Q. I am close to my cousin Ellie, who just got married. It is a first-time wedding for both her and her husband, who are in their early 50s.
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Ellie was formerly depressed, bitter, angry and irritable, primarily because of her single status. Now her personality is transformed. She is patient, kind, happy and much nicer. They seem like a great couple who are truly in love.
Ellie has a stable, high-paying job in the health field. Her husband is self-employed. Many of his clients have cut back in the recession.
Ellie’s parents (who, on the surface at least, seem to have gotten over the obstacle that her husband isn't Jewish) wanted her husband to sign a pre-nup. He will do anything to make things easy for her and not rock the boat, so this was fine with him. Largely through inertia, it didn't happen. Now her parents, who are in their 80s, want him to sign a post-nup. Again, this is fine with him.
It is not, however, fine with Ellie.
Her parents say that, if Ellie gets divorced, her savings and inheritance should not go to her husband. Ellie, who has no reason to think she will get divorced, says that if she dies an untimely death, she wants her husband to be secure and provided for.
Ellie is an only child with few relatives, so there are no siblings or children who would otherwise get her inheritance. I say signing a post-nup is a private matter between Ellie and her new husband, and her parents should butt out. Who is right? Can you help our family sort through the options?
A. You are right — this is a matter between wife and husband. But there are a few relationship issues taking place here, the main one being that the parents’ insistence on a post-nup is creating distance between them and their daughter.
The parents are trying to do what they think is best for Ellie, however controlling their approach may be. They are letting on that they don’t quite approve of the man she married, whether because he has the wrong religion, job or earning power. They are expressing their disapproval via the inheritance issue and being clear they don’t want him to abscond with the family money.
Because they don’t like him much, they think maybe someday she will come ’round, see the light, and agree that she doesn’t like him much, either.
Unfortunately, this is shortsighted on their part. Maintaining their insistence on a post-nup creates distance between them and their daughter, which can potentially harm or even destroy their relationship with her. They are setting up sides and forcing Ellie to choose: parents or husband.
Your cousin is saying, intelligently, that signing a post-nup would only serve to divide her and her new husband. Her husband is smart to stay neutral and indicate he doesn’t want to annoy her parents or be viewed as a gold digger.
So far, no decision has been made, except by default. The husband could well be compliant because, so far, Ellie has not chosen against him. But if Ellie sided with her parents, what would that mean for their marriage? It would mean that her husband comes second.
Her refusal to sign shows she is invested in her marriage. If she wants a successful marriage, she cannot put her parents before her husband.
If they are really worried that this man will inherit the family money, there are things they can do, such as write a will that says, in case of divorce, he will not be entitled to any of their money.
In other words, there are protective legal mechanisms they could employ, instead of being so demonstrative about setting up sides and forcing Ellie to choose, which seems aimed at being disruptive toward their marriage. They could either tell Ellie about these provisions or not.
Whether the husband would get some of Ellie’s assets in case of her death or divorce is a different legal matter, and out of her parents’ hands. But their attitude shows they want to control not just Ellie’s inheritance but also her own assets.
Using their money as a weapon to undermine their daughter’s happiness is not appropriate. It is, however, their prerogative.
For whatever reason, they have decided they don’t like this man, and the post-nup issue is a manifestation of this dislike. It might indicate they are feeling insecure about their relationship with their daughter now that she has, unexpectedly, gotten married.
If they maintain their position, they could erode their relationship with their daughter.
If they are reasonable people, this divide is something Ellie can do something about — reassuring her parents that she loves them, spending more time with them or whatever else might calm them down. Don’t discount the possibility that Ellie has in some way made them feel insecure.
On the other hand, it’s possible nothing she can do will ever satisfy them.
Their insistence on causing a divide is antithetical to the very thing they seem to want — to protect their daughter and be close to her.
For decades, she has been too old for them to say, “We are doing this for your own good because you can’t possibly know any better.” They should be having an adult-adult relationship now, not an adult-child relationship. If they do not back down, they are not treating her with much respect.
Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: Setting up a situation that forces someone to choose between relatives, spouses or parents creates an unhealthy dynamic likely to breed resentment and distance.
Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.
Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit www.drgailsaltz.com.
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