The Moneyist: My wife makes $200K a year, but gives us $700 a month, and $3,000 to her brother and mother ‘to keep them in the good life’

United States

Dear Quentin,

Never reached out to anyone about my personal life, but I am at a draw.

My wife and I married in 2008, and I knew that her mother controlled most of her life. What I did not know is that my mother-in-law also uses emotional guilt to get my wife to work 150-hour weeks to keep her and her son in the good life. 

She makes over $ 200,000 a year due to all the overtime. But we have two kids, and she is never here to be with them. Her brother constantly calls demanding more money, a bigger apartment, a cooler newer car and, if she doesn’t give in, her mother calls and does the same.  

‘The kids and I constantly are scraping by while her family lives off of her hard work and our poverty.’

The other part is that my wife gave her mother Power of Attorney over all of her finances. 

Now, I left the workplace to raise the kids and get my doctorate, and so I have a part-time job, but it makes nothing. My wife offers us $ 700 a month to run the household while giving my brother-in-law $ 3,000 for play (he is 40 and never worked) and pays his car and rent. 

This is all we argue over. Nothing else, except her brother who from time to time if he doesn’t get a quarterly bonus threatens to kill himself.

The kids and I constantly are scraping by while her family lives off of her hard work and our poverty. What is your recommendation to handle this? We are approaching a need for a divorce because the kids are suffering too much.

Out of Options

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Dear OOO,

This control your mother-in-law has over your wife, and the control that your wife is willing to cede, even above her husband and children at the risk of losing it all, started long before you met her. It began before she could recognize it for what it is. 

Your wife likely still doesn’t realize how toxic and co-dependent these relationships are, because she believes she and her brother and mother are an unbreakable triumvirate, except in this case it is not clear who holds all the power. Your mother-in-law, your brother-in-law, or both?

You have already raised these issues with her and it has descended into arguments because you are challenging something that is systemic. It will take the intervention of a financial therapist, financial adviser and/or psychologist to break this structure.

Start thinking of her family not as a mother and brother, but as a “family system,” a theory developed by the psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen. It is a complex system where people follow rules, adopt moral beliefs and, yes, can give up their own agency without question.

Toxic family systems are cult-like.

Toxic family systems are cult-like. Your wife’s mother and brother are not just saying, “You owe us.” They are effectively saying, “You belong to us. You are us. We are you.” Under such circumstances, threats of suicide are even more triggering. 

In her book, “Toxic Parents,” Susan Forward writes, “Unhealthy families discourage individual expression. Everyone must conform to the thoughts and actions of the toxic parents. They promote fusion, a blurring of personal boundaries, a welding together of family members.”

They become one unit, bound by rules, both seen and unseen. “On an unconscious level, it is hard for family members to know where one ends and another begins. In their efforts to be close, they often suffocate one another’s individuality,” she adds.

“Children who are not encouraged to do, to try, to explore, to master, and to risk failure, often feel helpless and inadequate. Over-controlled by anxious, fearful parents, these children often become anxious and fearful themselves,” Forward writes.

“This makes it difficult for them to mature,” she adds. “Many never outgrow the need for ongoing parental guidance and control. As a result, their parents continue to invade, manipulate, and frequently dominate their lives.” This appears to be where you are.

The questions will become: Who needs the most help? Who wants to be helped? And who can be helped? Your wife will either choose you or her family of origin, and you will be left with the difficult choice of choosing to accept that or, instead, choosing you. 

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