When Lucy and Julia met in their early 20s, they shared a similar, modest lifestyle, bonding by scouring thrift stores for clothes and hitting local happy hours. Though neither thought about it much, they maintained a sense of financial equity through 15 years of friendship.
But that all changed when Julia came into a large inheritance. "I was policing everything I said," Lucy confides. "I used to complain about needing work done on my car, but I became afraid Julia would interpret that as a plea for money." Lucy was also surprised to realize that her friend's affluence made her doubt her own professional success. "It made me feel a little like a loser," she admits.
Financial inequality can strain any relationship, but it's more likely to be problematic when the disparity is sudden. Promotions, marrying up, and inheritances cause a special brand of resentment and guilt for both parties—not to mention a series of awkward interactions.
"Money is seen as more of a universal measure of status and power and success than ever," says Dalton Conley, a New York University sociologist and author of The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become. Conley argues that since market forces now penetrate all sectors—including the arts, science, and academia—professions that previously derived value from other dimensions are now likely to be measured by financial success.
Plus, money is a taboo topic. "Class differences are among the most powerful differentiations in relationships," says Linda Carroll, a relationship therapist in Corvallis, Oregon. "We're so sensitive to homophobia and racism, but we ignore classism. Most people haven't explored their feelings about money." As a result, when money affects relationships, it can be difficult for people to contend with negative feelings surrounding those changes—much less work through them.
When differences in wealth spur tension in a friendship, it's important for both parties to examine their feelings about money, success, and the root of any negative sentiments, says Barry Lubetkin, a New York psychologist and director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy. "There can be a major sense of insecurity and worthlessness associated with one person making more money," he says.
New money comes with new, sometimes unpleasant responsibilities, Carroll says. A promotion can mean you now supervise friends—and can no longer talk shop with them after work. The newly affluent might fear being perceived as arrogant. "When you get a promotion or a windfall, there can be a new kind of isolation that can be really painful," Carroll says.
Also painful is the guilt commonly felt by those with sudden success or money their friends do not have, Lubetkin says. "When newly affluent people feel guilty about the change in their station in life, they have to actively challenge and dispute the irrational idea that they're not worthy of this money," he says. "Instead of this undeservedness, they might tell themselves, 'Somehow luck came down on my side, but I know who I am deep inside.' "
For the less wealthy friend, feelings tied to money are often intensified by childhood experiences. Someone who grows up in the shadow of a successful older sibling may be especially sensitive when a friend pulls ahead professionally or financially. "Money pushes so many primitive buttons—feelings the person didn't even know they had," says Carroll. She suggests not only thinking about your feelings and what's behind them, but talking them out with a trusted friend or partner before bringing the topic up with the friend in question.
If you're overcome with jealousy over a friend's inheritance, it's important to get real with yourself, Lubetkin says. "It might seem unfair that they have a windfall and you don't. But you can go on having a rich and rewarding life."
If envy is seen as a reflection of the beholder's insecurities, it can be used for positive change, says Jan Yager, author of Friendshifts. "Jealousy is a good strong feeling to be in touch with because it helps you see what you want for yourself," Yager says. "Don't begrudge the other person what she has. Instead say, 'How can I achieve what I want?' "
If this self-dialogue doesn't resolve the conflict—if the problem is with the relationship and not with you—share your feelings in a nonconfrontational way. Begin by emphasizing how important the friendship is to you, Lubetkin advises. "Point out how close you have been and how much you've valued that person throughout the years, then explain that you sense changes occurring in the relationship."
Many personal circumstances can affect a friendship—death, divorce, business failures, legal trouble—and solid relationships should withstand a loving discussion about the changes. "Friendship involves compromise, patience, and support," says Carolyn Weisz, a psychologist at the University of Puget Sound. "If the friendship is really worth it to them, people are willing to make the necessary compromises" to keep it alive.
How to Handle a Cash Imbalance
If your friend's new wealth is cramping your friendship:
- Examine your own feelings about money, class, and success. What happened in your life to shape your values and goals about these forces?
- Speak openly and lovingly with your friend about how the money is straining your friendship. Emphasize that the relationship is important.
- Jealousy is natural, but use those feelings to examine your own priorities and goals.
If you find yourself with a new load of cash:
- Be sensitive to the idea that your well-intentioned generosity might be perceived as patronizing or controlling.
- If your friend is uncomfortable, start the dialogue. Remind them of how much you value the friendship and that no sum of money will change that.
- Continue to enjoy the activities on which the friendship was built. If you both looked forward to brunch at the corner deli, keep the tradition alive.