My husband has become a successful man. I know that should be a good thing. When we met, years ago, we both came from humble beginnings. Neither of us knew what it was to go on vacation or spend money on anything other than the basics. When I think back on the early days of our marriage, living in a small, dinky apartment, furnished with used pieces that we picked up here and there, buying day-old cake from our local bakery for a special Shabbos treat, I remember being happy and satisfied.
Six years into our marriage, my husband, Ben, was approached by a friend to go into business with him. I guess he approached Ben because he knew that Ben was honest, trustworthy, and hardworking. Ben seized that opportunity. The business took off and Ben and his partner are extremely successful today. Far beyond anything we could ever have imagined. Again, I know that this should be a good thing.
Ben is charitable. If someone is in need, they know they can reach out to him and he’ll help them out. I’m thrilled that we are in the position to help others and am grateful for this opportunity. However, Ben is no longer recognizable in other ways. He insisted that we build a custom house that is grand and showy. I had nothing to do with the planning and can tell you honestly that I hate it. I don’t relate to anything about it, from the oversized kitchen to the enormous chandeliers. I find it so conspicuous and, to my taste, vulgar.
I know our home gives him great satisfaction and he is proud of it. Though I sort of feel like a stranger at times living in our home, I try to deal with it, since Ben does work hard and is generous. I try to make the best of things and keep my mouth shut in that area.
The biggest problem I’m having is that Ben likes to buy me expensive gifts — jewelry in particular, which he expects me to wear. I can’t bring myself to put them on. He tries to convince me to buy designer clothing or other over-the-top unnecessary items that have suddenly become important to him. I am happy wearing my simple bargains that look good enough and that I feel comfortable in and can relate to. I don’t want to stand out. I don’t want to look like a show-off. I just want to blend in and be me.
Ben gets insulted when I refuse to make use of the extravagant gifts he buys for me. I’ve given things away or they just sit in a box in my closet, which makes Ben upset. His feeling is that he earned his money honestly, gives plenty of tzedakah, and wants his wife to look appropriate for our standing in life. I feel just the opposite. Clothing and jewelry do not define me. They embarrass me. We argue over this quite a bit and as his business continues to grow and he continues to enjoy the perks of being successful, I find myself moving in the opposite direction.
Ben is a good, generous man and I love him very much, though this part of his personality is something I don’t relate to. I feel sad that I’m making him so miserable by not going along with his desires when it comes to conspicuous consumption. Is there some way to resolve these different attitudes around the appropriate spending of money?
No doubt, many people reading this column are wishing that they had your problem! A great many people find it quite easy to expand their lifestyle and luxury level. For those individuals, it’s almost effortless to move up the financial/lifestyle ladder. Moving down, G-d forbid, becomes the real challenge. There are probably way fewer people in your court, who are able to stay true to their original roots without being influenced and engulfed by the myriad of shiny objects that success has to offer.
Ben sounds like a terrific guy! Charitable, generous, hardworking, and able to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Unfortunately, it sounds like the one thing he may be lacking is the ability to truly understand who you are at your core. Though I’m sure his intentions are pure, wanting you to feel the same joy and satisfaction he feels, enjoying the perks of his success, he is blind to the fact that you have an entirely different perception of what qualifies as a “perk.” Yes, you are both on the same page when it comes to being charitable, which is wonderful, but he seems unable to get into your head and relate to your sense of embarrassment over being seen all bedazzled. So I have to wonder why that is. What is missing in your communication that doesn’t allow him to relate to your comfort level and respect it?
It sounds as though you can overlook most of the spending Ben does for his personal benefit, which is generous of you, since on some level you probably feel it does reflect on you. But you seem to have drawn the line when it comes to your own personal space. So aside from the need to successfully convey to Ben how it makes you feel when you are dripping in jewels, a fundamental goal at the moment, I would also ask you to consider the notion of compromise.
Marriage is all about compromise, and I have to wonder what compromise would look like in your marriage. Is it possible that you are trying to make a statement and going out of your way to downplay your financial success? Do you show up at a simcha wearing something old and inappropriate, almost in spite, in order to make a statement? Possibly not — but the point I’m trying to make is that surely there is some baseline appearance that both you and Ben could live with that will satisfy his need for looking the part of the successful young man, while also allowing you to be true to yourself, and not convey an image that you totally don’t relate to and probably don’t even respect.
You both probably have to give in somewhat. If Ben wants to buy you something special for your birthday, suggest going with him and helping him choose something that he feels good about but also that you can feel comfortable wearing. The two of you first have to understand what is happening emotionally for the other when extravagant purchases are made … or not. Once you are both able to understand and respect one another’s deepest feelings, work together to find a midpoint that everyone can live with comfortably.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.