As someone who has been married for many years, who also mediates premarital (or prenuptial) and divorce agreements, I’m commonly asked if I implement what I’ve learned from my job into my relationship. And the truth is - before I ever finished law school, fell in love with family law, and started meditating, my husband and I had a cohabitation agreement.
A cohabitation agreement is a contract between partners when they are living together, but don’t have another formal, legal relationship. Much like an agreement you may have had with a roommate in college that dictated who would take out the trash, who would be responsible for the dishes, and how rent would be paid, a cohabitation agreement sets the parameters for a couple who live together.
As a married couple, your relationship is viewed by the law as almost a legal entity. In a way, you are responsible for one another’s debts and assets, you benefit when the other person passes away, and you get a tax break. But for many couples, they choose to live together without formally being married, which doesn’t provide them any of the same protections. This is where a cohabitation agreement comes into play, giving each person legal protections that they may not have otherwise if the relationship were to end.
My now husband and I met in college and had been together for 4 years before we took the step of moving in together. We had always had our own places to run off to when crashing at the other’s house grew tiresome and we wanted our own space. We had our own rent, our own expenses, and our own finances. Now, suddenly, we were not only navigating the other person’s intricacies (my husband thinks Amazon boxes should act as an obstacle course and never be removed from the front foyer, while I fold towels “weird”) but also trying to navigate the finances of shared expenses. I was a broke law student and my husband was an engineer. To say it mildly, we had very different incomes. We tried to separate the expenses appropriately, with him covering mortgage and me utilities, he took care of dining out while I covered groceries, and so on. And unsurprisingly, conflict ensued. He could afford a trip to go skiing with our friends, while I could hardly afford my books for school. We were basically on different planets financially, while trying to live in the same 800 square foot space.
As a budding lawyer, the idea of a contract came naturally, and I approached my husband with the idea. We sat down at the kitchen table and had some of the most difficult conversations we’ve had as a couple so far. We printed out all our financial statements, showing each other our debt, our bank accounts, our retirement accounts (who are we kidding - only he had any retirement saved), and our monthly expenses. The best words I can use to describe it were awkward and uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary.
Looking back, I wish I knew mediation existed as an option so someone could guide us instead of feeling like we were hitting walls and sensitive nerves blindly. But ultimately, we found a monthly budget that we both could work with (a lot of trial, error, and practice to make it actually work in the real world) as well as the breakdown of what we each contributed to the relationship financially. And I was a whopping 11%. Not even a quarter of our income came from me and at least half of the expenses did. As a very independent person, this was one of the hardest things I ever had to come to terms with - that combining our incomes and agreeing to a budget I could never have had on my own, I would be contributing only about 10% to our lifestyle. And if we separated, we agreed that I would take 11% of our bank accounts and my furniture - what I had brought into the relationship.
Now for some, this may feel frustrating or even scary, but it honestly made me feel secure and safe. I wasn’t worried about what would happen when we put our expenses together. What would happen if we broke up and had to divide things? What would I have on my own and what wouldn’t I? Could we agree on how we would save for the future or how we would spend our money? Would I want to save everything and my husband would be a spender who wasted my money away? These were all issues we had resolved, put to paper, and signed. These were questions we opened up about and in doing so addressed our biggest fears. These are the issues that often lead to divorce or break-ups that we addressed head-on. Was it with fear and some conflict? Yes. Did we hit sensitive nerves and upset one another? Yes. But we also had never felt better about our relationship.
Two years later, we got married and have been together for over a decade. These skills that we learned at that kitchen table and the agreements we reached, took our relationship to a different level of respect and trust. To this day, our cohabitation agreement, which became void when we married, sits in our important documents folder just so we can look back at it. Throughout our relationship, we have changed jobs, gone back to school, and fluctuated who was the 11% partner. But my husband has never made me feel lesser for being the 11% and vice versa. We instead value one another for what we bring to the table and support each other’s dreams, financially or otherwise. And this is primarily because we took the leap and created a cohabitation agreement that prompted us to have an annual financial review with one another every year to this day so we stay on the same page about what we each want.
Cohabitation and prenuptial agreements hold a negative connotation, as they feel cold, legal, and honestly “not sexy”. But in reality, they create the foundational skills a couple needs not only if they are to separate in the future, but also to live happily ever after.