All my worldly

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
17th March 2008

Tagged: marriage

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It was only a silly TV comedy, but it got me thinking. Thinking about weddings and divorce, prenuptial agreements and the nature of marriage.

The show was about marital strife. The central characters quarrelled about their money and possessions. They put stickers on their furniture and ornaments—indicating who owned what.

But the real “fun” came when they discussed their assets. He had spent years at work so considered the money and wealth was his. He conceded that as she had raised the children at home, she deserved some consideration—so he offered her 15%!

This offer went up like the proverbial lead balloon. She was having nothing of that and talked of lawyers and taking him for a large amount.

She argued for the value of her contribution to the home—cooking, cleaning, laundry and child raising. It was quite clear that she was heading for 50% of all the assets with even the possibility of the house plus 50%. He accepted the logic of her argument and raised his offer begrudgingly to 18%.

It got me thinking of prenuptial agreements. Such agreements are like choosing the wrong golf stick because you do not think that you will hit the right one properly. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Prenuptial agreements enter marriage planning for its failure.

But if you did have the choice to draw up your own prenuptial agreement—what would you agree to? What would be the split up of your future assets? Who would get what?

It is like the wedding service. If you were allowed to write your own promises and agreement what would you write? Most people choose meaninglessness. The modern non-Christian wedding is full of clichéd romantic declarations that are useless non-promises. The concept of the wedding as giving and receiving of promises has long gone out the matrimonial window. It is a declaration of love—“I do” rather than “I will”.

But if you could make promises what would you promise? Would you promise to be kind to each other just as long as you felt like it? Would you promise to stay with each other until you got tired of it? I cannot believe that people would invent promises that would express the desire to separate. The old Prayer Book service promises still express peoples' hope: “from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part…”

And what would be your prenuptial agreement? A 50/50 split of all assets? Is that fair? What if your spouse's health is declining and cannot go back to work? What if your wife still has family responsibilities? How do you compensate for your wife being out of the workforce for the child raising years, so that she cannot get a comparable job in the future?

Surveys show that though the wife most commonly gets the house as well as her “share” of the assets, within a few years she is worse off than the husband. It is much less lucrative for her to restart her career than for him to continue his. She generally has to sell the house and start eating into the capital.

So what would you agree to—a fifty/fifty or a sixty/forty split? The old Prayer Book was very much simpler. The bridegroom promised “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.” And the bride said nothing as she slipped the ring on his finger for men did not wear wedding rings.

It is later prayer books that have tried to express the mutuality of marriage in terms of both giving wedding rings and making the promise “with all that I am and all that I have I honour you”. It is a wonderfully vague and meaningless declaration of mutual love that avoids the reality of money altogether.

The modern marriage is a “fifty-fifty” relationship. But marriage is built not on two halves becoming one but two wholes becoming one. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

Once you have endowed your beloved with all your worldly goods there is no room to split your assets. You do not have any. You have already endowed them all to her. Ah, gone are the days of when gentlemen promised total commitment. Little wonder, we have to ask the question of what percentage of the assets does each get. Little wonder, we are facing the question of splitting up at all.