Wife lends money to irresponsible brother

My wife and I have been happily married for four years. We recently had our first child and hope to have at least one more. We both work, however, she is the primary earner. Like any family, we have many financial commitments, including child care, our mortgage, car payments and dues to our synagogue. We are also trying hard to save.

My issue is with the money my wife has been “lending” her brother. Since I’ve know my wife, her brother has exhibited nothing but a capacity to make lousy and self-destructive decisions. He’s a heavy drinker and a gambler, but for some reason she persists in helping him by giving him so-called loans. I think she is being irresponsible and hurting our family’s ability to save. However, since she earns almost twice what I do, I find it hard to confront her and be firm in my wish that she curtail these loans. Should I push my position or lay off? — Frustrated in Novato

Dear Frustrated: You sound like a good husband and father. Mensch admires the concern you have for your family’s finances and your sensitivity toward approaching your wife about her decision to assist her brother. Without knowing the numbers involved, such as the total amount your brother-in-law owes his sister or its amount relative to your household income, it’s hard to offer definitive advice. However, our economy abounds with financial professionals with expertise in money management and budgeting. If you haven’t availed yourself of that kind of advice, perhaps you should initiate the process. Having an expert offer an objective opinion on all your financial arrangements might make an impression on your wife, and she might also appreciate your seeking professional advice. If you already have a financial adviser, make sure he or she knows about your wife’s loans to her brother. These folks have seen a lot of funky family behavior around money and likely will know how to offer advice in this situation.

However, while a money adviser will be able evaluate the financial impact of your wife’s largesse, there likely is an emotional component to be reckoned with as well. If indeed her actions have a negative impact on your ability as a couple to meet your own financial obligations, provide for your children and save for the future, then she is acting irresponsibly and possibly irrationally. Perhaps the expert called for in this situation is a skilled psychotherapist, specifically one with demonstrated experience in the field of family therapy.

After all, there are two families involved: the family you and your wife are building together as well as the family-of-origin in which your wife and her brother forged their relationship. Family therapy seeks to explore the psychological dynamics and behaviors within families that were forged in the past and adjust them to work better in the present. A skilled practitioner might be able to work with your wife and her brother together, or all three of you, toward establishing a healthier, more mutually satisfying coexistence. Are one or both of your wife’s parents financially involved in their son’s life? Maybe having them involved in a therapeutic intervention would be useful as well.

With some training in the field, as well as his own experience in treatment, Mensch feels strongly that caution and diligence are required when seeking psychotherapy. The ratio of high-minded and skilled professionals to hacks in the mental health field is not demonstrably different from that in any other field, which means there are many hacks. If complex family dynamics are at the root of this problem (and what family dynamic is not complex?), you want to find a professional with proven experience and great references, maybe one who has written a book or article that impresses you.

One more thing: Your income relative to your wife’s has no bearing on your right to express concern. You are working together to support yourselves and your child and mazel tov to you both.

Jonathan Harris
Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. He can be reached at [email protected].