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What ‘Succession’ Tells Us About Money Dynamics in Relationships

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David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
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In the latest episode of “Succession,” Tom Wambsgans, an outsider in the wealthy Roy clan by way of marriage, makes plain what the privileged rarely say in mixed company: It’s good to be rich.


In the latest episode of ‘Succession,’ Tom Wambsgans opens up to his wife, Shiv Roy, in a surprising way. PHOTO: CLAUDETTE BARIUS/HBO

“I really, really, really love my career and my money, and, you know, the suits and my watches,” he tells wife Shiv Roy, explaining the insecurity that led him to betray her in a battle over her family’s media empire Waystar Royco. “I like nice things. I do. And if you think that’s shallow, why don’t you throw out all your stuff for love, throw out your necklaces and your jewels for a date at a three-star Italian. Yeah? Come and live with me in a trailer park. Yeah? Are you coming?”

Shiv locks eyes with Tom and says she’d follow him anywhere for love, then bursts out laughing at the absurdity of the idea. It’s a pivotal moment: They want the same thing and may team up to get it. Later, Shiv keeps Tom in the room for a call with Lukas Matsson, the temperamental billionaire set to buy Waystar. It’s a more intimate gesture than anything at their wedding, certainly warmer than when Shiv calls marriage a “box-set death march.”

And yet, when it comes to money, there’s only so much Tom and Shiv will ever share. Shiv breathed it in like air growing up, while Tom spent his time craving more of it. In season one, he called being rich “like being a superhero, only better” where “you get to do what you want, the authorities can’t really touch you, you get to wear a costume, but it’s designed by Armani.”

He may not realize it, but according to experts who study the uber wealthy, Tom is in one of the trickiest kinds of relationships that exist: the marriage of a less affluent man to an extremely wealthy woman. Attitudes about money and work ethic clash, gender norms are turned upside down and only one-half of the couple knows what it’s like to be born with—or without—a fortune. 

Plus, no one wants to talk about money.

“It’s really our biggest taboo right now,” said Jamie Traeger-Muney, a wealth psychologist who works with high net-worth individuals on navigating the emotional challenges that come with big bank accounts.

She is interviewing affluent couples for a book on marriages of spouses from different income levels. “I’ve had women talking to me literally from their closet—they didn’t want their husbands to know they are participating in a study like this, that’s how electric this conversation is.”

Many wealth psychologists speak about the moneyed ranks in a way that reflects their clientele’s touchiness about being reduced to dollar signs. In their lexicon, a rich child is an “inheritor,” a rich adult is a “wealth holder” and a union of uneven incomes is a “financially diverse marriage.” 

The conversations are not altogether money-neutral, like when Dr. Traeger-Muney uses a pricey metaphor to illustrate the importance of discussing wealth.

“I say to clients, if you were to go to a Michelin-star restaurant and have an amazing meal and put the leftovers in the refrigerator for weeks, I would guarantee that the food is going to go bad—but not because there was anything wrong with the food,” said Dr. Traeger-Muney. In relationships where wealth is involved, she continued, “it’s not going to go bad because there’s something wrong with the money. It’s not talking about it that causes the problems.”

The weight of a vast fortune can cause other strains. Wealthy clients may become so convinced their finances are ruining their relationships that they threaten to ditch their entire portfolios. (The feeling usually passes.)

“I’ve had a few clients over the years who come to me and tell me that they want to give it all away,” said wealth counselor Thayer Cheatham Willis. “I’ve literally had nobody do that.”

Money can come to represent love, she said, recalling a grandmother who gave one grandchild a car, leaving the other two scrambling to impress her so they could get cars of their own. When Ms. Willis asks rich people if inherited wealth is a blessing or a curse, the answers are split down the middle, she said.  

For some, no amount of money is enough. A colleague once told Ms. Willis that the best part of buying an expensive car is the day before picking it up, when the buyer is brimming with anticipation of the status and luxury it will convey. 

“When you pick up the new car, that all gets into perspective almost immediately,” she said. “You’re still you.”

Fears of financial ruin underpin many wealthy marriages involving a less affluent spouse, said family wealth consultant Keith Whitaker. “I’ve seen people get married and give their spouse $5 million, $10 million individually, so that question of being left with nothing is taken off the table,” he said.

Though the world’s Toms and Shivs face certain challenges, so do their children. Dr. Whitaker, who has a Ph.D. in social thought, once told a client that it would be important for his children to experience commercial air travel. It would help them see that there’s a world filled with security lines, crowded airports and mediocre food. His client got the logic, but didn’t love the idea. “He said, ‘I like traveling private. It’s a lot easier.’” 

“I’m OK with them flying first class,” Dr. Whitaker said.

Back in the world of “Succession,” no one is flying coach. Tom, whose Midwestern parents once complained about the cost of the wine they provided for his wedding at a castle, makes plain his need to stay with his family of choice over his family of origin.

“All my life, I’ve been thinking a little bit about money—about how to get money and how to keep money,” he tells Shiv. And though he once suggested changing his married name to Tom Roy, a real Roy would never declare a love of wealth so brazenly. 

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting