A Mansion Divided: Several years ago I began working with a young married mother of two whose husband was prospering mightily on Wall Street. She was alarmed by an increasing sense that extended family members were assessing her family’s capital worth with personal gain in mind. She was just one of several patients with whom I have worked through the years who are challenged by the vicissitudes of the wealthy. The impact on her Coupledom was obvious.
Less Fortunate Family Branches: In the family tree, some are haves, and some are have-nots. When one branch bears the rich juicy fruit of their labors or luck, another may salivate with hunger and feel that their paltry leaves and withered looking harvest are entitled to some cross-pollination. The financially more endowed Coupledom can find themselves at odds with each other as to whom to help, bail out, invest in or launch. Alas, the inevitable Coupledom triangle rears its ugly head once again.
Entitlement and Envy Plays Havoc With Guilt: This young woman was very smart. After her husband’s stepbrother fell upon difficult times, they agreed to help by hiring him to watch one of their homes. But his usefulness as a caretaker came into question. The wife saw that her stepbrother-in-law was irresponsible and could not protect their property. Her husband felt guilty and chose to give him several more chances. The step brother-in-law felt entitled. This is a wicked stew but as I said this young woman was very smart and saw that a divisive pattern was beginning to form in their coupledom. More family members were lining up for help, on both sides of the familial aisle. And husband and wife felt tugs of guilt and responsibility for their branch of the family, but less so for their partner’s branch. Help had to be found.
The United Coupledom: This third entity that I refer to as “The Coupledom,” that domicile in which the relationship resides, if recognized and valued, comes in very handy when one of its members is caught up in sticky family of origin issues, especially those that threaten to harm The Coupledom’s bond. There are limitless ways to harm the bond and equally as many to protect it. The aforementioned smart lady saw couples therapy as the ideal path to begin to grapple with the confusing issues surrounding their financial success and extended family attitudes and demands. Despite the grueling work schedule of the ambitious and successful investment banker husband and the similarly grueling work schedule of his mate, who was trying to run the perfect home(s) and raise the perfect kids while keeping a toe in some aspect of her own professional aspirations, they both found the time to see a couples therapist near hubby’s office. It worked, and years later the couple are healthy, still wealthy, and very wise.
Whether Wealthy, Affluent, or Just Richer Than The Relatives, Here’s The Deal: Another patient described how her husband’s generous kind heart and naiveté left her feeling vulnerable to exploitation by a member of his family. When the entitled relative grumbled that his request for additional funding after thousands already had been loaned to him was denied, her husband pointed to his wife as the limit setter, essentially throwing her under the bus. Angry at her spouse but aware that the sharks were circling in the family waters, and that this challenge foreshadowed more to come from family members from both sides, she and I began to assemble some tools that would protect The Coupledom from turning on itself.
Using The Coupledom For Balance: It is clear that decisions regarding funding or housing of extended family members or friends should be brainstormed together. The line that “Well I earn the money,” is one of the most divisive and damaging in The Coupledom. A basic understanding needs to be in place that no one acts unilaterally or damage will be done.
Ballast In The Storm: As a counter balance in a potential family storm, the non-related partner can be that beacon in the night that casts light on the patterns and history of the spouse’s family member. “Remember what happened last time. Keep in mind that this decision will send a message to our children, to other family members.” Empathy is key here. The non-related partner needs to understand the pressure their partner is feeling, the confusion of feelings or the inherited belief systems that press down on their conscience. “I know how much he/she meant to you growing up.” “I know that you have guilt about being the favorite child, the smarter one, the pretty one.” “This must be so tough.” ” I know that you are worried that your folks will be angry at you if you say no to your sister.” “I know you feel that you have a lot to prove to your family to gain their respect, but I am worried that in trying to earn their respect, you will lose mine. Let’s figure this out together.”
Boundaries and Nonsense: Helping the partner set appropriate boundaries, separate irrational guilt from fact, sort through confusing familial messages, and land on solid ground takes time but increases Coupledom trust and enhances the pragmatics of the shared life.
The Coupledom Responds As A Unit: Couples who have grown to understand the importance in the “we” of life, recognize that listening and respecting their partner’s perspective bolsters both individual and Coupledom strength. When wealthy folk, or any of us who are perceived by others as having more, are faced with the dilemma of deciding how to handle requests by family members, turning to our spouse to partner the decision with us, because they are our partners in the shared life, takes the toxic potential out of the situation and leads to a more grounded and ultimately more satisfying solution.
Respecting The Coupledom: It is more powerful than its parts.
Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011