Relationship Dynamics When Women Inherit Wealth
Whenever someone receives a very large inheritance, the impact on their life can be significant in unexpected ways. Even a person who was raised with great wealth may find challenges when the money becomes their own to manage and steward.
One of those challenges can be maintaining healthy marital relationships. Male or female, there’s a lot to work through in terms of open communication between each spouse, and also with the entire family, to make sure the relationship feels equitable and that both parties understand their own identities and the identity they’re forming as a couple.
Women inheriting vast wealth, and their partners, face another obstacle as it can upset the historical notion of gender roles. Men, who traditionally are the financial providers in a relationship, are less so in these situations and may have less control over the family’s finances. Both the woman and the man, in a financially diverse heterosexual relationship, have a lot of unique issues to address to keep their union strong.
Michele Mikeska, M.A., a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, studied these relationship dynamics in her groundbreaking dissertation, “When She Has the Money: The Relational Implications of a Woman’s Inherited Wealth Within Heterosexual and Fiscally Unequal Marriages.” She has since turned her dissertation into a journal article which is pending publication.
Michele interviewed six married couples of varying ages with the marriage ranging from four to 46 years. Each of the women received a significant inheritance, and each couple’s wealth ranged from $10 million to $900 million. The conversations uncovered 11 major themes that these couples experienced.
“Salient themes of pressure, acceptance, avoidance, uncertainty, discomfort, misunderstandings, commitment, and communication were dominant issues that emerged from the interview data,” Michele wrote.
Michele has generously shared her findings with Aspiriant wealth managers to help us better serve our clients. As someone who is a strong proponent for talking about money in relationships, I was eager to sit down with Michele to learn more. Here are a few key areas we discussed.
What motivated you to study this unique area?
The way I look at psychology, we are all born out of environmental understandings, attitudes and behaviors. No one had studied the impact of class in regards to wealth-holders on an individual’s psychology, and I was interested in understanding how money, wealth and class impact one’s identity. For the most part, money is a taboo subject to talk about, so children learn about it from cues from society, their parents and family dynamics. We all project our own meaning onto money — a dollar to me is going to be different from a dollar to you. Thus, as we know, it’s really ripe for strife and misunderstandings when it comes to relationships.
One of the women I interviewed thought that her inheritance wouldn’t be a big deal in her relationship because her husband was inheriting money too. But he was receiving $1.2 million. She was getting $600 million. Normally $1.2 million would be a nice egg, but it was relatively insignificant when compared to her wealth. Thus, such a vast difference in resources and understanding of those resources can impact a couple in a number of ways.
These were the types of dynamics I wanted to explore along with the sociocultural understandings of wealth and gender roles.
Confusion and avoidance were dominant behaviors among the couples, and you found that a pre-marital agreement tended to add to the pressure. Could you elaborate?
One of the most pervasive themes among these couples was the inability to understand how the relationship should work as the wealth changed gender roles. The power differentiators that before were pretty clear-cut became more muddied.
Men would ask, “If I’m not the financial provider, then what am I?” One husband said his wife was reluctant for him to give up his job because it provided him an identity and “cover” for her wealth.
Both spouses would often wonder, “Who’s money is it really? Mine, grandfather’s, ours?” Couples would often go back and forth about how they discussed it. Some would just call it “the” money.
When presented without the proper context, the pre-nuptial agreement would bring this confusion to life. In some cases, this was the initial view of how much wealth they were dealing with — the first time when she’s being told, “Here’s what you’re going to have to protect.”
This confusion shapes wealth identity and can impact the partnership in a variety of ways.
The pre-marital agreement example highlights something you noticed among all the couples: They were uninformed and unequipped to handle their wealth to varying degrees. How does this affect relationships?
When an inheritor is uninformed about her wealth, it affects her identity, the marriage and the ability to discuss the differences in a relationship. Participants said the lack of conversation within their families led to feelings of confusion, fear and disempowerment, and an inability to make financial decisions. All this can lead to avoidance issues.
One woman interviewed was always told growing up that she didn’t need to worry about money. She was patted on the hand and not given the tools to manage her wealth. Another woman, when finally examining her assets, realized she had more money than Madonna. It changed the way she saw herself and who she was in relationship to others.
Many of the women said their wealth impacted a previous romantic relationship, which then changed how they approached subsequent relationships.
You said you were struck by how few of the participants said they “feel great” about their wealth. What did you discover about that?
The thing is these are non-normative relationships, which means they are even more complex. Historically, we know non-normative relationships are viewed very differently in society. In social settings, these couples are often faced with questions and biases about their wealth and gender roles.
Our society both idealizes and vilifies wealth. Inheritors recognize that receiving a vast fortune this way is viewed negatively. Especially for families of multi-generational wealth, they experience exclusion and resentment from others, as well as high expectations and requirements.
Couples who had a nuanced understanding of this dynamic had a better connection to their wealth. They approach it as, “We know this is different; how do we do it differently.”
How might a wealth manager help in these situations?
Some couples in active conflict may not be aware of the specific issue causing their distress, or, they may blame all their problems on the money.
A wealth manager can create space and time to help the couple see the forest through the trees. The advisor can be valuable in not only explaining the financial challenges and assisting in transactions, but also by reflecting the personal issues that the couple can’t see because they’re deep in it.
Additionally, a wealth manager can help couples find their words to discuss the money and how it fits into their life goals and desires. Having a professional partner to help make sense of it all is huge.
How can couples navigate this new relational paradigm?
There is an inherent imbalance of power. It’s something that needs to be worked through a process. Each couple will have a unique approach since each of their challenges are unique. But at some level, there needs to be an acceptance of the financial disparity. Acceptance can be similar to the grieving process. Each partner will need to understand and go through various valid emotions. If not, the issues will likely manifest again and again in different ways.
In order to navigate challenges, couples need to have what I like to call, “connection capital” and invest in ways they can connect as a couple. Something needs to be in the relationship “bank” before they can withdraw when times are tough. Focusing on each other will help couples in dealing with family dynamics and societal norms.
Even the men with a strong sense of self-worth still felt like outsiders to the family wealth, which led them to take on different supportive roles. Some took on roles within the family business. Though, at times this created tension with other family members.
Meanwhile, even though women are increasingly residing in business leadership roles and managing more of their own wealth, research shows women still largely shoulder the responsibilities of managing the household, such as buying the gifts and scheduling the haircuts for the kids.
The successful couples I researched strived to move past traditional gender roles and social stigmas to focus on shared values, mutual regard for each other and placing the relationship first. These couples found a new way of adding value and defining self-worth removed from financial value and worth.
The more a couple can come together and remember why they fell in love and focus on how they want to live their lives together, the stronger they will be when it comes to financial challenges.
I appreciated the opportunity to speak to Michele about her study and insights. Our conversation highlighted how talking about money and uncovering our own experiences, perspectives and preferences can help improve our relationships, regardless of how much money we’re bringing to them.
Learn more about women and wealth by reading Aspiriant’s white paper, “Women Taking Charge: Six steps to feel more financially secure.”