Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems: The Rise of Wealth Therapy
Wealth therapists help the 1 Percent talk through the afflictions of affluence.
February 3, 2016 — 6:18 PM EST
Four years ago, Manhattan therapist Clay Cockrell met a patient with an unusual problem. The 21-year-old college senior said he’d recently received traumatic news. “He seemed scared,” Cockrell recalls. “Like, really scared. He wasn’t sure he could trust me, so for the first few sessions we just talked generally about his life.”
The patient had attended public schools, worked summer jobs as a lifeguard and camp counselor, and drove an old Toyota. During the previous year, he’d struggled to decide what career to pursue after college.
Then, on his 21st birthday, his father, a businessman, called him into his office and dropped a bombshell. According to Cockrell, “the father told his son, ‘I’ve been keeping something from you: We’re actually quite wealthy.’ ” The family, it turned out, owned a multinational corporation.
Learning you’re heir to a fortune would be a pretty good day for most people. But rather than celebrate his newfound wealth, the patient grew angry and confused. “He wasn’t mentally prepared—no one would be,” Cockrell says. “He didn’t know who to trust and didn’t want his friends to think he was suddenly different, so he didn’t tell anyone.” Four years later, the patient is still working through his identity crisis while training to take a managerial position at his father’s company. “He impulsively bought a really fancy car, but he doesn’t want people to see it,” Cockrell says. “So he’s keeping it in a garage.” (Cockrell changed some details to protect the patient’s identity.)
“Do people actually like me for myself or because of my wealth? Who can I trust?”
It’s hard to sympathize with the afflictions of great wealth—especially as income inequality soars worldwide. In the U.S., one-tenth of the top 1 percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent combined, according to the Institute for Policy Studies. But just because you can burn $100 bills to keep the estate warm doesn’t mean you’re at peace with it or immune to being demonized by Occupy protesters or Bernie Sanders. The discomfort of peering over the wealth gap—as well as insecurities about how money can change people and affect relationships, especially in the wake of the financial crisis—helps explain why affluent people are turning to therapy to discuss their First World problems in private and why banks are incorporating wealth therapy into services for high-net-worth families. “Either there are more problems or there’s more recognition for those problems,” says Madeline Levine, a wealth therapist and author of The Price of Privilege.
Naturally, these shrinks aren’t cheap: It’s bad business to discount a luxury service for people who can pay for luxury. Therapists counseling the über rich charge up to $500 an hour for their expertise on topics normally considered taboo. “About 20 minutes into the first session, patients—particularly inheritors—will say, ‘I’m so happy I found you, I have no one else to discuss these issues with,’ ” says Jamie Traeger-Muney, founder of Wealth Legacy Group, a San Francisco- and Israel-based firm geared toward “addressing the emotional impact of wealth on individuals, couples, and families.” About a dozen psychologists and wealth coaches contacted her for wealth therapy training last year, up from one or two annual requests a half decade ago.
Cockrell, whose patients pay as much as $450 an hour, stumbled into the field by accident. He grew up in Kentucky, where his father, who never graduated college, runs an auto parts salvage business. In 2005, Cockrell began offering what he calls walk-and-talk therapy, sessions he conducts with patients while strolling through Central Park. Attracted by the novel service, one wealthy patient signed on and spread the word. “Those people all run in the same circles,” Cockrell says. Now about 25 percent of his clients are well-to-do. “I’m fascinated by powerful people, what makes them tick,” he says. “They’re all different, of course, but they have this kind of quiet power—maybe because they know that, in the end, they’re probably going to be OK.”
