My husband was left out of the family business

His brothers made millions but never asked him to join

Published October 1, 2010 12:30AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband's father is a typical father of the '60s: undemonstrative and nonverbal. My husband can go on a three-hour fishing trip with him, and according to my husband, his father will say almost nothing. When my husband calls him, he invariably says, "Let me put your mother on."

Nothing unusual, lots of people of my generation have this problem. However, when my father-in-law started his business about a dozen years ago, he hired my husband's older brother to be his No. 2. He then hired my husband's younger brother to also help run the company. And he never asked my husband. Granted, both brothers had experience in the kind of company my father-in-law created and my husband didn't. It's a manufacturing firm -- both brothers had sales experience in large companies. Both brothers (and his father) are now millionaires. And we definitely are not.

Resentment? Seething. Answers? None. My husband says that if he had been asked, he's not sure he would have joined the company, but he is profoundly wounded that he was never even considered. He's no idiot, nor irresponsible. He easily could have become their art director (he was in the film business for about 20 years).

But he won't ask his father outright why he wasn't included in the family business. That's the kind of family it is; they avoid conflict at all costs. His father is in the very first stages of Alzheimer's and my husband says he doesn't want to damage their relationship when he's not sure how much time they're going to have together in the future.

I've tried to explain to him that this is a problem that will continue to eat away at him long after his father is gone, and that he needs to get it out in the open while he can. He doesn't buy it.

Do you think it would be a good idea for him to talk to his dad about this? And if so, can you articulate it for me in a way that perhaps might be more cogent and therefore more persuasive to him?

A Wife Who Loves Her Husband

Dear Wife Who Loves Her Husband,

You want to persuade your husband to confront his father. You love him and want him to be happy. You think that if he does not take this step he will regret it for years to come.

I believe that you genuinely think you have your husband's best interests at heart. But my main concern is for you, not for your husband. He didn't write to me. You did. And I believe it's possible that without quite realizing it you are using your husband to stand in for your own feelings. So I would like to ask: To what degree is this eating away at him and to what degree is it eating away at you? Could it be that when you tell your husband you fear it will eat away at him after his father is gone, that it may actually be eating away at you?

Let's concentrate on your own feelings.

Let's think about how you might come to feel better about this whole thing.

To feel better about it, you have to know what you really feel -- not what you think you should feel, and not what would be honorable, and not what you feel toward your husband's father, but what you really feel toward your own husband.

Are you glad that your husband did not join the company? Do you lie in bed at night thinking, "Gee, I'm sure glad he never got involved in that million-dollar company!"?

Or do you wish he had stepped forward back then and said that he would like to be a part of this company?

And how do you regard his behavior in that regard? How would you characterize it? Would you say that he showed strength of character in standing back and letting things happen as they did? Or would you have preferred that he stand up for himself a little more?

Is it possible that along with your great love for your husband there is also some anger and frustration? Is it possible that at times you feel that your husband has been a coward?

It's important at this time to be brutally frank about what you are feeling. You don't have to act on any of it. You don't have to accuse your husband. You just have to plumb the depths of your own heart and admit what you are actually feeling. This can go a long way toward helping you accept the situation and gain some peace.

Now, presumably there was a time early on when your husband could have lobbied for a position. He could have acquired the necessary training, humbled himself and offered to learn from the ground up.

So why didn't he? Was it just because he was afraid to confront his father and brothers and stand up for himself?

Or is it possible that by not pursuing it he made exactly the right choice, and that by not asking him, your father showed that he knew what was best?

You indicate that he could have been art director, and that he worked in film. So he is an artistic person.

We artistic people often shy away from lucrative opportunities and kick ourselves later. We have to remember that the reason we shy away from them is that they are dangerous. It's no joke being a creative person. The pain we feel at having to take on roles that do not suit us is very real and very deep. It can be crippling.

Often the best thing we can do to protect our creative lives is to avoid all manner of commercial entanglement -- especially with family members, especially where the risk of failure and humiliation is high!

Let's remember the value of doing nothing!

My guess is that we have a more or less natural bias. When we see what looks like a missed opportunity, we tend to overlook how much work it would have been. It's possible that getting involved in the company could have been disastrous for a creative person, a middle child, a sensitive intuitive introvert.

If you can help your husband in any way, you can help him be clear about what he actually wants from his father. It doesn't sound like he is very eager to confront his dad about the business. Maybe his reluctance is grounded and wise. Maybe your own desire to know is stronger than his. So what does he want?

Does he want his dad to know how hurt he was? Or does he perhaps just want to be closer to his dad in general, you know, share some things, talk about some things?

There are ways to do that. One way is to simply start telling his dad things that he feels he has to tell him. Maybe this is one of them but it doesn't have to be the first thing he tells his dad. Maybe there are other things he's never told his dad that he might want to start with. Like maybe he wants to tell his dad that he'd like to do more fishing. Maybe they could do more fishing together and if they only say a few words each trip, well, maybe the words will add up. Or maybe he'd like to get his dad involved in some things that he prefers doing, perhaps more artistic things. Maybe he'd like to go see some films with his dad.

Let's not just assume he really wants to know why his dad didn't ask him to join the company. Maybe he'd prefer not to know. Maybe that's not what he wants to know.

Wishing he'd been asked is different from wanting to know why he wasn't.

What I mean is, sometimes we have been hurt and we say, I just want to know why you did it. But is that what we really want? What good will that do? It seems to me that when we are hurt what we really want is for the pain to go away. If knowing why somebody hit us would take the pain away, then that might make sense. But usually it won't. It will still hurt. There is something else we want. We want the pain to go away.

So what will take the pain away? Accepting what happened. Accepting that this is how he is viewed, for better or worse. Accepting that perhaps his family's view of him is accurate, that he is the creative one. Accepting that perhaps they admire or even envy his creative ability.

One more thing. Is it correct to say that his father's reticence is about avoiding conflict? How could his father be a successful businessman by avoiding conflict? I can almost guarantee his father knows how to handle conflict.

My guess is that the silence is about power. Silence allows the father to maintain power by not giving people the opportunity to ask for what they want. Silence is a tactic. It keeps people from asking for things.

Silence keeps others off balance. It's about power, not fear of self-expression. Let's not pretend that these are just a bunch of repressed men out fishing in a rowboat. Power is being exercised in the silence.

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