My husband and his ex-wife have one 10-year-old son. My husband pays his court-ordered child support in full and on time every month. It’s substantial, but whenever my stepson needs anything, he says, “Mom says to ask you if I can have money for …” and my husband explodes. It’s clear to me, and from my conversation with mutual friends, that his ex-wife is using child support to supplement her own income, taking trips, buying expensive items, including a new car that she cannot possibly afford on her salary. I know that we have options through the court system, but first I want your perspective about how to handle this situation, because I always learn something unexpected from your advice.
Do everything in your power to protect your stepson, because he is a victim of financial incest. Adults who use children to meet their own needs are violating healthy and appropriate boundaries, and that harms the child. And while emotional incest forces a child to feel responsible for a parent’s well-being, financial incest forces a child to feel accountable for a parent’s cash flow.
Financial incest occurs when adults allow their own stress, fear, lack of relationship skills or destructive beliefs about money to prevail. Your husband’s unwillingness to confront his ex-wife about financial issues and the neediness she expresses through materialism are the seeds of this dysfunction.
The book, Wired for Wealth: Change the Money Mindsets That Keep You Trapped and Unleash Your Wealth Potential by Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz and Rick Kahler, includes a chapter on the impact of financial incest. The authors write: “The divorced parents are achieving emotional catharsis by discharging their anger and frustration about their ex-spouses to their children. In turn, the children feel bad about themselves. Even if they connect more with the complaining parent, they cannot emotionally distance themselves from their connection to and love for the other parent. In addition, the children may know that they carry some of the same characteristics as the parent being blamed, which may lead them to wonder whether they, too, are bad.”
Good parenting always places the best interest of the child above a parent’s own perceived needs and desires. Parenting is an opportunity for adults to learn how to be selfless, a key skill of maturity. But a parent who asks a child to dismiss creditors, lie to adults about the family’s financial situation, pay bills, beg for money or who confesses excessive details about financial problems is selfishly tending to their own anxiety. That parent is in denial or simply does not care about the anxiety such behavior creates in their child. If these parents wish to mature into adulthood, they must learn how to handle their own finances responsibly and efficiently.
So should parents avoid talking to their children about family finances? Of course not. But such conversations should always be structured to educate the child about how money works. This approach keeps the child’s age and developmental stage in mind. It also keeps the parent’s own needs in check. Any parents who feel a sense of relief after talking to their child about financial matters or who uses a child to pass messages about money to other adults commits financial incest. Good psychotherapy can help.
My ex-husband is argumentative, and negotiations that involve our children inevitably become yelling matches where he brings up unrelated matters. Afterward, I’m uncertain how to resolve things.
Try agreeing with him when he’s right about you (“You’re right, I am sometimes disorganized”) and then repeating a simple sentence that states your position (“The children must be picked up at 3 p.m. Can you take care of that?”). It’s a helpful technique for dealing with difficult people.