This article first appeared in the July/August 2008 issue.

Q: A male client of mine who was burned by an ugly divorce is getting married again and wants a prenuptial agreement. His fiancée is angered by his request. How can I help them work it out?

A: After years of doing therapy and coaching in areas relating to money conflicts, I’ve discovered one constant about prenuptial agreements: whoever broaches the subject is labeled the bad partner—unromantic, suspicious, cold, controlling. The other member of the couple is seen as the romantic, emotional, generous, trusting one. Yet prenuptial agreements have a role to play in helping couples plan and commit to their future together, particularly when they’ve been married previously. When handled well, they can even make a marriage stronger.

Mark, 52, was a few years out of an ugly divorce. Ellen, his intended bride, had been single for many years, following a brief marriage when she was just out of college. They were planning to get married after dating for more than a year, but Mark had told Ellen that the only way he’d remarry was if they signed a prenuptial agreement. Their disagreement about this was the urgent presenting problem when they came to me.

The first thing I do with couples at odds over a prenuptial agreement is to try to shift them away from a view that one of them is romantic and one is calculating. I want them to feel that they’re just two people with differing, equally valid, emotional needs.

So, as the session got under way, I said “Whoever brings up a prenuptial agreement is always seen as the bad guy. But I don’t see it that way at all. A friend of mine, clinical psychologist turned financial planner Victoria Collins, said it perfectly: “Everyone does yellow-pad prenuptials in their head anyway. Making them overt and explicit, though a difficult process, is a healthy way to clarify issues and avoid problems down the road.”

Both of them seemed to relax a little after I said that.

Next I spent some time exploring each one’s thoughts and feelings about the prenuptial agreement. I emphasized to Ellen that I understood why her first reaction was to feel hurt, sad, disappointed, and angry at Mark’s insistence on this legal document to protect himself. I told her that many if not most women (or men) in this position had similar feelings. I then worked to diffuse the hurt by saying that it was possible to understand her fiance’s need for a prenuptial agreement as having everything to do with his past and little or nothing to do with his love for her and trust in her.

From Mark, I learned just how ugly and devastating his divorce from his wife of 30-plus years had been. He said that the most painful feature of the whole ordeal was that, after he’d spent three decades working hard as the primary provider for his family, his children now would receive only half as much money as he’d planned because of his ex-wife’s divorce settlement. This was so hard for Mark to take that he’d vowed to himself that he’d never again let anything cut into his children’s inheritance from him, even if that meant never marrying again.

He added that he’d be perfectly happy living with Ellen for the rest of his life without a marriage license, and the only reasons he was marrying her were that he loved her and it would make her happy. He was willing to take the step, but only with a prenuptial agreement, which would safeguard the remaining assets that were meant for his children.

Mark’s revelations about his history and feelings created a new source of sadness in Ellen: she was so excited about getting married, but Mark ­wasn’t! I said to her that a truth I’d learned as a couples therapist was that, in most cases, one person’s bliss was their mate’s ho-hum choice—they’d do it for their partner, but it wasn’t their dream. This seemed to ease her distress somewhat, since she realized that she wasn’t the only one confronting a situation like this.

The next step was to teach them some communication skills so they could begin to understand each other’s viewpoint on the prenuptial agreement. I’ve found that Harville Hendrix’s mirroring technique can benefit nearly all couples, by helping each partner shed his or her own emotional agenda and perspective long enough to enter the other’s world with empathy and compassion. Ellen and Mark were both willing to learn the simple “mirroring” steps of emptying their minds of their own thoughts; listening to their partner’s words (said in small enough chunks to be remembered); repeating what he/she said, using the same words as much as possible; validating their partner’s perspective on the matter; and empathizing with what their partner might be feeling.

Ellen mirrored Mark’s feelings of pain that his divorce settlement left his children with half as much money as he’d planned. She then reflected back his statement that he hadn’t intended to remarry, but was willing to marry her because he loved her and wanted to make her happy, as long as there was a prior financial agreement.

After Ellen had listened to, repeated, validated, and empathized with Mark’s viewpoint, he did the same for her. By the end of the first session, both of them had been able to get closer to the other’s point of view, although Ellen still felt some pain and disappointment regarding Mark’s lack of joyous anticipation regarding their marriage, and he was still worried about whether they’d be able to work out this issue. Before they left, I urged them to use the mirroring technique at home at least once a week.

When Mark and Ellen returned the following week, she’d become more open to the idea of a prenuptial agreement to soothe his fears and concerns about his children’s future security, but she still didn’t feel sufficiently taken care of, or cared for, by Mark. Many women I’ve encountered over the years have paradoxical needs regarding money. They want to be at least partially independent (or at least not too dependent) financially, but, at the same time, many of them need to feel taken care of—provided for—by their partners. I believe this comes from a long-standing history of women’s economic dependency on men, and years of cultural programming about the romantic ideal of being financially and emotionally taken care of by a heroic “knight in shining armor.” So, although Ellen made a good living and had been on her own for a long time, the idea of that Mark would take care of her in some way financially was comforting and reassuring. The need to feel cared for was important to her partly because he was so committed to taking care of his children.

Women tend to be more underconfident about their financial abilities, while men are more overconfident. I believe that some men secretly want to be taken care of by their women, if their partners are wealthier. But this is a far more taboo attitude to admit.

I talked to Ellen about her desire to have Mark take care of her, and helped her look at what it might be reasonable to want and expect, separating that from her fantasy of being first and foremost in the security pecking order. Then I encouraged Mark to talk frankly about how he saw his future financially as he moved from his current, semiretired status to full retirement in the next few years.

The final step of working through this issue with Mark and Ellen was to have them take some actions that allowed them to bridge the gap in their two views about the prenuptial agreement. As they continued practicing empathetic communication at home and with me, Mark came up with several ideas about how he could help Ellen feel more cared for: giving her money now to help her feel more supported financially and emotionally, making provisions in his will to take care of her in the event of his death, and so forth. All this seemed to reassure Ellen, quieting her fears that his desire for a prenuptial agreement suggested that he didn’t trust or love her. She said that she could honor Mark’s need to see his children well taken care of by agreeing to the provisions he wanted to make for their financial security prior to their marriage.

Ultimately, they agreed in their prenuptial contract that, whatever happened, a stated amount of money that Mark entered the marriage with would be reserved for his children. Ellen received written reassurance that he’d write a will saying that, in the event of his death, after this initial amount of money was distributed to his kids, his remaining assets would be divided in half, with one portion to go to Ellen and the remaining portion to be divided among his children.

I’ve realized in the last few years of my couples coaching and therapy work that not all people marry all at once on their wedding day. Many folks (especially men, and particularly those who’ve been damaged by previous marriages) tend to marry (and trust) slowly over time. I’m confident that, if Mark and Ellen have remained together, they trust each other and their relationship more than they did when they were working out their prenuptial agreement. In money matters as in all issues, patience and compassion are the cornerstones of progress in marriages.

Olivia Mellan

Olivia Mellan, MS, is a psychotherapist and coach specializing in money psychology. She’s the author of Money Shy to Money Sure; Overcoming Overspending; Money Harmony, and Advisor’s Guide to Money Psychology. Her monthly column, “The Psychology of Advice,” appears in Investment Advisor Magazine.