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…
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)