More Than Money
Issue #33

Embracing The Gift

Table of Contents

“From Trophy Wife to a Meaningful Life”

An Interview with Carol Setters

Interviewed by Pamela Gerloff

MTM: What is a trophy wife?

Setters: The usual definition of a trophy wife is the younger, second wife who marries the wealthy, older man, thereby proving that he still "has what it takes" to attract a beautiful woman. She is a symbol of the good life he has successfully achieved. However, because of my own experience and the stories I have heard from women around me, I feel there is a need to revise the term.

I describe a trophy wife as any woman who is in a relationship with a man who is wealthy and/or powerful, but who hasn't been successful in integrating that dynamic into her life. Consequently, her sense of purpose and understanding of her own self-worth become seriously diminished. She may immerse herself in the trappings of wealth in an attempt to discover the missing substance of this "bigger than life" existence she is now leading. In doing so, she may look the part we recognize as the trophy wife. The end result is the image we all know, but the reason for it is much more complex than most people realize.

MTM: You became a trophy wife when you married your husband. What was that like for you?

Setters: I was 28 years old when I married my husband. I had grown up in a Midwestern, middle-class family, and I was accomplished in my career. I was a classical pianist, I had toured Europe and the U.S. extensively as a vocalist, and I was enjoying success as a member of a Tony-award winning Broadway show in New York.

My husband was raised in a wealthy family on the East Coast and had achieved tremendous success in business. We shared many values and goals, and enjoyed each other's company immensely. After a while, it became apparent that we could not move forward in our relationship without one of us making a drastic change. He was the CEO of a large company that wasn't going to relocate; the practical choice was for me to move to where he lived and alter my career. Although I was excited about making changes to accommodate our plans to start a family, neither of us really understood how much I would be giving up to fit into his world.

MTM: What did you give up?

Setters: I had difficulty continuing my career because it would have clashed with my husband's career needs, as well as his leisure schedule. I was torn between the commitments of my career and needing to free myself up for an impromptu golfing weekend in the Bahamas. Just as I was resenting the limitations I felt my husband's career and lifestyle were imposing on me, he was confused as to why I wasn't ecstatic at not having any real commitments anymore, which he viewed as the ideal life!

Another issue-and this too, is a common one-was that when people either are raised in wealthy families or occupy high-level positions within organizations, other people stop telling them the truth, so they become sequestered from the kind of reality that keeps them in check with their own limitations. Let's be honest-when you have power over the paychecks of everyone around you, people are not eager to tell you something negative if it may impact their own bottom line-so your wife ends up being the only person who ever says anything

The Transformation Process

To create "a life you could love to live," Carol Setters recommends taking the following steps (which can be done on your own or with a coach or advisor):

  • Move from External to Internal Motivation

  • Learn to change from being dominated by externallyimposed circumstances to following your own creative direction.
  • Develop Decision-Making Skills

  • Acquire skills to make decisions that successfully support your desired, long-term results.
  • Learn to Self-Actualize

  • Learn about Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs (survival, security, social acceptance, self-esteem, selfactualization), to help you move toward self-actualization.
  • Create a Life Vision

  • Articulate a life vision for yourself and discover the personal values that drive your vision.
  • Focus on Being vs. Doing

  • Begin to focus on being your values, rather than just doing them.
  • Make Your Plan

  • Design long-term and short-term plans to realize your life vision.
  • Understand the Creative Process

  • Understand that your transformation is a creative process and that the creative process happens in stages.

    critical to you. Since no one else seems to be experiencing the problem, you assume it must be her problem.

    Those issues were problematic for me, but the biggest struggle I experienced was that, in comparison to the new environment I lived in, my own accomplishments and goals began to seem very insubstantial. I was no longer compelled to generate any money-why should I? Consequently, the entire structure for my career fell into disarray, which was difficult for me. My husband's family was involved in ongoing intergenerational non-profit efforts that I was invited to join, but that wasn't really my passion. I lost myself. I didn't know what I stood for anymore, or what I wanted to do with my life.

    MTM: You wrote in your book that it's not just the dynamics within the marriage itself that are a challenge-other people and external conditions contribute, too.

    Setters: Yes, people treat you differently when you have money, there's no question about it. They give you all kinds of "special" treatment, which actually turns out to be disempowering. A woman in this culture, most likely, has been trained to be "nice" and to go to great lengths to be sure that people like her. When she marries into this new culture of wealth, she can unconsciously play to the message that she is special because of her money until she is conditioned to believe that the only thing she has to offer the world is her credit card. Within the social circles I began to inhabit, I felt a much stronger pressure to conform than I had before, in terms of lifestyle choices, my opinions, and the way I looked and behaved. I was surprised one evening at a gala event at someone's home to find a group of women hiding down in the furnace room smoking cigarettes and taking a break! I was not alone being uncomfortable in this duplicitous role.

