Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 24, 2007
I grew up dirt-poor, so I should be happy that my future husband has money, but I’m mad at him instead!
Hopefully you can help me sort out this weird contradiction inside me, which started shortly after becoming engaged.
The man I am engaged to is everything I’ve always wanted to find, but after dating a long string of losers, I had resigned myself to being essentially alone. I actually enjoy being single and doing whatever I want, but I had always kind of hoped someone like this would come along. And, out of nowhere, he did! And he is amazing, would do anything in the world for me, is so kind and caring and funny, etc., etc.
And, as I only recently found out after meeting his parents, filthy rich.
I had no idea! He doesn’t live like a rich kid. He drives a beat-up old car, lives in a sparsely furnished and dingy-ish apartment, does or says nothing that would indicate that he is set to inherit millions. His grandmother was a famous actress in Hollywood, his parents live in an actual mansion; they are loaded. I was stunned to find all of this out. So, the man of my dreams becomes even more dreamy, right? Well, sort of … except now I find myself becoming more and more resentful of him and his upbringing every day, and I think it’s breaking us up!
See, I was not rich, or middle-class, or even lower-middle-class. We were POOR. My dad took off when we were young and my mom had a bunch of kids and a hardcore drug problem. I’m the oldest, so I took care of the younger kids while my mom was strung out, or missing, or screaming at us for one imaginary reason or another. Basically, it was hell and it makes me sick to think about it.
The good (almost miraculous) news is, all of the brothers and sisters are adults now and none of us have any drug problems, we all went to good schools and have steady jobs, no train wrecks in the bunch. I thought I had emerged unscathed and was doing a good job supporting myself and being happy, and then I unexpectedly meet this wonderful man, and then find out he’s rich, what more could I ask for. I should be deliriously happy. Instead I find myself sabotaging our relationship.
He tells me about fabulous trips he went on as a kid like they were no big deal, and I think in my head, “He is so ungrateful for everything he’s been given.” Or he’ll tell me about the private schools he went to, and I’ll think, “He has no idea what it means to struggle, how can he ever possibly understand ME and where I’m coming from?”
How can I get back to where it was, before I knew his family had all this money? When we were relaxed and easygoing with each other? Now things are tense, and I know it’s because my attitude toward him has changed. I have a snotty tone with him that wasn’t there before, so in return, he is acting distant toward me. Is it true that he is shallow because he’s never had to deal with hardship, and we will never truly understand each other?
He doesn’t judge me and where I came from so why am I doing it to him?
Perhaps you could say to him something like this:
I grew up poor. I grew up poor and it affected me. It affected me in ways that I have never honestly articulated.
It is not something I talk about. I thought I had put it behind me. But obviously I haven’t. Seeing your parents’ house brought back many powerful feelings. I did not expect this. But here it is. Money, and my feelings about money, are now part of our relationship. So now we need to talk about money.
I would like to begin by saying that I had no idea that you had money when we met. I saw you and fell in love with you for who you are. You were the perfect man for me. But now for the past few days or weeks I have been being mean to you and I know you have noticed. It is because all these feelings of hurt about money have come back. I know that having money is a wonderful thing. But right now I am reminded of how I felt back in the time when I was growing up dirt poor with a drug-addicted mother, taking care of my siblings. This was a very hard time for me. Among the things I felt at the time was that people with money can never understand what I am going through. I formed this opinion as we often do in a state of great pain and deprivation. I projected onto people with money my own feelings of shame and worthlessness. It was a way to get through it and survive. But now I find I still carry these ideas with me, the way we find sometimes we are still carrying ideas of racism or sexism, or odd, personal prejudices, ideas that don’t make any sense given the facts, but which were formed in moments of great pain and despair, to help us get through it. So now I am sitting with you, whom I love, whom I plan to marry, and I find that you are a rich man. How do I regard you differently now that I know you have money? In my mind there is great confusion. How can I love a rich man? How can I marry a rich man? How do I separate the man I know from the man I think of as a rich man? I know who you are. You are just a man. You are a good man. Yet there is this money out there, attached to you, in your past and in your future. Does that make you a rich man like the rich men who ignored me when I was dirt poor and struggling to protect my siblings? No. But it reminds me of those times, and makes me sad and angry, and I am full of those feelings now, and so those feelings are a part of us, our relationship, our marriage. We will have to make room for those feelings. I am bringing them with me like a trousseau.
Money, I find, has deep meaning for me. For one thing, for me it is about responsibility. It is not about luxury but about want. Oddly enough, this just comes to me now, as I imagine many things will come to me as we talk about this: I still feel responsible for my siblings! How can that be? But I do. And I am worried what they will think if I marry a rich man. All these thoughts are running through my head. I am the responsible one. I am the one who takes care of everyone. How can I take care of you if you are the one with the money? And who will have the power when we marry? Who will control the money? Will we fight about money? You do not seem to care about money. This attitude I cannot fathom. My cares about money are boundless. My passions about money are boundless. To feel nothing about money is beyond my wildest imaginings. I am afraid you will reject me because of my attitude toward money! I am afraid of people with money because they have the power!
Here is my fear about marrying a man with money: Will you forget who I am? Will you forget who I am when you are with your rich friends? Will you place me in situations where I feel uncomfortable? Forgive me, but I must say this: You cannot forget that the woman you are marrying was once dirt-poor. I will not let you forget. It will have to be a part of every day for you, as it is for me. If you cannot accept that, then we cannot get married. You have to tell me now. Are you ready? Are you ready to marry a woman who was once dirt-poor, whose mother was an addict, whose view of the world was forged in a cauldron of fear and deprivation? Are you ready?
You make me happy with your answer. I was afraid but now it feels like it did at first before I knew you had money. I think it will be OK. But I will be a little crazy about the money. I will have to work through some things. But here is what I want. I want you to learn from me about poverty, about what it does, about how it happens, about why it is so hard to get out of, about why those who have money have an obligation — because it is often just an accident who has the money. In getting out of poverty, in working and struggling, I have come to believe that when certain things come unexpectedly into our lives they must be viewed as opportunities. So this, scary as it is, must be viewed as an opportunity. This is an opportunity for me to teach you about poverty. This is an opportunity for you to teach me about being rich.
And so on and so forth. I know I’m putting words into your mouth, but this is a conversation about money that ought to take place in many homes, between many people, because many of us have been poor and when we see a rich person or hear about money we feel torrents of emotion that we feel sometimes we can never explain. It is not so terribly complicated. Things happened to us and we never forgot it, and we carry these ideas with us to help us get by. But we need to have this conversation. It is the conversation we need to have as we step over bedraggled people in rags who sleep on our streets.