Play­ing by the MAR­I­TAL Rules

Her first mar­riage broke down in less than two years, so when Sa­man­tha Brick agreed to tie the knot again, she de­cided to set some bind­ing dos and don’ts…

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - BODY & SOUL -

One month be­fore I got mar­ried in May 2008, I found my­self in a lawyer’s of­fice run­ning through a rather im­por­tant doc­u­ment – my prenup­tial agree­ment. There are var­i­ous types of con­tracts you can opt for, each legally bind­ing, where I live in France. Not the most ro­man­tic as­pect of my wed­ding prepa­ra­tions, I agree.

Yet my first hus­band walked off with a com­bined pay­off of €60,000 for a mar­riage that lasted around 18 months. Even I, a to­tal dis­as­ter when it comes to money, was not go­ing to make that mis­take again. As my fi­ancé Pas­cal and I signed on the dot­ted line, I planted a huge kiss on his cheek. This time? What is mine re­ally is mine.

Harsh? Not at all. We’ve both been blunt (some might say bloody-minded) about what we wanted out of our mar­riage, as well as what we would bring to it, too. I’ve writ­ten in the past about one of my hus­band’s rules: that I re­main slim. If I be­come obese, he will di­vorce me. Af­ter that par­tic­u­lar mat­ri­mo­nial de­cree was re­vealed, my Black­Berry buzzed with dozens of out­raged mes­sages. ‘Abu­sive’, ‘Con­trol­ling’ and ‘You’re an id­iot’ were some of the more po­lite ad­mo­ni­tions I re­ceived.

Yet me agree­ing to look af­ter my fig­ure and Pas­cal sign­ing a prenup were just two of the finer points on our list of rules that we dis­cussed at length be­fore we wed. We were both in agree­ment. Quite hon­estly, these de­tails were small fry com­pared to the other non- ne­go­tiables: we’d al­ready cov­ered the big­gie of meet­ing, lik­ing and agree­ing to play an ac­tive role in each other’s fam­i­lies for the rest of our mar­ried lives. This in­cludes hous­ing our par­ents- in- law should the even­tu­al­ity ever arise, as we are both el­dest chil­dren (we don’t just feel du­ty­bound – we ac­tu­ally want to do this).

We’d also care­fully ad­dressed the thorny is­sue of me be­ing ac­cepted by his chil­dren. We were crys­tal-clear that in­fi­delity would be a deal-breaker – while af­fairs might be ac­cept­able in mod­ern­day France, they weren’t go­ing to be tol­er­ated in our lit­tle cor­ner of the Midi-Pyrénées.

Some might as­sume that bran­dish­ing a list of rules at your in­tended is a sure-fire way of send­ing any sane guy run­ning in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. But I’d ar­gue the con­trary. The loved-up stage is pre­cisely the right mo­ment to pin your other half down to rules that will help strengthen the hum­drum re­al­ity of mar­ried life once the mar­i­tal-bliss stage has worn off. Given that I’m English by birth and Pas­cal is half-French, half- Cata­lan, our un­der­stand­ing of each other’s lan­guage and cul­ture was, at that time, rudi­men­tary at best. Of course, those other mag­i­cal ingredients – love, at­trac­tion and affection – en­sured we were spell­bound by each other. But I needed our union to be an­chored by firm prin­ci­ples, ones that would stay in place should we find our­selves cast adrift by life’s un­ex­pected storms. So while we menu-planned and wine-tasted, I never lost sight of the fact we were en­ter­ing into a legally bind­ing union – one that will (hope­fully) pro­duce chil­dren, shared prop­erty and wealth. Why wouldn’t I be ex­plicit about what I ex­pect from the other sig­na­tory to this con­tract?

This was a se­cond mar­riage for both of us. Bit­ter ex­pe­ri­ence had taught me that, this time around, I’d need to be frank about what I would and wouldn’t put up with. If liv­ing with the op­po­site sex has taught me any­thing it is this: never make as­sump­tions about how you ‘think’ day-to-day life will be with them.

In the run-up to my first mar­riage, when I was more fo­cused on slim­ming down in or­der to fit into my sugar-pink, bias-cut dress, if a well-mean­ing girl­friend had mooted the con­cept of ‘mar­i­tal rules’ I’d have as­sumed she was off her rocker.

My first hus­band and I never dis­cussed where we’d set up home to­gether – at the time he lived in the Mid­lands, while I was based in Lon­don. I’ d have freely given up my five-fig­ure hand­bag col­lec­tion to move near my fam­ily in Birm­ing­ham. Rather hor­rif­i­cally, I was pre­sented with a fait ac­com­pli – he handed in his no­tice at work and an­nounced he was mov­ing to, as he ex­cit­edly called it, the ‘Big Smoke’. The fact that I was al­ready ap­ply­ing for po­si­tions in Birm­ing­ham surely should have served as a clue to my pre­ferred des res. Yet who was at fault? Both of us: we had failed to dis­cuss our plans.

He then de­cided not to work for the first year of our mar­riage – I was so stunned that I had no idea how to re­act. Yet why shouldn’t he as­sume he could give up work? Af­ter all, we’d not put any pa­ram­e­ters in place to say that he couldn’t.

