Prenuptial agreements, or “prenups,” can be difficult to talk about. But a recent study offers insights into how people can discuss this often taboo subject. One approach? Use metaphors.
“Many people view prenups as being negative, and argue that they indicate a lack of faith in the marriage from the outset,” says Lynsey Romo, corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of communication at North Carolina State University. “By the same token, we know from other research that open communication about financial issues contributes to successful relationships.
“And yet there is virtually no academic research on prenups. So how do people talk about prenups? How do they make sense of them? That’s what we wanted to explore here.”
The researchers originally set out to conduct in-depth interviews with people about prenups. However, they struggled to find people who had prenups, or were willing to talk about the fact that they had prenups. So they turned to online discussion site Reddit.
“We found that the semi-anonymous nature of Reddit lends itself to people talking freely about anything, including prenups,” Romo says.
The researchers found 586 threads, or conversations, that focused on prenups. These threads consisted of 26,450 comments. The researchers then manually coded all of the comments to place them into different categories for analysis.
Broadly speaking, the researchers found that commenters fell into one of two camps: people who felt prenups were good and people who felt prenups were bad.
Those who felt prenups were bad argued that prenups were antithetical to the idea of marriage as a lifelong institution; that prenups were an exit plan from marriage; or that prenups were an indicator that people already have doubts about their relationships.
As one commenter noted: “You’re not even married yet and you’re thinking about what happens when you get divorced.”
But the researchers were surprised to learn that the majority of commenters felt prenups were beneficial. And this group of commenters used metaphor to capture the ways in which a prenup was a good thing.
For example, many commenters described prenups as “insurance” – preparing for the worst even though you don’t think you’ll need it. As one commenter noted: “Nobody plans on crashing their car, getting cancer, or having their house burn down but they still get car, health, and home insurance.”
Others described prenups as safety features, designed to prevent harm. Here’s how one commenter approached the subject: “Getting a car with airbags does not mean you don’t also make sure you have good brakes and tires. Smart people do all the above; only crazy people say if you get airbags you’re jinxing it or are not committed to making things work.”
Still others described marriage as a contract, and that a prenup was simply a logical aspect of that contract. After all, two companies wouldn’t merge without clearly defined expectations on every aspect of operations.
“It was clear from following these online dialogues that metaphors served as a powerful tool for helping people not only understand what prenuptial agreements are, but what purposes they serve,” Romo says. “Metaphors helped many people reframe and understand other perspectives on prenups, including whether they are inherently problematic.
“From a practical standpoint, this work outlines ways that financial and legal advisors can help their clients understand prenups. And maybe it will encourage people to talk about their finances and what they can do to protect each other.”
The paper, “An Examination of Redditors’ Metaphorical Sensemaking of Prenuptial Agreements,” is published in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues. The paper was co-authored by Noah Czajkowski, a former undergraduate at NC State.