gym routines, and a demanding diet. Everyone except Alex thought Judy looked terrific; he was quite critical. Once their own children were born, Alex was rarely home. Alex expected Judy to attend social events on his arm from time to time but—other than this—seemed to have lost interest in her entirely. Over time, Judy became aware of Alex’s mistresses. One day, when they had an argument, Judy said she was leaving. Alex told her that she’d better call a taxi because the car was his, according to the prenuptial agreement. This realization left Judy in a state of panic. Here she was, a “wealthy” socialite who actually owned nothing. If she lost her marriage, she would be cut off from her friends and community. Realizing that Alex had this additional power over her, Judy decided she had better “straighten up” if she didn’t want to be left penniless. Alex seemed to delight in his control over her. Judy was trapped by coercive control and subjected to Alex’s abuse and demands, while unable to express her own wishes. On the outside, however, they looked like the "perfect couple."

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 and with independent legal representation. 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.

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