Of finances and fiancés

My husband-to-be comes from a family that has the money but won't help him out of a jam

Topics: Since You Asked, relationships, Money, Family, Marriage,

Of finances and fiancés (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

My fiancé and I are a pair of deeply-in-love 20-somethings who, like any young couple, have had our share of rough financial patches. We’re both very hardworking people and have always managed to stay afloat without any handouts. I recently lost my job during the holidays and am scrambling to find work while saving for our rent next month. I told my fiancé that if we were still short on cash I could borrow a hundred bucks from my father for a bit just to tide us over.

During the conversation he casually said that his parents told him as soon as he turned 18 and moved out that they would never help him financially again, as he is now an adult and therefore must be completely independent. That seemed reasonable enough, but upon inquiry he went on to say that even if he were in dire monetary straits and facing eviction that they would still refuse to lend him even a hundred dollars.

His parents are quite well off. They are also very warm, gracious and sincerely caring people. I just can’t see how two loving parents could refuse their own son, who is a wonderful, honest and completely industrious man, a petty amount of cash during a financial crisis, especially if he promised to repay them promptly. In contrast, my own father and I have had a bit of a tumultuous relationship, but I at least know that when it really came down to it, he would at least lend me money, if not grant it to me. Meanwhile, my fiancé and I had always agreed that once we were older and financially capable, we would give our parents money each month to help them with their various expenses. I have always thought that family should always be there for you, regardless of the situation.

Is it wrong for me to feel uncomfortable with the fact that his parents would refuse their son aid upon principle? It not only seems rigid, but callous. It’s not about the money — large sums and inheritances and the like — it’s the sentiment that bothers me.

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Tough love makes sense. Unyielding coldness does not. Am I wrong to be upset about this? I adored his parents and I still want to be able to admire them, but I must admit the respect I had for them has diminished a bit. I haven’t told my fiancé because I really do want to understand their stance on this issue. What do you think, Cary? Should parents at a certain point stop being so didactic and just help a person out?

Sincerely,

Confused Daughter-To-Be

Dear Confused Daughter-To-Be,

Last night I dreamed I was hitchhiking on a deserted road. I found a phone booth, put a quarter in, called my mother collect and asked her to wire me $50. The relief of having $50!

It is a powerful thing, this faith that our parents will be there for us no matter what.

Now, your fiancé has an agreement with his parents that they will not come to his financial aid after the age of 18. Perhaps because of this agreement, you fear your fiancé and his parents won’t be there for you in a crisis. But I don’t think this agreement means that they are abandoning you. There is another way to look at this agreement — as a recognition of your fiancé’s adulthood, and as a profound expression of respect for the power of money in relationships.

In this way of thinking, for them to hold to the pact is not an act of cold withholding, but a determined upholding. They are mutually upholding their pact of separation, and the separation is holy and necessary in the same way that money itself is holy and necessary. Their upholding of the agreement is a strength.

If the first time he feels fear and asks for money they give in to him, what happened to that agreement? If the upholding of this agreement is their way of demarcating his entry into adulthood, then what happens if they discard the agreement the first time some difficulty arises? Does he then return to his former state of dependence, of boyhood?

This is about more than money. He is an independent adult man and this agreement is part of that independence. It’s a sacred pact. It’s what his adulthood rests on for the moment.

Now, they could amend the agreement if circumstances warrant, and perhaps they will. Or perhaps they will enter into a new agreement in which his parents agree to give him some money, or invest some money in a business venture of his, or lend him some money. It’s always possible to make new agreements. But particularly today when we are seeing the effects of easy credit and massive debt, it is probably a good thing to have the boundaries of one’s own economic world clearly defined.

I doubt that they would stand by and watch him drown. This agreement is not about abandonment. It is about independence. He is attempting to play by the rules in order to win the prize — which is self-respect, the knowledge that he can make it on his own. If they step in too soon, he will lose that opportunity.

So I suggest you step back and let him grow. This is his way and he has accepted it. Let it be.

At the same time, it will be useful for you to explore your own emotional relationship to money, family and security. In particular, how were agreements about money handled in your family? Were they mainly expedient and circumstantial, or were there certain agreements that were inviolable? It may be that in your family, the inviolable, if unstated, assumption was that one family member would always come to the aid of another. So you and your fiancé may have conflicts in the years ahead if you do not take the time now to recognize that there are  two kinds of agreements — one that is tribal, emotional, and speaks to an all-encompassing family loyalty, and the other that is contractual and speaks to independence and boundaries.

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