Over a decade ago in my work as a family wealth psychologist, I was engaged by a couple who opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about money and relationships, and embracing economic diversity. This couple, in their late 40s with several young children, consisted of a mother from a multigenerational family of wealth and a father from a hard scrabble, working-class background. They had reached out to me for guidance about preparing their children for the wealth that would eventually be passed down through their maternal line.

As I worked with this wonderful family, I quickly came to admire how well the parents collaborated with each other, handled money conflicts, and were open and caring toward their children about money. 

Leaving Behind "Fiscal Inequals"

This couple didn’t seem to struggle with the commonly-cited challenges of being “fiscal unequals.” Particularly when the wife has the money, some studies suggest that the power dynamics, traditional gender roles, and social stigmas associated with “cross-class” relationships can become hurdles to a successful relationship.

 We are also frequently presented with dramatized examples in movies, TV, or books that play up the challenges for couples. Advisors, therapists, and general society are convinced it’s hard to overcome this type of disparity when it comes to wealth in relationships.

Curious about this couple’s adjustment, I asked, “How is that you’ve been able to navigate so well what others find to be difficult?” Their answer immediately made great sense. “We see our relationship as having economic diversity, just like other relationships that may have religious, racial, or ethnic diversity.

Our different backgrounds add a richness to our marriage and to the family, which we use to our advantage in dealing with each other and with our children. In fact, we see it as a benefit, not a risk.”

This couple went on to explain how they approached the economic diversity woven into their marriage:

  • It forced them to listen to each other and recognize the different perspectives they brought to
    so many issues.
  • It forced them to build their skills of collaborating and negotiating in healthy ways.
  • It allowed them to model to their children how people respect diverse views and backgrounds
    by handling relationship conflicts productively.
  • It contributed an enhanced level of awareness about others’ economic lives they would have
    lacked on their own.

How This Worked in Their Family

As an example, when shopping with their 8- and 10-year-olds for holiday gifts, each parent took time to explain what the holidays were like in their own families growing up. Working-class Dad spoke of having little money but feeling loved and cared-for, and that frugality was a necessary part of the household. 

Affluent Mom told of the warm memories she had of shopping with her grandmother, who preached focusing on the value of one’s purchases more than being extravagant. Both learned money skills through loving disciplined relationships, which is what they wanted to impart to their own children.

This couple’s optimistic framework was consistent with recent trends in psychology emphasizing a positive strengths-based perspective rather than the fear-driven or pathological (3). This includes a shift in focusing on the benefits of diversity rather than the drawbacks or difficulties (4). Each parent epitomized how money differences can be used to foster resilience and adaptive coping within the family. 

Embracing Economic Diversity

By rejecting negative stereotypes inherent in the “fiscal unequals” label, they taught me to view couples’ economic differences through an inclusive lens rather than the supposedly inevitable challenges.

Within the mental health or financial advising professions, we must be careful about bringing biases into our work with clients who may have “wealth disparity” or “fiscal inequality” as part of their relationship. Remember that diversity enters many - if not most - relationships in one form or another. Economic diversity can be handled productively, just like any other difference in backgrounds, culture, or current situation.

It can even make things better.

REFERENCES

1. James E. Hughes, Jr., Joanie Bronfman, and Jacqueline Merrill (2000), Reflections on fiscal unequals. Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica, and Jessica Pan (2015), Gender identity and relative income within households. CEPR Discussion Paper No. DP10443.

2. See, for example, Crazy Rich Asians (2018; Warner Brothers; John Chu director) where a female inheritor has a husband who
struggles with his adjustment to her wealth and position.

3. Martin Seligman (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York City, NY, US; Atria
Books.

4. Gunter Stahl, Kristina Makela, Lena Zander, and Martha Maznevski (2010), A look at the bright side of multicultural team
diversity. Scandinavian Journal of Management, Vol. 26 (4), December, 439-447.

Dr. James Grubman


James Grubman, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized consultant to multigenerational families of wealth and their advisors. He is the author of Strangers in Paradise: How Families Adapt to Wealth Across Generations (2013) and, with his long-time collaborator Dennis Jaffe PhD, is the recipient of the 2021 Family Wealth Report Award for Outstanding Thought Leadership in the field of wealth psychology and family business consulting. His global consulting practice is based in the Boston, MA, USA area.

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