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Jan 2, 2014

Halachic Prenup from the Inside Out

As I read the recent Commentator article advocating for Halachic Prenups, I had a number of thoughts and some very conflicted feelings.

On the one hand, I get the point. Part of the advocacy is starting a movement, creating general practice. Of course it meets with resistance (as most major changes do) and the article is addressing said resistance. Some of the (counter)points rubbed me the wrong way, though. Which -as per usual -got me thinking.

I happen to generally be in favor of granting leverage over people who are abusing power as is the case in withholding a get. In fact, I have brokered a number of Halachic Prenups with couples who have had all kinds of challenges and tensions broaching, considering, and working through the process.

Let me emphasize that point: IT IS A PROCESS. Not something that should be expected to easily or simply be "taken care of" or "required" like paperwork. Most of the Halachic Prenups I have had to broker have been with couples who may have brought up the topic once or twice and then two weeks before the wedding began actually working through it. Bringing it up evokes fears, insecurities, and even blame in both men and women.

I want to make a brief but powerful distinction in how I am considering the Halachic Prenup in contrast to the article. I am considering the interpersonal, relationship-oriented perspective of what it is like to consider the Halachic Prenup from my view as a man (and experience with couples). The author of the article was making points and putting forth arguments for leaders of Jewish communities, considering the broader impact and goals of the Halachic Prenup. I agree with that view in principle, and I am considering the complex set of feelings and implications of a couple actually facing the possibility, with all the fears, insecurities, implications, and reactions that may come up. The way I see it, making a global argument to a couple in crisis over the feelings and reactions evoked (as I have faced several times with couples) is not particularly helpful in that moment.

As a quick (and perhaps dirty) comparison, consider what it may feel like for a woman who gets engaged and the groom suggests or demands a financial prenuptial agreement. Whatever the reason, it may certainly evoke strong feelings, questioning the man's trust in her, feeling that he is looking towards the end rather than being in the relationship. There are many, many differences between financial and Halachic Prenups, but the point here is that they share some similarities and may thus evoke similar feelings.

I certainly admit to having understood a man feeling that way when his fiance demanded he sign a Halachic Prenup. I can admit to considering how I would think if I were in his shoes myself, and have experienced that same feeling myself.

Some points that came to mind (and then I will consider them more in depth):

1) It communicates strong feelings, which may include fear, anxiety, and insecurity while advocating addressing those feelings by requesting a contract from the other person.

It is form a vulnerability, the potential of being stuck. Hearing stories and knowing others who are chained can sow insecurity and doubt. Not unfounded doubt, the possibility is certainly present. While presenting a Halachic Prenup may provide a security, it is addressing the concern with a request/demand on the partner. From my own perspective, I dislike the idea of addressing feelings by placing a contract on the other person as a general rule, especially with a spouse. I know it can be very helpful in this instance, though I dislike that it may communicate "this is the way to deal with relationship issues."

I acknowledge there are certainly more than feelings at stake, which leads me to point #2...

2) There is a small (or not so small) part of requesting/suggesting/demanding a Halachic Prenup which communicates that the man (or woman) is capable or even likely to withhold (reject) a get.

The issue in point #2 is that it constitutes a breach of trust in the relationship.  Like insurance, it may be considered a policy for safety, but the need for such a policy means there is a risk. The risk here is between two people, i.e. how they treat one another, which implies that one (in particular often the man) is the risk factor. It can even feel accusatory, particularly for a man who would not consider himself or his relationship at risk of getting to that point. Being the risk factor is certainly hard to hear, and may be construed as (pre)blame. I believe that breach is both mend-able and even strengthens a relationship when effectively addressed.

3) This Halachic Prenup is about other men/women, about agunot. Not about You/Me/Us.

This message is both prevalent in the article and one of the most used arguments when met with resistance. First, I have to say it is the worst way to try and convince a partner to accept a Halachic Prenup. Second, I believe it actually subverts the interpersonal or relationship concerns, which include insecurity and trust. 

As I noted above, I am very much for movements and policies that grant leverage over people who abuse power, and the Halachic Prenup has potential to be quite effective. However, my own thoughts have brought to my attention the impact of considering the Halachic Prenup on a micro-scale, i.e. within a relationship.

I was once given advice that I should spend a day in family court before deciding to get married: half a day in divorce court and half a day in child-custody. At first it sounded like a horrible ordeal to witness and a sure way to dissuade me from marriage. Then I realized that if I am able to consider the worst with my partner and we can get through it together we will likely never get there. Working together through issues that tear couples apart can be a way to build a stronger relationship. 

I am a stubborn believer in being prepared and working together in relationships and especially in marriage. To me, that is likely to include having very difficult conversations about raising children, financial issues, and Halachic concerns -both concerning (a) working towards staying together and (b) the unpleasant possibility that we split up. I still believe in it, I plan on having those conversations -including the Halachic Prenup and working through it with whomever I end up with.