If you let other people make your financial decisions, you're giving up on your net worth—and your self-worth is at risk too.
Question: My sister is married and has a very well-paying job. I have strong suspicions that her husband is being unfaithful. I know that she has her suspicions, too, but she wants to stay with him no matter what. He has taken charge of investing a large part of her income. I worry that if he should decide to leave her, he would walk away with not only an expensive degree (earned while she was supporting him) but also a big chunk of her earnings. What investment moves can I can gently encourage her to make so if it does come to divorce, she won't be fleeced by her poorer but more financially savvy spouse?
Suze: In my opinion, the issue we're dealing with here is at least as much about your sister gaining self-worth as about protecting her endangered net worth—although, believe me, protecting her money is important. When a person in a situation like hers refuses to take control of her money, it's a sure sign that she feels powerless over her personal life. And that's a very dangerous position to be in.
Why does your sister allow her possibly unfaithful husband to take charge of her income? Most likely she is subconsciously saying to him, 'Hey, I trust you with my money, I trust you with my life—you wouldn't misuse my emotional and financial trust, would you?' This is not only a form of denial, as you point out, but it's also a laying on of guilt. If your sister makes her husband feel guilty enough, her thinking may be that he won't leave her—but this isn't a tactic that's likely to work. Powerlessness repels money and it repels people.
How bad is your sister's situation? Are the investments her husband has been making in both their names? Does she see the monthly statements? Or is she so self-destructive that she's not even looking at what he does with her money? Either way, is she willing to change? What amazes me is that your sister, like so many women I know, has the ability to earn serious money, perhaps even manage her company's finances, and yet when it comes to her own money she turns her back on it. She's letting buried emotions—most likely fear, shame and anger—render her powerless, and the end result is a diminishment of who she is and what she has.
On a practical level, your sister first needs to take back her power by assuming control of the money she's earning now. Then she should sit down with her husband and have him show her every move he's making with her money. Most important, she must tell him that from this point on she wants to be involved in all decisions. If he refuses, she's in big trouble and needs to consult an attorney.
As her sister and friend, you must help her do this. If I were you, I would stop hiding how I feel. Encourage her to be courageous and honest, and lead by example. But be careful: If you take the position that she is merely a victim of her circumstances, you're stripping her of the power that lies within her. That power is the only thing that can see her through with her net worth—and self-worth—intact.
From the August 2002 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine