Doctors fighting about money: Now that's rich

His parents paid for everything and mine did not. So I'm in debt and he isn't. Why are we fighting about this?

Published August 18, 2008 10:18AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a young physician (intern) who is in a mountain of educational debt from undergrad and medical school. This is for several reasons: 1) I was fortunate enough to get into great private schools for both and preferred them over my state schools. 2) My parents didn't have a whole lot of income relative to the number of children they had. 3) My parents weren't the most knowledgeable or responsible people when it came to financial matters. It's not like they were purposefully ignorant, but more like innocently ignorant. They didn't really learn how to properly invest and save until much later in their lives, and as a result they had nothing for my college/grad school education, wedding, etc.

I don't really blame my parents for this. It's hard for me to blame them for not saving, since they always provided me with the necessities: clothing, food, shelter, love. I don't feel like I was entitled to get everything paid for by them. Money was always tight in our house, but when you live like that, I guess you learn quickly that money does not have to make your world go 'round, and there are plenty of things that can keep you happy even if you have little fortune and struggle with debt.

That being said, there's no getting around the fact that when it came to finances, we were not savvy with what we had in terms of saving/investing. So I assumed the debt of my education and worked a few jobs in college/med school to help with my basic needs.

My spouse has the exact opposite situation. Though he also went to private schools, he has only one other sibling, and his father likely makes three to four times what my father did at his peak. His father still works, he is younger than my father by about a decade, and my father has been retired for over a decade. My spouse's parents have been able to finance in full my spouse's education (college/med school) and various other expenses (car, etc.) for a long time. My spouse earns an income and has assumed responsibility for most of his life now, but has zero educational debt. Additionally, his parents saved a lot for him and are wise when it comes to investing matters.

He inherited from his parents all this knowledge about money. I inherited none of that from my parents, though I am learning. I have made a few mistakes in the past few years (I accumulated some credit card debt helping out family members and was not able to make interest payments on my debt), but have paid off the card debt and am learning how to be more responsible. There's a lot to learn.

My spouse is terrified by my mountain of debt (only educational, nothing else). Understandable ... he has never been in debt before. I am not so scared by it, since I am used to it now, and I know that with my income potential and ability to live frugally, we will eventually pay it off, even if it takes years. That doesn't bother me. My spouse thinks I am not concerned enough, and tells me so. What really gets me, though, is his judgmental attitude about my parents. He blames our situation on them and has no compassion for them whatsoever.

Since my parents had a hard time paying for some of the wedding expenses in a timely fashion, I paid some of the expenses using only some of the money we received as wedding gifts, and my parents said they can pay us back over time (a few hundred a month). I understand that it was my wedding, and this is what they can do. For God's sake, my parents live month to month on Social Security and a government pension. They are in their 70s and I feel bad for them. I was never one to believe that it was entirely the parents' "responsibility" to pay for their daughter's wedding, and I'm happy to contribute even if it comes out of our wedding gifts. (My husband's parents helped with the wedding as well, which was very nice of them.) As it is, my parents feel guilty about the debt that I am in, and that they couldn't provide the way my spouse's parents did.

My spouse is so pissed by this situation and thinks it totally sucks that we had to help out my parents. He thinks this partly because he believes my parents were "supposed" to pay for the wedding, and were "supposed" to pay for my education the way his parents did. He expressed this to his mother and characterized my parents as "unconcerned," which is far from the truth. I hate it when wealthy people label the less fortunate as lazy, unconcerned or stupid. My parents are none of these things. They had very different life circumstances. My in-laws are nice people, but I hate that their son is feeding them lies about what my parents are like.

I understand that he is not used to debt and would find it alarming that I am in so much. But it makes me so angry inside that he has no compassion for my parents, makes judgments about them, and doesn't even try to put himself in their shoes. Granted my parents were not the greatest to him while we were engaged -- I can certainly blame them for that -- but since we married they have tried to make amends and be nice. I hate it that he thinks money is the most important thing in the world. What kills me is that he expressed to his mother, "I wish I had thought twice before marrying someone in so much debt."

