by Marty Carter
What's the Deal? At some time in a relationship, all couples make deals. These deals may be formalized, as in a prenuptial agreement, but there are other kinds as well. Some deals are casually spoken, while others are never spoken at all; they seem to just happen.
These less formal deals may be about such major issues as career paths, where to live, whether or not to have children, or the amount of time and money a couple will devote to causes of interest. Other deals involve smaller, day-by-day living decisions, such as who will cook, take out the trash, drive carpool, or pay the bills.
The most subtle and problematic deals are those that go unspoken, and for which agreement from both parties may not have been gained. For example, in one couple I worked with, the deal was that Bill would work hard in the business and Diane would take care of the kids and house. Diane's version of the deal was that when Bill retired, the two of them would travel, see grandchildren, and pursue interests together. When Bill promised to retire and then did not, the deal was broken—at least according to Diane. She felt betrayed, though she never articulated these feelings to Bill; she simply nagged him about retiring. When I questioned them about the deal they had made, they said: "We've never said what the deal was."¯ In fact, because it was an unspoken agreement, they didn't even realize they had made it. They now need to renegotiate the deal.
Sometimes we end up in a deal, but it turns out to be more than we bargained for. Charlie, for example, somehow started taking out the garbage, servicing the cars, and mowing the lawn, while Sarah assumed responsibility for household finances. Now the unspoken deal is a given. However, Sarah did not bargain for the emotional responsibility that goes along with making money decisions. She thinks to herself: "¯The inheritance is Charlie's , so how come I'm the one working with the investment managers and handling all the calls from people looking for money?"¯ Sarah has become the undesignated foundation administrator. Although she enjoys her contact with grantees, she is overwhelmed by the enormous amount of time the work consumes. This isn't the deal she signed up to do.
Deals may be examined, clarified, and renegotiated at any point, but it is particularly important to do this during life transitions. Transitions will go more smoothly if couples talk about what they need and want and negotiate new terms. Having direct conv e rsations and making explicit agreements about expectations can prevent disagreements and broken deals later. For such conversations, I suggest that couples set aside time (like a weekend) to examine their goals and accomplishments as a couple and update and set new goals. This entails making deals, because deals— spoken or unspoken—are made to support goals. Couples I have advised have found that it's also good to recall what first attracted each to the other, express gratitude, identify timelines and financial resources, and discuss deals they will make to support each other in accomplishing their goals.
Marty Carter is a philanthropy consultant and family legacy advisor with Charles D. Haines, LLC ( www.charlesdhaines.com ). She works with wealthy families, family businesses, family foundations, and family offices, focusing on family dynamics and money matters. She also serves as consultant to the national Council on Foundations in Washington, D.C.
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