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Rich/Wealthy Families

F. Scott Fitzgerald observed that "The very rich are different from you and me." His friend Ernest Hemingway quipped "Yes, they have more money" (Hemingway 1936). Hemingway envied the rich and coveted their money, but Fitzgerald knew wealth was not an unmixed blessing. Money, as he had learned from his flamboyantly spoiled wife Zelda, is only the starting point for a different functional relationship with the world, making the rich, like the poor, different from those of us who are driven by hope and go through life striving to improve our selves and our lot. Fitzgerald contemptuously described the rich couple in The Great Gatsby (1925): "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." George Bernard Shaw, in Candida (1898), pronounced: "We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it."

Wealth is certainly the stuff of envy. When the dispirited have-nots, despairing of their ability to create a better life for themselves, rebel, they are likely to massacre the haves, as they did during the French and Russian revolutions. Even if this does not enrich the rebels it compresses the distance between those on top and those on the bottom. Beheadings go a long way toward curing envy. In Cambodia in the late 1970s, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge evacuated the cities, killed off the middle and upper classes, moved the survivors out to rural farms, and destroyed the country's machines and motor vehicles. In Zimbabwe in first years of the twenty-first century, white farmers were killed and their land was confiscated and left to lie fallow as the country—both blacks and white—fell into famine. Envy destroys its subjects as well as its objects.

Despite the near-universal envy of the rich, family therapists and financial advisors to the rich observe daily that wealth does not make people happy (Pittman 1985.) This is not to suggest that poverty is the secret of universal happiness either, but those who long for riches and envy those who have it would be in for a shock if they ever achieved their heart's desire. The beaming winners of the lottery, the newly minted rock stars, or the blushing brides of billionaires, thrilled at their good fortune at the moment, are likely to sing a different tune a year or so later, after they have let their wealth do its work of depriving them of pride in their own usefulness, isolating them from everyone less fortunate, distorting relationships with their loved ones, and ultimately disillusioning them. Do the cheering throngs that follow them around or the greedy hands in their pockets love them or their riches? Their divorce rates, the likelihood of legal battles with their less "fortunate" family members, their rates of depression and suicide, and their general levels of misery go up beyond middle-class levels almost to the levels of the poor. As Cloe Madanes points out (1994), "wealth often appears to be cursed, bringing with it more misery than joy." Sooner or later they realize that the wealth is not going to make them happy, but they then are likely to seek out more intense and drastic pleasures, from taking more risks, finding new drugs, getting into machines that go too fast, or otherwise trying to intensify experiences in a life that is rapidly becoming jaded, exhausted from overindulgence.

It is often thought that a plethora of money in and of itself produces unhappiness but further examination of the matter suggests that it is not wealth that brings the unhappiness but the belief that wealth will bring happiness and the disillusionment that results when it fails to do so. It may be that the rich are more unhappy than those in the economic middle, but they may be unhappy because they are the children of the rich (which J. Sedgwick [1985] describes as a dispiriting and crippling burden), because they have married money (a cold bed at best), or because they have amassed wealth obsessively through their inability to be satisfied, their relentless need for competitive victory, and their willingness to commit the "great crime" that, presumably "lies behind every great fortune." In other words, they are inherently unhappy and do what they do in hopes that more of something (or maybe even more of everything) will finally fill the void inside. It is their unhappiness (i.e., their inability to be easily satisfied) that has driven them to get rich.

Philip Slater (1980) points out the senseless greediness of the rich and continuation in the pursuit of wealth long past the point that it gives them pleasure. He writes:

One of the main reasons wealth makes people unhappy is that it gives them too much control over what they experience. They try to translate their own fantasies into reality . . . an enervating and disappointing pastime ... learning and growing are very difficult with wealth because they depend on experiences in real life, and wealth enables one to buy out of life. It provides the wherewithal to cling to every outworn fantasy, pathway, or goal—to grasp every outgrown security blanket more tightly—to control your input in such a way that you never need to change or develop.

Power (and wealth, whatever else it is, is power) bestows upon people the freedom to not change.

Marriage to someone rich is entry into an inherently unequal relationship, in which one spouse is essentially employed by the other, made even more unequal if there is some sort of prenuptial agreement to cement the basic inequality. Even without great wealth or a prenuptial agreement, some men believe the family money belongs to them (perhaps the paycheck has their name on it.) He may try to control the marriage and the family by controlling the use of the money. She may then have to gain equity in the relationship by spending the money he tries to control. His ploy is poor economy, because she is angry and resentful at his efforts at control, and she gets her only sense of power by blowing money foolishly. Poor wives of rich husbands are likely to be in a state of permanent rebellion. Marriage is not marriage, but some form of involuntary servitude—unless it is between equals. Equality usually means equal access to money. The more money there is, the more crucial this equation becomes.

Wealth is not good for children. As Andree Aelion Brooks (1989) noted, it creates a lifetime dependency upon rich parents, belittles children's own accomplishments, distorts their relationships with their peers, makes them distrustful of friendships, and increases their sense of what is enough.

There is no correlation between the skills necessary to acquire wealth and those required to raise children. Robert S. Weiss (1985) found success-oriented men to be emotionally unexpressive, controlled, and distant from their own emotions and those of others. Their lives and concerns seemed separate from those of their families. They turned childraising over to their wives. The fathers therefore had little impact on their children—except to deprive them emotionally and set grand and ambivalently held ideals for them. Success-driven women are little different, but they may be cued by the culture to feel guilty about it, whereas men more often than not have been praised for abandoning their families in the pursuit of various varieties of glory.

