How Wealth Complicates a Marriage Break-up and Impacts Mental Health

How Wealth Complicates a Marriage Break-up and Impacts Mental Health

Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD

High Net Worth (HNW) divorces are notoriously complex, with so much at stake. Lengthy legal negotiations are not uncommon, and to the average person, eventual settlements are eyepopping.

From the outside, it can seem strange to be squabbling over money when there is so much of it. But wealth brings a uniquely complicated set of challenges, particularly regarding divorce, financial settlements, business arrangements, and even the custody of children.

The emotional toll of a super-rich break-up can be extreme. While failed marriages in all walks of life inflict emotional pain, wealth poses additional psychological challenges.

Here we examine how wealth affects marriage break-ups and its impact on mental health.

What are the common causes of marriage breakdown in the wealthy?

To most people, married life in the billionaire lane is unimaginable. With full-time nannies, boarding schools, private chefs, cleaners, gardeners, a personal assistant, and all manner of help seamlessly managing everyday life’s challenges, one might wonder what there is to fight about. The stresses and strains of an ordinary existence don’t touch the super-rich.

So where do relationships among the privileged one per cent go wrong? And what does it mean for mental health?

Spending disagreements

Money is one of the most common issues married couples fight about. You wouldn’t expect this to feature as problematic amongst the very wealthy. But living an extravagant lifestyle can set couples up for disagreements over finances, especially if one spouse is a high-earner and the other isn’t working but enjoys spending frivolously.

Deborah Price, the well-respected author of ‘The Heart of Money: A Couple’s Guide to Creating Financial Intimacy’, says when couples fight about money, it isn’t always because they don’t have enough. In many cases, the more they have, the more dysfunction there is.1

Read more about the psychology of wealth and how it affects mental health in our previous blog here.

The absent spouse

One-half of a couple, especially if they are a company CEO, will often work incredibly long hours and travel a lot, spending many hours away from home. This absence can cause untold tension in a marriage. Many super-rich couples consist of breadwinning husbands and stay-at-home wives.

According to Federal Reserve data in the USA, 53% of super-rich heterosexual couples had arrangements where the woman was not gainfully employed, compared with 27% of wealthy couples, 20% of upper-middle-class couples and 26% of less affluent couples.2

Maintaining a healthy relationship when one partner is absent for prolonged periods is complex. Affairs are common, and resentment can build on either side.

A power imbalance

Research points to a gender imbalance regarding earning capacity in super-rich households. In the top one per cent of earners in the USA, white, heterosexual, married men earn most of the income in this elite group.3

Breadwinning men in the one per cent likely have greater decision-making power in the household, which is disempowering for women, especially those who gave up successful careers when they married. Such power imbalances in relationships can have a significant impact on mental well-being.

A woman at home (though not exclusively, it may also be a man), for example, might feel controlled and feel there is no choice but to go along with the breadwinner’s wishes. The power dynamic may not just be about wealth but also status, fame, or educational level. Being controlled by a partner this way is a form of abuse, which can play out horribly in an unamicable divorce.

A lack of trust

Trust can be pushed to its limits in any relationship, but research shows that wealthy people are more likely to cheat.4 Rich men are more prone to affairs and one-night stands. Status and wealth can make someone an attractive dating proposition. It is common for partners to have affairs and the cheated-on to look the other way.

But a lack of trust breeds, and it was this that caused the eventual break up of Bill and Melinda Gates. Despite working on their differences, Melinda was said to be unhappy with Bill’s meetings with Jeffrey Epstein. The late convicted paedophile, Epstein, was reported to have blackmailed Bill Gates over an alleged affair.5

When trust has been broken in this way, divorces can get ugly, and this takes a significant toll on mental health, hitting self-esteem and fuelling addictions, ultimately leading to anxiety disorders and depression.

A lack of morality

With privilege and wealth comes entitlement. Researchers who study the behaviours of the rich have found the wealthy somewhat lacking in morality. Studies show they are more likely to cheat on taxes and their romantic partners.6 They are also less empathetic and give less to charity by a proportion of income compared to lower-income households.

Sometimes divorce is a force of necessity to protect mental health. But a longstanding lack of emotional support, spousal rejection, uncompromising conflict, and infidelity significantly affect mental well-being. In super-rich circles where privacy is sacrosanct, there appears to be a willingness to accept deplorable behaviour.

A lack of flexibility

Another study found that rich people may be less successful in love because they are less likely than poorer people to exhibit flexibility and empathy in relationships.7 When it comes to a divorce, this lack of flexibility is often played out in the settlement battle, making the split painful, long and stressful.

