“Being rich is like being a superhero, only better”Tom Wambsgans, Succession on HBO
Per Statista, the month of December sees the single highest number of engagements of any other month of the year. While COVID will have adjusted some couple’s schedules, the reality is that the next couple of weeks are likely to be chock full of new engagements. Today, I want to briefly consider one unique type of engagement – when someone marries into a family of significant wealth.
We have all heard the common saying – “It’s as easy to love a rich man, as a poor one.” But is that really the case? Easy is not a common phrase used when describing marriage regardless of wealth. Instead, I would argue that there are incremental complications that come from wealth that should make us question the veracity of the saying. Maybe it is as easy to fall in love with a person of wealth, but being married – that’s a different matter entirely.
A Collision of Agency
Paul Schervish, Professor Emeritus and Founding Director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, has articulated a valuable concept when describing the wealthy, a term he refers to as hyperagency. Schervish defines hyperagency as, “the array of dispositions and capacities that enable individuals to relatively single-handedly produce the social outcomes they desire, as well as the conditions within which they and others exercise their agency. If agency is the capacity to make choices largely within the rules and resources that are socially given, hyperagency is the capacity to be a creator or producer of those rules and resources.”
This is exactly the sentiment which Tom Wambsgans of HBO’s Succession so aptly identifies. While the “normal” person can make choices within the limits defined for them by their spending power and societal norms. The exceptionally wealthy have the ability to manifest both the norms and outcomes they desire. At a foundational level, this dynamic left unaddressed or unacknowledged has the potential for generating significant conflict in the new marriage – simply because the lenses with which they view the world are not the same.
Where Do In-laws Fit?
The challenge for all new marriages is for each partner to separate adequately from their family of origin in order to allow the germination and development of a new household. Each family system has its own norms regarding the welcoming of outsiders into the family systems.
The challenge for the incoming spouse to the family of wealth is that the weight of the new family – whether the management of the wealth, attendant expectations, family gatherings, social responsibilities and the like – functions like the mass of a large star, generating an inescapable level of gravity from which it can be near impossible to escape. It will be important for the new couple to clarify the expectations of the broader family on their new household, and whether that accords with the life they are seeking to build. The in-coming spouse should try to get clear on the family’s governance – a formalization that their family of origin likely does not have. Family governance speaks to how well the family is able to address and ultimately work through its core challenges.
Communicate, Communicate and then Communicate Some More
It is imperative that the new couple increase their capacity for having meaningful conversations, as well as their frequency in having them. The more explicit they are able to be in their dialogue together, the more they will be able to bring their individual dreams / expectations into alignment as a couple. Only once that unified framework is in place, will they be able to then navigate how they begin to fit into the overall family structure. My forthcoming book, When Anything is Possible, lays out a framework and process by which each person and the couple can begin to thoughtfully work through these questions together. To learn more and access a free chapter on Wealth Identity – visit here.