Last week, I learned that a friend of mine was getting married. Ecstatic, I picked up the phone and congratulated her. She sounded happier than ever, and justifiably so: To find such rapture in otherwise gloomy times is no easy task. For hours, she walked me through every detail of the ceremony, every fold of her dress, every napkin, every song.
She radiated unfiltered joy, a contrast to the performative veneer of happiness behind which quarantined Yalies hide their frustrations. Her voice, her tone, her gestures all pointed to her genuine bliss. Yet she ended the call on an altogether less romantic note: For her, as for many, the question of marriage came with what we might call “the prenup dilemma.”
Once a marginal institution, the prenuptial agreement — or “prenup” — plays an ever-expanding role in American life. Unlike their parents, millennials typically do not get married until their early 30s. In 1962, 90 percent of 30-year-olds had been married at least once; In 2018, this number was 54 percent. Later marriages, combined with a rise in economic insecurity and a growing scepticism vis-à-vis marriage as an institution, make prenups more attractive than ever. Beyond statistical trends, however, the popularity of prenups has much to do with certain cultural paradigms.
Philosophically, the prenup captures three features of modern life. First, and most evident, is the materialist emphasis upon private property. Nothing — not even the hope of eternal love — can convince Americans to give up their sacred right to own things. To sacrifice one’s socioeconomic status on the altar of romance, to bet on the sanctity of an everlasting union, to risk losing one’s much-cherished belongings after years of effort, all these impulses sound like archaic remnants of a bygone era. “Homo economicus” is a rational agent, and there is nothing rational about thinking that your marriage will last forever when 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.
Second, prenups reflect our desire to control the trajectory of our lives. Of all people, Yalies know much about this thirst for certainty — some obsess over getting into Yale, before obsessing over getting into graduate school, before obsessing over getting a prestigious job, and so on. Prenups offer a way for us to navigate the dreadful angst that accompanies incertitude: The marriage may crash and burn, but my bank account will stay intact. In this sense, prenups have much to share with practices as varied as genetic editing, predictive algorithms and private schools — all represent human attempts to control the future.
Third, prenups take the form of a contract between consenting adults. This observation may sound rather banal, but this mixture of private sentiments and procedural paperwork would have baffled our premodern ancestors. Prenups give an explicitly contractual dimension to marriage, thereby bureaucratizing the institution. Gone is the romantic vision of marriage as the sacred and inviolable union of souls. Enters a resolutely realist conception of love as a perishable sentiment, as a consumer good in need of insurance. She who signs a prenup does not do so as a future wife, but as a sovereign individual exercising her consent to the precise terms of an agreement.
These three paradigms — the materialist emphasis on property, the desire to control the future, and the bureaucratization of human interactions — form a nexus that defines much of modern life, one whose centre lies in the preservation of individual autonomy. To tie one’s property to something as unreliable as feelings is to sacrifice liberty on the altar of attachment — in this case, the freedom to opt in and out without consequence. Of course, the preservation of our autonomy is by no means a negative; In fact, modern societies prioritize individual liberty because marital, familial, social and even religious bonds have been used to oppress and marginalize people throughout human history.
Nevertheless, the ever-increasing popularity of prenups denotes a certain inability to take leaps of faith. Most of us simply cannot throw ourselves fully into any kind of everlasting union — be it marriage, monastic vows or even unconditional promises. In this sense, it is no surprise that marriage — one of the most radical acts of faith imaginable — needs procedural amendments to be acceptable to us. To share all our material possessions, to trust another with our every secret, to build our lives with and around someone else, all of these aspirations seem naïve, if not downright credulous. Unconsciously, most of us have internalized the acceptance of solitude. We may be more autonomous than ever, but we also feel more lonely than ever.
Detached, rootless, atomized, we struggle to form meaningful bonds when these require sacrifices. Of course, this diagnosis need not turn us into reactionary zealots — those who use the shortcomings of modern life to argue for the restoration of a patriarchal past suggest a cure that is orders of magnitude worse than the disease.
Nevertheless, our inability to have genuine faith in others should make us reflect upon the ways in which our institutions cultivate individualism. Our education system rewards those who prioritize personal performance; Our economy refuses to quantify the contributions of unpaid activists and stay-at-home parents; Our culture glorifies so-called “meritocratic” heroes whose lifestyle, if generalized, would make people miserable. Every step of the way, we teach ourselves not to be altruistic, not to be romantic, not to be innocent.
Of course, we tell ourselves that we care about these things — just as the person who signs a prenup tells herself that the words “till death tear us apart” have meaning. But in both cases, we know that beneath good intentions lies a relentlessly individualistic culture in urgent need of reform.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles college. His column, titled “Through the looking glass,” runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.