A prevailing belief holds that men who marry women with inherited wealth are gold diggers. While this belief is not necessarily true, there are numerous gray areas that invite a deeper look into this stereotype. Regardless of the particulars of a financially unequal relationship, the inequality in itself so easily becomes a trap for a couple.
In terms of gender, the reverse is also true: women with modest incomes also marry male inheritors. Think, for example, of the 1953 movie hit “How to Marry a Millionaire” with Marilyn Monroe.
I am an inheritor and co-founder of The Inheritance Project. I have interviewed many inheritors of both genders. Occasionally I interviewed a married couple—one wealthy, one not wealthy. In 1997 I wrote a booklet called For Love and/or Money: The Impact of Inherited Wealth on Relationships.
One of these interviews, with Deborah and Alex (pseudonyms), is longer and more in-depth than the others. I recently reconnected with Deborah; she brought me up to date on her marriage and how it ended: the inequality of wealth between Deborah and Alex was a major part of the failure of a thirty-five-year marriage.
This blog is arranged in two parts: The first part covers the conversation between Deborah and Alex found in For Love and/or Money. The second part, unpublished, with Deborah alone, will follow in a week or so.
To start from the beginning: Alex was not a gold digger, but the large gap between his very small income and Deborah’s seven-figure inheritance was a sore point for a number of years. Alex had never been cut out to hold down a nine-to-five professional job; he was too much of a rebel and contrarian. Although well educated, for most of his working life he worked intermittently at low-paying contract jobs. His inability to find good work was stressful for both Deborah and Alex. Deborah wanted Alex to bring home more of the bacon, but that was not happening. She believed that earning a respectable amount of money was a man’s responsibility in a marriage. As Deborah explained: “The income from my trust was much higher than Alex’s earnings, so there was an imbalance right from the start. I was putting a lot of pressure on Alex to get a ‘real’ job.
“Alex eventually found a part-time, poorly paid position teaching freshman English at a local university,” Deborah explains. “He hated it. He constantly complained about the students. I used to hear him hollering and swearing down in his tiny windowless basement room (his ‘office,’ the only spare room in the house, where he was trying to learn how to operate his first Apple computer. Then he shifted to consulting, looking for short-term contracts. They were intermittent, part-time, and poorly paid. One day he told me, ‘This is so stressful for me.’ I knew he wasn’t exaggerating, and on the spot I decided to share a big portion of my income with him. (Looking back, Deborah sees how naïve she was to believe that her generosity would solve the problems in their marriage.) So I said, ‘Maybe you should stop working.’ I remember how enormously relieved he felt, and how grateful. I wasn’t happy telling Alex he could stop working, but it didn’t seem to make sense for him to go on struggling so much for such a meager return.”
Alex: “It has taken me a while to get to the point where I was able to regard the income that Deborah offered to split with me not as a dependency but as an empowerment. So I’m really grateful for Deborah having done what she did because, finally, I can do what I want. I can do therapy, I can practice meditation and look after my health, and I can begin to write again. I’ve started to see that I can actually enjoy my life.”
That interview took place thirteen years ago. Two months ago, after a marriage of almost thirty-five years, Alex and Deborah made a mutual decision to separate. Needless to say, it was very difficult and stressful, especially so for Alex. Because it was Deborah who had paid for over nine-tenths of the purchase price of their home, it seemed only fair that she would stay in the house and that Alex would move out. It took him a month to find an apartment, which he dislikes. Deborah understands his reasons: it feels sterile, and he misses his home of thirty-three years. Deborah is now paying Alex’s rent and other expenses.
Deborah has been happier since the separation. “Ever since we married,” she explains, “I have been enduring Alex’s frequent angry outbursts and general curmudgeonliness. I found it hard to defend myself: I was afraid of his anger, so I rarely confronted him.” With the exception of some brief happy interludes (usually when they were travelling) being married to Alex was hard on Deborah. “After the separation, when I would see people who knew both of us and I told them that we had split up, several friends said, ‘What took you so long?’”
To be continued …