I don't want to talk to him about it, since it will end up becoming this huge thing, and we have already fought so much about it. Why is it so hard for him to be compassionate? Why is it so hard for him to be a little forgiving? Am I being unreasonable? I don't know.

Please help.

Piled Higher and Deeper in Debt

Dear Piled Higher in Debt,

Your husband's parents brought him up well and gave him many advantages. He struggled through a rigorous program of medical study. He married well and wisely. It can't be that he truly has no compassion for anyone other than himself, can it? Such a man would never turn your parents out on the street, would he? He would never think of the elderly on fixed incomes as so much social dead weight, would he? He is not the kind of guy to stand by and laugh and point his finger at struggling retirees one month's check away from living on the street because they failed to put enough money in their 401Ks and take all the available tax advantages and follow the stock market and borrow from their relatives to invest in stock and real estate bubbles and get out at just the right time ... would he? He may privately rue your parents' lack of foresight in not being born to the right parents with the right friends who could advise them on their investments, but surely he views them with compassion because they are, after all, the parents of the woman he loves, right? Surely he subscribes to the generally accepted view that human beings have a worth and importance that transcend their ability to manage their investments? Surely he recognizes that people are shaped by their time and circumstances as much as by their innate character?

So how could it be that your husband is being what some people politely call a genuine "Santorum"?

I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. That's called "labeling," and it's something we in the compassion industry never do. In fact, I didn't do it just then. What I actually did was suggest, hypothetically, what somebody else might think. We exquisitely evolved creatures of compassion and light don't stoop to labeling people as "Santorums." We don't like labeling (fucking elitist) because it strips a person (punish the rich) of those qualities they were born with (in a manger in Kennebunkport?), things that have nothing to do with their social class, their capacities for wealth management, or whether they are or ever have been what are considered tools that speak.

Such shameful labeling only expresses outrage and anger that arise not from our superiority but, to the contrary, from our deep-seated uneasiness about money, as well as perhaps an unstated fear of the poor.

So why do people seem to become so unkind when they do not feel secure? We have this little-known muscle that opens when we feel secure and confident and closes when we feel threatened. It's called the sphincter misericordia, or the "compassion sphincter." In a state of confident relaxation, it opens; fear causes the sphincter of compassion to tighten. (Please note that "fiction" and "finger" have the same roots as "sphincter." Interesting, eh?)

OK, so I apologize for my attempts at humor. You've got a real problem and I mean no disrespect to you or your husband. I do think, seriously, that your conflict with your husband over money has to do with some need he has that is only on the surface about money. It is really about some emotional need. In spite of being given all the advantages, he may still feel deeply insecure. Your debt in that case would only be acting like a trigger, or symbol, of something more profound. He may want his views and his family's traditions to be respected. He may want to be heard. He may want acceptance by your parents. He probably still feels wounded by your parents' initial failure to accept him and embrace him. You allude to their conflicts but don't spell them out. There must be something troubling and unresolved between him and your parents, which in turn probably stems from his relationship with his own parents. Perhaps he unconsciously wished that your parents would make up for what his own parents failed to give him -- warm, unconditional acceptance, perhaps. However much your parents have tried to mask it, evidently there is much unresolved tension between him and them.

But since you and he are doctors, you may not have the time to go into all this. Busy professionals often have little time to spend on introspection. Hard work and long hours, in fact, can provide welcome distraction from emotional and spiritual issues, and high status and power can be used to mask and rationalize interpersonal shortcomings. So as long as he can effectively ignore the deeper implications of his attitudes about money and your parents, he may be unlikely to delve into them.

So if you're expecting him to begin the process of honestly facing what his true motivations are, and honestly trying to change ... well, I suggest that you refrain from prolonged voluntary apnea.

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