    MTM: What happened to you as you tried to conform to others' expectations of you in your "trophy wife" role?

    Setters: The ironic part about the entire experience is that, while my own sense of self-worth was heading downhill, I was getting really good at acting as if I was having a fabulous life. Especially for wives of men who have prominent positions in the community, the environment creates some very distorting coping strategies. In my seminars and my private coaching, women always recognize the coping behaviors I describe, which are very similar from community to community. They include the woman who is very dramatic, talks with great animation, and exaggerates everything for effect; the woman who seems to get more and more physically perfect every year; the wife who is helpful and sweet and never gets angry, but under the surface she's smoldering; the woman who mysteriously gets drunk on the first drink of the night; and the woman who takes refuge in shopping, spending a great deal of effort appearing to be trendy and chic, who seems obsessed with renovating the home in Vail. All of these behavior patterns describe attempts to squeeze the substance out of a life that has become very superficial. The tragedy is that it doesn't have to be that way.

    MTM: What are some solutions?

    Setters: My advice to a woman in this situation would be to begin with a dialogue, either internally or with a trusted friend, considering exactly what it is that you stand for and what you want out of life. You can begin from the ground up, identifying the things that matter to you. Here is an opportunity that most of the world would love to have-you can pause your life and re-decide what you love to do and what you were meant to give to the world. If you can take a leap of faith and wake up what lies dormant inside you, you have a stellar opportunity to create a life that really matters.

    Once you have committed to following a meaningful path of your own choosing, you can learn skills and new perspectives that will assist you in developing a life that reflects your core interests. I would also suggest learning what it takes to make a good decision. For that, I recommend the book, The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz; it contains an excellent section on choice. I've also found that it helps to have a mentor to keep you from reverting to old habits and thought patterns.

    In my experience, the transformation that occurs gets you excited about life again. You feel powerful, and others around you can feel the change.Your self-esteem grows and your sense of purpose evolves because you're finally living a life that is a true reflection of who you are inside.

    When I went through this process, I discovered that even the people I had perceived as being part of my "problem" were people I could enjoy being around-because they no longer held the power to affect the way I felt about myself. I had become "inner-directed."

    MTM: Is this transformation ever threatening to the husband or to the relationship?

    Setters: When I describe this transformation to people, this is the point when the fear shows in their eyes. "What if I decide I don't want to be married anymore?" they ask me. Or, "What if he dumps me?" Those are genuine concerns; however, the point is that the problem was never about the marriage. The problem was that the women didn't know how to be authentic and powerful in their lives with their wealthy husbands. It's quite possible that they didn't know how to be authentic before the marriage either. Being authentic isn't something that is generally encouraged for women in this society-or, sadly, for men. In the process I take my clients through, I've never heard a woman read aloud a description of the life she could love to live that doesn't include the desire to be part of a great love. (I think that's what every heart craves.) And great love begins with authenticity.

    MTM: So how does this transformation affect the relationship?

    Setters: The process can be a test of the commitment the husband has to his wife. If he truly wants her to be happy (and I always begin with that premise), then he has to be willing to give her the room to become the person she was meant to become. Typically, what he finds is that, as his wife blossoms into the new person she is becoming, she offers to share her joy. If a woman doesn't feel that impulse to share her joy with her husband, then no amount of control would ever keep her in the relationship anyway.

    MTM: You focus on trophy wives, but the issues you discuss and the solution process you outline sound valuable for anyone.

    Setters: Yes. I focus on women married to wealthy men, but similar issues can arise in any relationship-for example, for a man married to a wealthy woman, or a gay couple dealing with money differences-although some of the power dynamics may be different.

    MTM: The title of this journal issue is "Embracing the Gift." It sounds as if you're really talking about embracing the gift of your true self that wealth can enable, if you know how to do it.

    Setters: Yes. Wealth is a gift that can be a challenge to embrace. Just because it has the potential to have positive impact doesn't mean we automatically know how to use it in ways that are best for ourselves and others. But truly, I have never worked with a man or a woman who didn't have a tremendous depth of talent and insight to offer to the world. It's inspiring to experience just how rich the human spirit truly is.


    Carol Setters became a "trophy wife" at age 28. To observers, her life was enviable, but she found the dynamics of being married to a wealthy man overwhelming and dissatisfying. In the process of creating for herself "a life she could love to live," Ms. Setters discovered that many women married to wealthy men experience similar challenges. She now advises women who have married into wealth, helping them create lives that are satisfying and meaningful. She is a founding member of the Colorado-based Personal Mastery Program, a public speaker, and the author of The Trophy Wife Trap (XLibris, 2002).


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