Men beware women

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 29 February 2003

“Will you marry me?” are words that many of us have uttered, some more than others and one or two even on bended knee. The words are usually accompanied by a chthonic sigh of endless love, a querulous urgency and, often enough, oodles of Dutch courage.

It takes a man to propose, that’s what society says. Except for today. For it is a leap year, and this very day, one of those Saturnalian inversions of the norm has been carved out, rather like the fiestas in Spain where all can run amok, even the bulls. Yes, today, February 29th, women can propose. They can utter the words “Will you marry me?” with equanimity, free from censure or bemusement. The politically correct may scoff – after all, why should a woman not propose at any other time, if she feels like it – but there are more than a few men who will wake up this morning in terror. They have cruised along for years, putting off the question of wedlock, and for whatever reason their partners have elected not to upset the applecart. But today, the known world implodes, and anything can happen.

The good news is that there are lawyers out there who can help. To assist in the smooth running of modern-day marriage they have crafted all kinds of romantic documents. There is the prenuptial agreement, which helps a couple to love each other by codifying the idea of separation of assets at an early, pre-divorce stage. Prenuptial agreements can come with all kinds of bells and whistles, for example the ‘no cheating’ clause, as pioneered by Jennifer Lopez before her marriage to stripper-prone new husband Ben Affleck, while other ‘prenups,’ as the family lawyers call them, provide for increased payments for each act of adultery. There is also the ‘postnup,’ an agreement signed during a marriage that defines how assets will be divided in the event of divorce. “Will you sign this postnup?” were words uttered by the lawyers to American basketball superstar Michael Jordan and his wife when they decided to step away from the brink.

I was mulling this over because a friend will, this very day, be one of the men waking up in fear that his dread of commitment will be exposed by a leap-year-legitimised marriage proposal. “What can I do if she proposes?” he said. He asked me to help him, as friend and lawyer. “Go away for the day,” I said. No good, he said, she had booked a hotel for the weekend. “Come on, you’re a lawyer, help me!” he said.

So I had a think and talked to one or two family lawyers. This term has always struck me as apposite, for is there anyone more commensurate with the ideal of the family than lawyers? An elegant family lawyer with bags of decorum told me that it was simple, my friend should ring her up. She would be very happy to help him. He rang her and she told him that there were various ways of dealing with an unwanted proposal, short of saying “no.” He could offer the proposer a cohabitation agreement instead of marriage. Or, if he was worried about his wealth, he could say “yes, that sounds great, I have always loved you, too. But I will only marry you if we sign a prenuptial agreement. Later, we can follow it up with a postnuptial.”

My commitment-phobe friend was unaccountably depressed for days on end after this conversation. The nail in the coffin was when the lawyer’s bill arrived. “To our professional charges in connection with your possibly being the subject of a marriage proposal,” it said. And now, today, he will be waking up in a hotel in the Cotswolds, ducks waddling on the lawn outside, the old mill gently ruffling the water, a stoical waiter braving the discontented murmurs of townies from London, men like him and women like his partner, sitting down to breakfast, a strangely chthonic sigh weaving through the air as the words “Will you marry me?” are uttered, and my friend will be saying, “I know it might not sound terribly romantic, but how about a cohabitation agreement?” and next day he will ring back the decorous family lawyer and say, “Will you draft that agreement?” and she will say, “Yes.”