Egocentricity, narcissism and dysfunction

The morality position brings us to another question – are there more narcissists in wealthy circles? The simple answer to this is yes!

Research shows this to be true. Five studies demonstrated that higher social class is associated with increased entitlement and narcissism.8 Irrational and vindictive behaviours are commonplace in those with a narcissistic personality disorder. And this can do no end of harm in a relationship.

Wealthy families are often highly dysfunctional. The TV series, Succession, a drama about the trials and tribulations of an ultra-wealthy family, may be fictional, but it gets agonisingly close to the truth. The characters are primarily devious, selfish, manipulative, and obsessed with accumulating wealth and status.

Despite the privileges wealth can bring, it can also be a brutal world for a child to grow up in. Many born into hyper-wealthy circles have likely experienced trauma as a child, especially if they were shipped off to boarding school or experienced psychological violence. A lasting impact can be felt into adulthood, which can hugely damage relationships. Being married to and divorcing a narcissist is hugely traumatic.

A lack of empathy

Things can quickly turn sour when the crucial qualities that support a healthy relationship are lacking. Relationships suffer when there is a complete lack of empathy, and dozens of studies show that as wealth increases, feelings of compassion and empathy are reduced.

The complication of wealth in marriage break-ups

As well as the emotional fallout of divorce, there is a complexity to the financial practicalities of a split when there is enormous wealth. What assets are there to divide in a wealthy divorce?

There are broadly four categories of wealth to be considered in HNW divorces. These are:

  • Financial – cash, bank account or equity fund, including bonds and shares
  • Property – land and buildings, including property, holiday homes or land abroad
  • Physical – cars, jewellery, paintings, art, clothing and accessories
  • Private pension

Business interests may also be considered but are not usually divided (e.g. one person won’t be made to sell off their business or divide ownership between two). Still, one partner may get a larger share of other assets to compensate. Having a prenuptial agreement is not unusual.

How does a prenuptial agreement work?

Prenuptial agreements, or ‘prenups’ as commonly called, define the terms of a potential separation between high-net-worth married couples. A prenup outlines how assets will be divided should the couple divorce. Prenups can also clarify financial responsibilities during the marriage.

What are the unique mental health issues in a high-net-worth marriage break-up?

Super-rich people experience different challenges in life that are unfamiliar to those who do not live a billionaire lifestyle. A person who lives a lavish lifestyle may feel this will be taken from them in a divorce. A woman, for example, may feel they have sacrificed their business and career interests.

Marital dissolution is a common cause of depression, and in the wealthy, this is accentuated because the sense of loss is also about status and money. A person feels vulnerable and ill-prepared at the idea of ‘down-sizing’ their daily spending. Often, there is an imbalance of power or influence in the decision-making process or unrealistic expectations.

When a super-rich household focuses on building and maintaining wealth, relationships are already highly fragile by the time they get to the divorce stage. Individuals will likely have been starved of physical affection and intimacy. In some cases, there may have been sexual, physical or psychological abuse. Abuse is not exclusive to wealthy couples, of course, but is undoubtedly more easily hidden.

A history of childhood trauma can also trigger addictions during a marriage break-up. It is not uncommon for wealthy people to turn to alcohol and drugs, which are easily accessible, and for eating disorders to develop.

Money issues are always messy. The more money there is, the messier it gets. Many people may find it challenging to have much compassion for the wealthy, but no matter how rich someone is, they still have painful stories to tell.

Restoring mental health after marriage break-up at CALDA

CALDA is dedicated to the mental health of UHNWIs. We understand the unique pressures experienced by people with extreme wealth, including high-profile individuals. We reserve our team of specialists and professional therapists to one client at a time so that we can offer our undivided attention and the utmost discretion and secrecy.

If you are struggling with depression, anger, resentment or upset following an HNW divorce or going through an HNW divorce and need mental health support, we can help you.

Call for a preliminary chat with Dr Claudia M Elsig.


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  3. Yavorsky J, et al. 15 Mar 2020. Gender in the one percent. [Accessed online 26 Jun 2023]
  4. Wan, W. 13 Aug 2018. Are rich people more likely to lie, cheat, steal? Science explains the world of Manafort and Gates. The Washington Post.
  5. Rahaman Sarkar, A. 23 May 2023. Jeffrey Epstein blackmailed Bill Gates with threat to expose alleged affair with Russian bridge player. The Independent [Accessed online 27 Jun 2023]
  6. Lepore M. 23 Aug 2018. A series of studies suggest people who think themselves rich could be more likely to steal, cheat and lie. Business Insider.
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