Successful men may bow out of active parenting, hiring in effect a wife or ex-wife to raise their children for them. Unfortunately, the children of these ever-present mothers and ever-absent fathers are not likely to get to know the creator and/or steward of the family wealth and therefore do not benefit from his wisdom—what he has learned from his failures and his successes—which would be his irreplaceable heritage. Because children learn about money and values from the parent who raises them, they identify with their angry, emotionally and often financially deprived mothers. These children are likely to develop selfish, short-term goals and objectives, far different from the long-term goal of their wealth-producing or wealth-protecting parent. They rarely develop skills at making or keeping money, merely skills at throwing it away—the skills that are least likely to produce long-term happiness or solid relationships.

Children of the rich, as described by Robert Coles (1997), may grow up with a strong sense of entitlement, enormous self-esteem, and a self-conscious belief in their own importance and visibility in the universe, but no self-confidence, no belief that they can do anything of value for themselves or anyone else. It should come as no surprise that rich kids, with all their privileges in health and education, usually turn out fairly well. Most rich parents, like most poor parents, are sane, sensible, caring people, and the rich may have even more time and energy to invest in their children. However, although there is a high level of success, there are prominent failures as well. Rich kids may have to blow their inherited wealth before they can move on toward their own successes.

Certain defects are characteristic of the rich. The rich, even those acutely attuned to the rules of fashion, are often shockingly naïve, unaware of the emotional and interpersonal rules by which the rest of the world operates. For instance, rich and powerful men may think they have special sexual privileges and free sexual access to potential partners who are of lower status than they.

The rich may be far more concerned with what is stylish than with what is safe, sane, or sensible. Rich parents may go into battle to get their alcoholic son out of a drunk-driving charge, with great concern for how it would look on his record and little concern with the reality of his alcoholism.

Stylish, shallow, pampering parents can encourage style without content, charm without discipline, competition without function, and arrogance without confidence in any child—the addictive craving for wealth without enough exposure to it to know its dangers. Children of the rich can turn out a great deal better or a great deal worse than normal kids from normal families. There is little middle ground.

Children of the rich are deprived of the chance to become self-made men and women. And their parents, envisioning them as senators rather than dishwashers, may resist letting them start at the bottom.

The standards by which the child of the super-successful is judged may have little to do with the child's stage of functional development, and the parents themselves may have little value as role models. Much of the corrective therapy with the rich involves teaching them how to be more middle-class, just as financial planning focuses on teaching them how to live within their means.

People living on trust funds are in much the position of people on disability or welfare. Functioning is optional. A frequent suggestion to the rich, from both therapists and financial advisors, is not to turn bigger than life amounts of money over to children but set it up in foundations, put the children on the boards, and let them have the pride and pleasure of giving it away to worthy causes and to those who would appreciate it, rather than destroying themselves as they blow it on extravagant pursuits of pleasure or artifacts of affluence. As J. E. Hughes points out (1997), making money is one thing, knowing how to use it for the benefit of the family is another. "The problem with most families' images of wealth . . . is that they are limited to the preservation of the family's financial capital and give little or no thought to the preservation of the family's most important capitals—human and intellectual." Hughes points out that inherited wealth and lottery winnings last an average of about eighteen months. With the appropriate intellectual capital the same wealth could last indefinitely. The difference between the haves and the used-to-haves is a cohesive family understanding of how the financial capital can be deployed for the long-term benefit of the family members and of the larger society. Family fortunes that last for many generations only do so when they benefit the society and the economy that supports them, and when that benefit outweighs the envy the fortune engenders. Meanwhile, one's own successes and good deeds are far more closely correlated with happiness than an extravagant lifestyle.

Wealth is addictive. It enticingly offers happiness, but it cannot provide satisfaction, so those who have gotten a whiff of wealth may imagine that more money will finally provide the satisfaction. Withdrawal from wealth (or the hope of it) can be jolting and can produce panic and drastic behavior.

The problems of the rich—whether the Kennedys, the Windsors, or the lottery winners—are rarely caused just by the money. No amount of money can create good genes or good parents or good relationship or even good luck. Wealth alone can neither cause nor cure the pains of life—it can just make them inexplicable to the envious. Although the rich are as much in need of help as anyone else, they are an overlooked phenomenon in the psychotherapy literature. David W. Krueger refers to money as The Last Taboo (1986) of psychotherapy. Likewise, the danger of money is overlooked in the financial literature. Perhaps we have little patience with their seemingly enviable problems. They deserve our understanding and even sympathy. Anything that prevents people from developing a functional reciprocity with the world is destructive. Both the rich and the poor can grow up without exposure to functional people and realistically attainable goals and acquirable skills. Both therapists and financial advisors need to overcome their envy long enough to understand the problem. Money is powerful. It can do good or it can do harm.


Brooks, A. A. (1989). Children of Fast-Track Parents. New York: Viking.

Coles, R. (1977). The Privileged Ones, Vol. 5: Children of Crisis. Boston: Little, Brown.

Fitzgerald, F. S. (1925). The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner's.

Hemingway, E. (1936). "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." Esquire (August).

Hughes, J. E. (1997). Family Wealth: Keeping It in the Family. Princeton: NetWrx.

Krueger, D. (1986). The Last Taboo. New York: Brunner- Mazel.

Madanes, C. (1994). The Secret Meaning of Money. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pittman, F. S. (1985). "Children of the Rich." Family Process 24:461–472.

Sedgwick, J. (1985). Rich Kids. New York: Morrow.

Shaw, G. B. (1898). Candida. Reprint; New York: Penguin, 1950.

Slater, P. (1980). Wealth Addiction. New York: Dutton.

Weiss, R. S. (1985). "Men and the Family." Family Process 24:49–58.



Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of Families