How Class Can Screw Up Relationships

Hazlitt regular contributor Linda Besner’s poetry and non-fiction have appeared...

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It’s fashionable right now to look to neurobiology, gender norms, or family of origin parenting styles when you’re trying to figure out why your partner is such a jerk. A new study suggests that one overlooked root of relationship problems is social class. While cross-class marriages like the one between Downtown Abbey’s Lady Sybil and the estate’s chauffeur, Tom Branson, might not be overtly scandalous anymore, the renegotiation of values they entail isn’t confined to the fictionalized 1920s.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy and conducted by psychotherapist Teresa McDowell and her research team from Oregon’s Lewis and Clark College, assessed the experiences of eight American couples in which partners self-identified as being from different class backgrounds. They wanted to see how attitudes about education, work, money, and social capital affected how couples fought.

The couples were predominantly white—one person self-identified as Iranian-American, two as Bosnian—and heterosexual, with one gay male couple and one lesbian couple. Their ages ranged from early 20s to mid-60s, and couples had been living together anywhere from a year and a half to 43 years.

Defining social class is a bit tricky. Now that we aren’t generally born into our roles as scullery maids or earls, a wider range of factors contributes to class identity. When McDowell’s team asked their participants to define “class,” they came up with pretty similar answers: “I think social class is a status you have throughout your life based on how educated you are, what you do in society, how much you earn,” said one, while another said, “It is how much education you have, how rich you are, how many people you know, and who you know.” Social scientists generally identify class as a product of “the combination of educational level, income, money, type of job, social and occupational prestige, and political power.” And, as McDowell et al. note, you can’t opt out—calling it a classless society doesn’t make it one, and what class you come from will influence the choices available to you in a way that affects the rest of your life.

All the participants answered a set of 12 questions discussing class and their relationships, with items like: “How did social class influence the kind of organized/social activities you participated in when you were a child?”; “How does your social class define or influence your lifestyle?” and “How do you negotiate social class, including differences in attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors in your relationship?”

What seemed to me like the saddest finding was that upper-class people, even when they love and are married to someone from a lower-class background, often display stereotypical class prejudices. One participant said:

My expectations as far as people being in the lower class might be people that aren’t necessarily living up to their potential… I think people can create their own opportunities. I was always taught that I could do anything I want, be anything I want, even if I am not making that much money. To me, lower class might be someone who grew up and didn’t have that mother figure or father figure telling them that, telling them they are doing good… so they get stuck in this rut and they don’t know how to be any better.

The idea that social class is purely a product of individual effort, and that lower-class people just “don’t know how to be any better,” seems like a tough backdrop for a marriage between people who grew up with different opportunities. And in some relationships, the urging of an upper-class partner to a lower-class one to “do better” in terms of education or prestigious employment is a double-edged sword—some couples in the study reported experiencing this as positive encouragement, whereas with others it felt like negative pressure.

Some couples kept separate sets of friends because of their class differences, and many had trouble integrating into each others’ families. Couples also reported differing attitudes towards money, with lower-class partners exasperated by upper-class partners’ easy-come-easy-go spending. It can be hard to convey certain economic realities to someone who’s never lacked money; as one lower-class person said of their partner: “When you haven’t had that actual feeling of not being able to eat… there’s only so much [I] can teach.”

My generation is very likely to find that we aren’t able to achieve, as adults, the same social class we belonged to as children—stable employment is harder to find than it was for our parents’ generation, and for most people I know, status markers like home ownership are out of the question. In an odd way, one cross-class relationship this creates is the one between parents and children. Luckily, upper-class partners in McDowell et al.’s study often said that exposure to a lower-class partner’s reality had enriched their lives, by giving them new perspectives on the society they thought they knew. Let’s hope our parents will thank us someday—our basement apartments and repertoire of lentil recipes may be broadening their horizons.

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