She Said, He Said: In-Laws' Golden Handcuffs

Dear Lori and Jeff,

When I met my wife five years ago, I had no idea of her financial status. I knew that her parents had a nice home and spent a lot of time traveling but she lived frugally and worked hard. When we got married, I learned about the extent of her family's substantial resources. Admittedly, they have been very generous—helping us with the down payment on our house, taking us on family vacations and starting college funds for our kids. The issue is that they’ve increasingly put pressure on us to raise the kids in specific ways, build our schedules and vacations around their needs, and spend money according to their values.  We, and my wife in particular, have been struggling to say no because of everything they continue to give us.

Signed,

Locked In Golden Handcuffs

Dear Locked In,

Lori and Jeff: The relationships adults have with their parents are often complex, stressful and challenging to navigate. Factor in finances, and you’re likely in for a whirlwind. However, the particular pressure points of these relationships will vary for each individual. It’s important to get clear on what’s specifically triggering you. Are you and your spouse feeling divided by the subtle (or not-so-subtle) demands of your in-laws? Are you feeling a loss of empowerment, freedom or authenticity? Is there a sense of emasculation as their support takes away from your ability to fulfill “provider” or “man of the house” roles? You have to know your pressure points and motivations in order to maintain courage to change the situation.

Parents who are overly involved often have the best intentions. They want their children to be safe, comfortable and successful, but often provide “support” through a biased lens. They give what they think would have been helpful for them to receive, and it’s not always what the receiver really needs. Add in the emotional layers of aging parents still wanting to feel meaningful and relevant, and you can see how gifted money, even from family, is never really free.

But parents are just one side of the formula. In order for this difficult dynamic to continue, you and your spouse have to be contributing equally to the equation. Perpetuating some aspects of being the child has convenience, and many adult children do so without even being aware. They often allow their parents to influence their lifestyles and decision-making. There is an ease that comes with having fewer choices to make, and therefore less accountability for the mistakes or challenges that arise. But if you’re still leaning on your child role for safety, you’re also robbing yourself of the opportunity to build confidence, self-esteem and self-actualization through the process of individuation.

We fully acknowledge how difficult it is to turn down financial support. Some may feel they couldn’t get by without it, or that they’d be limiting opportunities for their children by turning it down. We would rarely recommend that a couple create an all out assertion against financial support. But you have to know the costs before you can determine what is a healthy balance. Start with doing some work to create an internal foundation for decision-making. Clarify your values, goals and desires. When options for “support” arise, you’ll know if saying yes is aligned with who you are, and where you want to be going, rather then just the path of least resistance.

When you and your spouse have this level of clarity, you can also begin to establish boundaries that balance your needs with those of your in-laws. We know how hard it can be to say no to our parents for fear of creating conflict or disappointing them. Even worse, we don’t want to feel the shame of not being a good son or daughter. But not setting boundaries leads to resentments that rot a family from the inside out—affecting your marriage and even your ability to best parent your children.

As you set limitations with your in-laws, also provide clear direction on how they can support you in the ways you, your spouse and your children need most.

Lori KretComment