In fair­ness to him, I was no an­gel ei­ther. I failed to con­sult him about pur­chases for the home (well,

my house), I rarely slid the key in the lock at the time I said I would and I made few con­ces­sions to him in my so­cial di­ary. He hated it when my fam­ily came to stay and had scant time for my friends. I wasn’t liv­ing with a lov­ing hus­band – I was re­sid­ing with the en­emy. How could I have got it so wrong?

In hind­sight I can see I was ill-equipped for what mar­riage rep­re­sents. My pri­or­ity had been pre­par­ing for the wed­ding and not the life­long union. We’d in­vested in match­ing plat­inum wed­ding bands and a chichi hon­ey­moon, but not how we’d live out the ‘hap­pily ever af­ter’. The deal- breaker for me was that I as­sumed we were in sync on the ‘chil­dren is­sue’ be­fore get­ting mar­ried. How­ever, 18 months in, he ca­su­ally an­nounced – when I was head­ing to­wards my fer­til­ity precipice – that he wasn’t sure he wanted them. I’d made the fairly rea­son­able as­sump­tion that this life stage au­to­mat­i­cally fol­lows mar­riage. With no joint decisions made as to the path we were on, it’s lit­tle won­der we didn’t sur­vive the new­ly­wed years. It was as a di­vorced 30-some­thing that I had my epiphany. Be­tween my two mar­riages, I spent time in the States, pro­duc­ing – oh, the irony – a bridal re­al­ity TV show. I dis­cov­ered Amer­i­cans are rather bril­liant at ar­tic­u­lat­ing their needs. When talk­ing to their beloved, they never use one word when ten will do. They at­tend pre­mar­i­tal coun­selling ses­sions, there are cou­ples ‘shrinks’, and the US Army even holds week­end con­fer­ences where cou­ples spend time to­gether and, with pro­fes­sional guid­ance, check in on what they want from each other. This is rather like the cour­ses churches give cou­ples be­fore they marry. It’s a re­minder that your mar­riage comes first – be­fore chil­dren, ca­reer, in-laws – and that your other half re­quires your daily fo­cus. I have no doubt this ap­proach to mar­i­tal har­mony en­tered my psy­che on a cel­lu­lar level. So when I re­alised Pas­cal was The One, I also knew I wasn’t go­ing to re­peat any costly – fi­nan­cial and emo­tional – mis­takes. I be­lieve any smart woman strength­ens her ex­pec­ta­tions in a se­cond mar­riage. This time round, she knows it’s not all about the wed­ding: it’s what comes af­ter that counts.

It’s for­tu­nate, then, that Pas­cal is a talker. We sat down and, over a glass of rosé, dis­cussed our lives, needs, dreams and de­sires. It wasn’t easy, but I think as you get older you get more adept at say­ing – in a nice yet firm way – what you want and ex­plain­ing that these wishes are far from triv­ial.

Pas­cal de­sired a slim wife, a woman who would cook, take con­trol of the house­work and run the house­hold. I wanted him to stop smok­ing. I halted his daily chats with his ex and friend­ships with other women.

We agreed to be ab­so­lutely trans­par­ent with our so­cial-me­dia ac­counts, emails and tele­phones – he has ac­cess to mine and vice versa. It’s a level of can­dour that I would ex­pect in any mod­ern re­la­tion­ship.

We dis­cussed what hap­pens if one of us falls se­ri­ously ill right through to our wishes at death. We also agreed to sit down to­gether ev­ery evening to eat and dis­cuss our day – we never eat on the sofa or with a com­puter close by. This is at the heart of why our mar­riage works.

And it does work. I cer­tainly haven’t turned into a Step­ford Wife and he hasn’t be­come Bar­bie’s bland mate Ken. We are two very dif­fer­ent, in­de­pen­dent in­di­vid­u­als. My hus­band is a hun­ter­gath­erer; I am a shopa­holic. I refuse to have any­thing to do with an­i­mals he has killed. My late-night int er­net surf­ing drives him in­sane.

Yet I’m not naive; I know life changes and the rule­book has to evolve too. The past five years as a mar­ried cou­ple have been tough: cus­tody bat­tles, ill­ness, a death, IVF and a house move. Yet we’ve sur­vived and thrived. Thanks to our rules, even in a cri­sis, we know our role in the mar­riage.

Ac­quain­tances (usu­ally men) con­fide that they wish they had laid down such rules be­fore they mar­ried. Iron­i­cally, girl­friends shirk from tack­ling this so as not to risk him bolt­ing. But if your part­ner truly loves you, he’ll want you to be happy and agree.

Our goals for the next five, ten, 15 years are clearly de­fined. They’ll evolve: life al­ways throws up un­ex­pected hur­dles, but for the most part we’re on a path we’ve agreed upon.

Some peo­ple might think it’s un­ro­man­tic to dis­cuss rules when plan­ning your nup­tials. But I think it is the most ro­man­tic ges­ture you can make. You’re say­ing you want your mar­riage to work. Be­sides, a mar­riage without rules is an open mar­riage – and who wants that? Sa­man­tha’s book Head Over Heels in France is out now (Summersdale, €12.85)

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