Embracing the vulnerability of wealth

Stepping into the vulnerabilities of generational wealth can foster intimacy and family harmony.

  • Private Wealth Management

Key takeaways

  • Families of wealth, regardless of their distinguishing features, face common emotional challenges related to their generational wealth experience. As a whole, these emotions are called the vulnerability of wealth.
  • How you engage with your spouse, children, and parents around the vulnerabilities of wealth determines the level of closeness, harmony, and connection in your family.
  • Achieving intimacy—and the close relationships, togetherness, and harmony it creates—relies heavily on your ability to be vulnerable in conversations about money, wealth, and estate planning.
  • Defenses to the vulnerability of wealth are a major barrier to our ability to achieve the intimacy required for closeness and connection.

Wealth is a perilous privilege. It offers the opportunity to make choices about how you and your family will live today and into the future. That's the privilege. Yet those choices can come with perils. Why? Because we are human beings who live in families with all forms and degrees of complexity.

A common emotional experience

Through its work with individuals, families, and advisors, Fidelity's Center for Family Engagement has identified a common emotional experience among families of wealth, irrespective of their distinguishing features.1 The center has called it the vulnerability of wealth.

Here are some real-life examples of wealth vulnerabilities that have been shared with the center:2

  • The stress and frustration Sam and Sahara feel because their aging parents won't talk to them about estate planning
  • The intimidation Brian felt when his father tried to control a gift Brian's grandparents left him
  • The fear Alicia has because she doesn't know about—or understand—the investments her husband has made
  • The shame Levon feels about not deserving the wealth he inherited
  • The burden Sue feels as she tries to carry out the wishes of her deceased husband, some of which she doesn't agree with
  • The open conflict between 3 brothers because their father decided to treat each of the grandchildren differently without any communication with his sons or their wives
  • The rejection Sandra experienced when her husband’s parents tried to protect their money from her so they can "keep it in the bloodline"
  • The isolation Camille feels because she is hesitant to talk about her wealth vulnerabilities with other people

University of Houston researcher Brené Brown defines vulnerability as "the emotions we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure." All 3 of these states are ever-present in the generational wealth experience.

Vulnerabilities aren't unique to the wealthy. Everyone experiences them. But there is a distinctive set of vulnerable experiences around wealth, especially generational wealth. The way individuals respond to these vulnerabilities—and engage with spouses, children, and parents around them—is a determining factor in the level of closeness, harmony, and connection in families through time.

Vulnerability is the basis of intimacy and togetherness

Intimacy is a driving need for all human beings: we want to connect, especially to our families. Achieving intimacy—and the close relationships, togetherness, and harmony it creates—relies heavily on our ability to be vulnerable. Intimacy is honesty and openness of self. It is wanting to let another person know the truth of who we are. In order to let ourselves be known, we have to be exposed, which puts us in a vulnerable position.

The wealth space is incredibly intimate, even though there is a tendency to act as if the wealth management and planning process is a "rational" endeavor. It is intimate because it is developmental—all of life passes through it. Whenever individuals navigate decisions about money, wealth, and estate planning, they are navigating decisions that have an all-of-life impact.

This intimacy is evident in the fact that decisions around money generally occur during some of the most revealing-of-self life moments. Consider the conversations around child rearing and values, college and independence, marriage and starting life, helping and gifting to others, later-in-life living, wealth transitions, capacity and care, or wills and death. Think about the decisions. Feel the intimacy. Imagine the vulnerability.

These vulnerabilities tap into the core of who we are as human beings: our identity, our drive for accomplishment, our need for safety and security, our fears and wishes, our feelings about aging, our joys, and our beliefs about togetherness. They also press into how we handle conflict, how we view multi-generational relationships, and how we intend to guide our family's development.

In short, our relationships thrive or wither based on our ability to be intimate and vulnerable when making decisions related to money, wealth, and estate planning.

