‘Til Death Do Us Part … Unless You Get Fat

Once upon a time when people chose to get married, they did so with the understanding that the marital vows they made were a solemn commitment, an inviolable covenant to stay married, no matter what. It was a promise sealed with vows we’ve all heard many times: “For richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.” (Or, sometimes, the slightly sunnier version, “As long as we both shall live.”)

These days, however, some folks are less keen on making such a sweeping, unconditional promise when it comes to staying married. Forget sickness and health, material plenty or poverty. They’re spelling out the terms of commitment at a much more granular level. As in, I’ll stay married to you as long as you don’t get fat, as long we have a certain amount of sex, etc.

So-called “lifestyle clauses” constitute an evolving subset of the prenuptial agreement, which, of course, has been around for a long time. Instead of one partner seeking to protect his or her financial assets in the event of a divorce, however, these agreements, which are also known as “love contracts,” spell out in much more specific detail conditions that must be met in order to stay married.

Perhaps not surprisingly, celebrities are in the vanguard of this trend. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones reportedly signed an agreement that said she’d get $5 million if he cheated on her. Meanwhile, Priscilla Chan, the wife of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, reportedly made him sign a contract in which he promised to spend one night a week with her combined with at least “100 minutes of quality time” weekly.

But the trend is trickling down to “normal” folks as well. New York City matrimonial attorney Robert Wallack told the New York Daily News, “Lifestyle clauses are on the rise. It used to be for better or worse, and you went with it. Now people want to dictate how the couple will live within the marriage.”

Among other lifestyle dictates? That dreaded weight gain. A New York Magazine article described one contract in which a wife agreed to pay a fine of $500 per pound if her weight topped a certain specified threshold. “Welcome to the brave new world of holy matrimony,” summarizes Salon.com contributor E.J. Dickson.

The movement toward “love contracts” reflects, I think, some broader trends that are at work in our culture and seeping into our understanding of marriage. Instead of making an other-centered, unconditional promise of faithfulness and commitment, those instituting these clauses are turning the tables and saying they’ll only stay married if certain obligations are met. And while staying healthy and spending quality time are admirable goals, the problem here is how these agreements attempt to control another person in order to guarantee future happiness.

I would argue that such a pre-emptive, self-protective stance is not very conducive to making a marriage work. It’s a fundamentally narcissistic approach to matrimony that sends the signal, I’m focused on making sure my needs get met first if we’re to stay together. It’s the difference between treating a marriage as a business contract to be fulfilled — or not — rather than embracing it as covenant to be lived in together, sacrifices, surprises and all, ’til death do us part.