BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am in a loving, five-year, long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, who happens to have a twin brother. My boyfriend is the successful one, with a doctorate from a top university, while his brother has bounced among degree programs and has yet to get a full-time job. His very wealthy parents have supported him through all of this. Recently my boyfriend's brother moved to Florida to start a new degree, and within a year married an older woman and just had a baby daughter.

I am jealous and angry at the support my boyfriend's parents are giving to his brother and his brother’s wife. They paid for their wedding, contribute to their rent and living expenses, and I suspect will now lavish money on their daughter. My boyfriend tells me that his parents are making sure the money they give is roughly even, but every time I ask him to be precise on this he gives conflicting answers or doesn't know.

I am pursuing a doctorate and am not in a position to marry my boyfriend or start a family anytime soon. But even so, why can't I also benefit from his wealthy parents like my quasi-sister-in-law does? My boyfriend says the financial matters should be between him, his brother, and his parents. However, if we are planning to spend our lives together, shouldn't I also be able to voice an opinion on these things?

My own family has been torn apart by my grandmother unequally giving money to her children, but maybe I am just creating the same thing in my boyfriend's family? I would be really grateful for any advice. I'm so upset by all of this that I can't even think.

Zoe
Edinburgh, Scotland


Dear Zoe,

Navigating the financial challenges of graduate school is not easy, and you’re certainly not the only student who wishes for a little cushion, maybe in the form of a fairy godmother that swoops in and takes the money stress away, leaving you to focus on your studies and eat something other than ramen. In your case, it must be especially envy-provoking to be in close proximity to this kind of relief and not have access to it. So your feelings are understandable and very, very human. At the same time, though, I think they’re clouding your perspective and, left unchecked, have the potential to damage your relationship with your boyfriend.

If you and your boyfriend are planning to spend your lives together, you two will need to discuss a lot of things. If these conversations haven’t happened in the five years you’ve been together, it’s important that you have them now. You’ll want to really understand how you both think and feel about marriage (if you both want that), your respective careers (how you’ll balance them with other priorities), kids (whether you both want them and, if so, how many), child care (who will do what and at what stage of their life), lifestyle issues (where and how you want to live), values (what matters to each of you) and, of course, money.

Your boyfriend is right that how his parents choose to handle their money is between them, but what’s between the two of you is how you talk about the money you do have and what you do with it. I don’t know what arrangement you currently have as a long-term couple—who pays for what between you—and how you arrived at that, but maybe part of your anger at your boyfriend’s parents is misdirected and, in fact, you’re angry with him. For instance, since he’s working and you’re a graduate student, would you like him to help pay some of your expenses? And if so, have you talked to him about this, or are you hurt that he hasn’t offered on his own? My guess is that you two haven’t sat down and talked about money—I don’t mean just the logistics of it, but what it represents to each of you.

Money can signify so many things: love, acceptance, commitment, safety. It may be that getting financial support from your boyfriend would make you feel loved and valued by him—a gesture that indicates his admiration for how hard you’re working on your doctorate and an appreciation of how much of a sacrifice you’re currently making. It could also be that your blood is boiling because you’re envious not just of his brother and sister-in-law, but of your boyfriend himself. Maybe you feel resentful that he had it easier because his parents helped him while he was working toward his doctorate and your parents aren’t. You may even, without realizing it, want his parents to make up for the care you feel you aren’t getting from your own parents. Or perhaps having his parents’ support would make you feel more accepted by them as a future member of the family, or give you a stronger sense of commitment from your boyfriend.

At the same time, money represents something to your boyfriend. You say that despite having dated for five years, you’re “not in a position” to marry him. It could be that your boyfriend doesn’t feel as if he’s in a position to share his or his parents’ money with somebody who, despite talking about spending the future with him, isn’t ready to walk down the aisle. (Plenty of people in graduate programs, and plenty of temporarily long-distance couples, don’t let those circumstances stand in the way of getting married.) Or it may be that he isn’t ready to commit to you—and the financial arrangement between you two reflects this—in part because of the painful dilemma you’re creating for him around his family.

It might be helpful for you to consider the situation through your boyfriend’s eyes. He has a twin brother, and even if he finds his brother frustrating or irresponsible, or has conflicted feelings about him, he probably loves his twin dearly. Have you considered what it must be like for your boyfriend to have one person he loves deeply (you) begrudge something given to another person he loves deeply (his brother) by yet other people he loves deeply (his parents)? I imagine that he wants to please all of you but that your anger will at some point make him feel as if he’s forced to choose. He may choose you and create conflict with his family (and resent you), or he may choose them and create conflict with you (and leave you). Either way, you won’t get what you want—his parents’ money. I know that sounds crass, but that’s essentially what you’re asking for—money from people who don’t owe you anything. They have their reasons for offering more help to the son in greater need of it, and if you have a problem with how his parents divvy up their gifts (remember, that’s what these contributions are—gifts), it’s important to note that your boyfriend, who is their son, doesn’t.

This is a great opportunity for you to get clarity about what’s behind this anger and envy, and to open up a deeper conversation with your boyfriend about how you both feel about the money you each bring to this relationship. There’s no one-size-fits-all model for how couples share their finances, and that also might change as the relationship does (from dating to marriage, from long-distance to living under the same roof, from pre-kids to life with kids, from one person earning more to the other earning more). Your own family’s history might be contributing to the feelings you’re having, but that history doesn’t have to define your future. Talking with compassion and an open mind about this delicate topic will help you and your boyfriend understand the other’s perspective better, and, with time, arrive at something that works for both of you.


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