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Family Wealth — The Difficulties of Differing Financial Backgrounds


30Nov 2008

I have had a number of situations recently where I have been involved in family situations where two members of a couple have come from significantly different levels of financial resources.

The following are more in the category of “in process” observations — thoughts and reflections that I have that are still developing and not fully complete yet.

  • Coming from different financial backgrounds is a relatively common occurance for couples.  Why?  It is really statistical in nature.  There are more individuals who come from middle, upper middle, and even fairly high income families — as opposed to the number of individuals who come from ultra high net worth families.   So there is clearly a higher probability that someone from an ultra high net worth family will find a life partner from a lower financial situation than their family’s.
  • No matter how functional the individuals are, or how healthy the relationship is, there will be significant challenges experienced.  Long-term relationships are difficult.  And being (or becoming) a healthy, responsible adult is no easy task.  When individuals come from significantly different personal and family backgrounds (regardless of the types of difference — ethnic/cultural, religious, educational, SES), this creates challenges for the couple to understand each other’s perspectives and worldviews.  This, in turn, creates difficulties in communicating clearly, not jumping to incorrect assumptions, and being able to empathize with your partner.
  • Relationships with in-law’s (parents-in-law, siblings-in-law) and other extended family members are the source of much of the tension experienced.  This is not to paint in-law’s or extended family members as the “bad guys” in the situation, but the fact of the matter is: expectations from your spouse’s family (and the resulting “in the middle experience” of the spouse) are the starting point for many conflicts.  Expectations about holidays, vacations, your career pathway, where you live, how you raise your kids — all are deeply rooted in one’s financial status and resources.  So when individuals within a couple come from significantly different financial backgrounds, tensions arise in these daily life decisions.
  • What is “no big deal” to one person (or family) can definitely be a “big deal” to another person (or family) — and the resolution of the different perceptions has nothing to do with logic.  Family values, traditions, and ways of being have little to do with logic.  When (or whether) you open Christmas presents; how you celebrate birthdays; the amount of money you spend on clothes, fireworks, sporting events, cars or art; the need to attend a great aunt’s birthday party — none of these decisions are purely logical.  They are influenced by personal experience, family history, individual preferences and probably lots of other things.  As a result, trying to convince another person that what is important to them really isn’t that important usually doesn’t work.  The best response is to listen intently to what the other person is saying, try to understand their worldview to the best of your ability and accept (and affirm) that what is important to them is important to them (even if you don’t understand why.)

There is a lot more that could be said — and many of you just had a bunch of personal stories triggered in your memories (share them, if you wish).  Let’s stop there for now.

Have a great week!

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