Cash can solve a lot of problems. Still, it’s been linked with elevated levels of depression, anxiety, psychosomatic issues, and self-mutilation (see graphic). And occasionally it also leads to Leona Helmsley-level weirdness—the billionaire New York real estate developer left $12 million to her dog, but no money for two of her grandchildren. This is why much of wealth therapy is geared toward improving family communication to protect shared assets. Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, and other financial institutions began tapping psychologists around 2007 to help high-net-worth broods navigate interpersonal dramas, which often wind up with plaintiffs and defendants bleeding money. “We encourage families to let us interview each member individually, even those who’ve married in,” says Arne Boudewyn, a clinical psychologist who heads Wells Fargo’s Family Dynamics and Education department. It serves moneyed individuals in its Abbot Downing division—good luck not confusing it with Downton Abbey—where the team tries to smooth over conflicts, like those initiated by what Boudewyn calls command-and-control CEO personas. “We tell them, ‘Those strategies worked well for you in the business setting,’ ” Boudewyn says. “ ‘You steamrolled your opponents—but in the family setting, a different set of strategies is needed.’ ” He adds that Abbot Downing shrinks (the bank insists they be called “family dynamics and education consultants” and says they don’t practice clinical psychology) worked with 120 families in 2015, a 40 percent increase over the year before.
Wells Fargo also has a team of five Ph.D. historians who try to get families to appreciate what it took to create their fortunes. “Wealth creators often have these immigrant traits, hard work and perseverance,” Boudewyn says. “By the time you get to the third generation—a critical juncture for whether they’ll keep the wealth or not—you’re often dealing with people who are native to wealth. It’s important to show that generation what’s behind the wealth, how fortunes are made and sometimes lost.”
When reason and history lessons can’t change attitudes, tough love can. “I had one guy complaining that he didn’t have any meaningful relationships,” Cockrell says. “I told him, ‘It may be because you’re an a--hole. You don’t think of anyone but yourself.’ It took his breath away, but he keeps coming to therapy. I may be the only person in the world who calls him on his s---.”
Wealth Legacy’s Traeger-Muney agrees there’s a need to speak frankly about the emotional impact of wealth. Herself an heiress—her father built the roller-skating rink business United Skates of America—she says: “People will tell you pretty much anything about their sex lives, but they don’t feel comfortable talking about money. They don’t feel people will listen in a nonjudgmental way.” Many inheritors, she says, suffer from “affluenza,” the feeling of guilt, entitlement, or lack of motivation tied to inheriting or suddenly earning a large sum. Others have what she calls big-boob syndrome: “They wonder, Do people actually like me for myself or because of my wealth? Who can I trust? We’re not saying these are life-threatening problems, but they’re still problems.”
“People will tell you pretty much anything about their sex lives, but they don’t feel comfortable talking about money”
In December, Traeger-Muney addressed some of them at a workshop in San Francisco with her colleague Emily Bouchard. Seven participants sat on a white couch and floral-patterned armchairs in a Pacific Heights apartment; they’d paid $475 each to spend the day strategizing how to talk about money. “We’re going to start with a mindfulness exercise,” Bouchard told the group. “Everyone close your eyes.”
Next, the group took a quiz to find out which of eight money archetypes they most embody and how that might affect their relationships. Tyrants, Bouchard said, use money to control people but often see themselves as underappreciated martyrs. Creative/artist types love money for the freedom it buys but hate being sucked into the materialist rat race. “We used to see a lot of the tyrant archetype in wealthy families,” Bouchard says. “With more tech people now becoming wealthy, we see more artists.” After identifying their archetype (all devised by Deborah Price, author of Money Magic), each participant drew a family tree labeling relatives: There were innocents, fools, and warriors, too.
No one seemed too tortured by wealth during the session. David Fox, a successful serial entrepreneur, said he signed up to gather information for an online tool he’s building to help business owners handle the interpersonal aspects of selling companies. But the day helped him on a personal level, too. Fox, 56, moved from Australia to San Francisco in the ’90s after selling his first company for millions of dollars. He lost some of that money through risky investments. “The workshop made me think how my fool traits can be helpful in making money but not necessarily in keeping it,” he said. “Money tends to magnify our insecurities and fears—suddenly you have so much to lose.”
Traeger-Muney is open about her own family insecurities. Not unlike Cockrell’s patient who was suddenly swimming in it, her 17-year-old son recently discovered that much of the family’s funds were inherited, not earned. “He had a strong reaction,” she says. “All of a sudden, I saw in my child’s eyes this flicker of lost respect—it really stung.” Luckily, she’d spent her life figuring out how to talk about money. She explained to her son that their money supplemented everyone’s passions, but that you were still expected to work. “We discussed what it means to take money, what it says about who you are—we pulled apart the topic,” she says. “He realized it’s a complex conversation.”