Defenses to vulnerability are a barrier in relationships

As human beings, we have automatic and internal mechanisms that protect us from emotional and psychological harm. These defenses to vulnerability are a response to the fears that arise when we face risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure. It's scary to be intimate, to be known, to be open. And those fears trigger defenses. Some of the most common fear-based defenses in the wealth space are:

  • Silence – refusing to talk about wealth topics and the related emotions
  • Avoidance – creating a backlog of hard-to-address topics
  • Hierarchy – keeping men and/or parents in control
  • Decisions – pressing ahead with plans that do not incorporate all voices
  • Disclosures – making life-impacting surprises the norm
  • Expert mode – deferring decisions to "the industry" norms and answers
  • Rationality – blocking engagement with emotional and relational considerations
  • Control – avoiding transparency and shared decision-making

What's interesting in the wealth space is that most of the conventions, norms, and beliefs that have built up in the industry and society around wealth are versions of defenses. Fear-based defenses have come to be taken as "the way things are done" in the wealth space.

One of the best examples of this systemic bias is that parent-child hierarchies are ever-present in the wealth industry and generational wealth experience. When a parent-child hierarchy is the ruling paradigm, parents—often with "co-parenting" from their advisors—tend to control and direct decisions about wealth while everyone else in the family wealth system is treated like a child. Wealth is the only area of life where we can continue to parent up to—and after—our death.

Defenses stand in the way of our ability to be vulnerable with each other and generate the intimacy required for closeness and connection and a successful wealth transition.

5 ways you can step into the vulnerability of wealth

Achieving intimacy in your relationships relies on stepping into vulnerabilities so you can move beyond existing societal and industry norms around wealth and overcome the natural tendency and systemic bias toward defenses.

Here are 5 ways you can step into—and stay in—the vulnerability of wealth and foster authentic connection and enduring family harmony.

1. Create a safe space for vulnerable conversations

A family's ability to have vulnerable conversations that encourage intimacy relies on creating an emotionally safe space. Family members will withdraw and avoid sharing themselves if they believe that expressing a wish, fear, vulnerability, or just a point of view, will trigger reactivity, judgment, be taken personally, or be seen as a criticism. Foster an environment where understanding people's thinking and feelings is the primary focus.

2. Step out of hierarchy

Hierarchies—parent-child, sibling, gender, education—limit connection and intimacy because power and control take precedence over empathy and understanding. Peership—a sense of mutuality regardless of hierarchy—allows others to have a voice and view, feel considered, develop identity, and gain degrees of control versus being directed and forced to agree.

3. Rethink the role of your advisor

Wealth advisors are uniquely positioned to help families step into the vulnerability of wealth. They can help a family see wealth as a developmental arena where the intimacies of life can be navigated together. Redefine the family-advisor partnership as a family process where feelings and vulnerability are viewed as necessary and normal, not intrusive and to be avoided.

4. Begin with reflection rather than solutions

Reflection is about thinking personally, deeply, and holistically. It connects who we are as humans to the larger picture and outcomes. Advisors can help individuals and families get to a place of reflection by asking curious, open-ended, all-of-life questions. Leading with goals and solutions puts the process in a functional space and forces a decision. Leading with reflection puts the process in a personal, relational space and helps us connect our planning to more vulnerable interests.

5. Move above goals to wishes

There is enormous potential in moving beyond goal-setting to expressing and aligning around wishes. Wishes are intimate. They are a touchstone for goal-setting because they are bigger, deeper, and more personal. They express an intimate vision for the future and expand options because they free people from the constraints of "the possible." When we step into our vulnerabilities by sharing our wishes with one another, we create more closeness in our families.

Vulnerability as a source of strength and opportunity

By stepping into the vulnerability of wealth, you can transform the way your family engages around money, wealth, and estate planning. Through vulnerable conversations, mutuality, reflection, a new conception of your family-advisor partnership, and a focus on wishes, you and your family can change your trajectory and move steadily toward enduring harmony and togetherness.