Family Councils: Repacking the Baggage

 Couples enter relationships with lots of baggage – good and bad
—packed by their families of origin.

Messages are tucked among:
 • attitudes • biases • traditions • customs • values • beliefs.

Those messages contain family “givens” about:
• who I am
• who you are
• how we should behave and not
• what’s important and not
• freedoms • duties
• the work ethic
• philanthropy
• community service
• public image
• privacy • intimacy
• sexuality
• how we spend money
• how we spend time

Families aren’t always aware that they’re packing these bags; couples aren’t always aware they’re unpacking them.

The contents of your partner’s bags may be very different from yours. As their relationship evolves and circumstances change, a healthy couple sorts through these “givens”, repacking some and discarding others. This sorting, repacking and discarding continues throughout the relationship, even throughout very long ones as new circumstances arise.

In less healthy relationships, partners cling tenaciously to the “givens” in their baggage, clashing over the differences, refusing to re-examine inherited outlooks and answers held most dear.

Wealthy families are connected by a family businesses or the family fortune. Like it or not, they are joined at the wallet for generations and need to make the best of it. Sooner or later a crisis will strike and they need to be ready to face it together.

The baggage brought from a wealthy and powerful family is less likely scrutinized while the older generation is at the console. Their very wealth and power discourages baggage checks by spouses and significant others. The gift horse does not welcome dental examination.

Yet the older generation eventually declines and their influence on family baggage subsides. Couples may now probe the wealthy partner’s baggage with impunity. The younger generation is now a different family, free to sort, repack or discard the family baggage – essentially to redefine the younger generation’s extended family relationship. I think this should happen at least once every generation.

Redefining the extended family relationship – repacking the family baggage that their own children will carry into their new relationships -- is a tall order. But it’s doable and there are helpful resources for the task. The central vehicle is a family council.

See: Le Van, “A Family Council for the Relational Estate”

Early on, the central agenda item for the emerging family council is: “Who are we now as a family and who do we want to become?” Or, how do we repack our bags?

Though largely silent and ignored by the older generation, spouses and significant others are now important voices in redefining the younger generation families. Indeed, I always look forward to private meetings with them. My first question is usually, “What is it like to marry into this family?” The discussion is always animated and full of talk about what baggage needs to be sorted, repacked or discarded.

In addition to redefining the extended family relationship, a family council acts as a “court of first resort” for important family issues. It provides an orderly structure and forum for discussion. Hopefully, the family council can be up and running before the inevitable family crises emerge. But sometimes it takes a family crisis to motivate its formation. I have helped form successfully family councils in mid-crisis and it’s not easy.

A wealthy family, joined at the wallet, really has no choice but to organize itself or suffer the consequences of facing crisis unprepared. A family council can provide that preparation…and be a source of fun, stimulation and growth along the way.

Gerald Le Van Chair 
Family Wealth Mediation
Upchurch Watson White & Max
June 2012

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