General progressiveness of 2015 aside, most of us still date and marry folks from the same socioeconomic background as us: as the New York Times put it in 2012, "Doctors used to marry nurses. Now doctors marry doctors." But what happens when you reach across the aisle and date or marry outside your class?
I recently had the pleasure of watching the Lifetime movie William & Kate, which did its best to imagine the courtship between Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Here is the story of a royal dating an allegedly ordinary British girl, falling in love and actually marrying her. It's pushed, of course, like some kind of fairy tale—but from the cheap seats, it's not as if Prince William married the help. Kate Middleton's parents were already wealthy, and she and Wills attended the same school. And they'd already met before university, anyway, so they were running in the same circles to some degree, which reinforces the idea that he wasn't quite slumming it. Plus, the only thing Kate seems to struggle with in the movie in terms of fitting in with royalty is how to exit a car so the paparazzi don't get a crotch shot.
But that's the kind of thing that only a person who is relatively poor would think. To someone more embedded in royal wealth circles, Prince William and Kate Middleton's respective social classes wouldn't seem close to on a par. Prior to their marriage there were, of course, endless debates about his marrying down, and her wealth being all too recently acquired, and all sorts of things that matter to class apologists.
And in the real world, anyone who has dated someone outside their social class knows it can produce a number of strange tensions you might have never expected or understood until they were right in front of you, ordering the wrong thing at a nice restaurant in front of your friends.
I dated a guy once whose father was quite wealthy and worked in finance. He often told me things straight-faced that, I—someone who had grown up on food stamps—found preposterous. He'd say that the couple grand he received as allowance each month was not very much money, and that his family was extremely careful not to show off their wealth too much, which he told me while we sipped booze on his dad's $80,000 speedboat.
We went to restaurants where a night of dinner, drinks and appetizers easily totaled $300. These were some of the first "nice" places I'd ever been, and I had to quickly learn how to act or dress "correctly" (I'm sure I did not). I ate things I'd never had before growing up on welfare in the South but which to him were absolutely commonplace—ostrich, oysters, expensive steak. I found the way he spent money totally fascinating and yet totally appalling. That is to say, he spent it thoughtlessly, as if he knew it was always coming in a steady stream. Because it was. And as such, he never seemed to truly appreciate what he was eating or consuming; it was simply part of his normal, what he'd grown accustomed to, while these things were exotic to me.
When he moved out of a one-bedroom college apartment, movers had already been ordered and paid for so he wouldn't have to pack or lift a thing. I had been hauling everything I owned in the back of my shit car to every place I'd ever lived since I turned 18.
While we dated, that car broke down and I could not afford to fix it. In a move that is possibly the most generous anyone has ever been to me, his parents gave me a car—his younger sister's castoff Dodge Neon—which they'd only even given her as a test car for a year prior to gifting her the new Mustang she really wanted. I needed it far too desperately to turn down out of pride.
The relationship didn't work out, but it wasn't because of money. At least, at the time I didn't think it was. But in retrospect I realize how uncomfortable it had all been for me to be around someone who had it so easy while I struggled so much. There was a dynamic I also came to resent as much as I appreciated it—that of the wealthier person always explaining to me about why some such thing was better than the what I was used to. It was a running joke at one point—this prime rib is just like the one on the buffet at Holiday Inn!—but it left me feeling eternally out of my element. I was attending college, trying to work my way into the middle class, but I only knew about most of these far-flung things because of books, never firsthand experiences.
In a recent The Cut interview with couples discussing love and class, we learn that such little differences crop up all the time in cross-class relationships. And when it doesn't work out, it's because of a lot of similar embarrassment or resentment: Someone from a comfortable suburb marries a farm worker, and they discover they have very different ideas about how to talk to their children or save money. Someone poor still feels pressure to chip in on meals out, even when they can't afford to do so. A woman from an immigrant background notices that her wealthier boyfriend won't return things, even when they aren't made well:
"I bought our dog a sweater and it fell apart after 30 minutes, so I returned it," says Beatrix, 26, who was born in the former USSR. "My boyfriend would never do that, partly because he's an introvert, but maybe it's an immigrant thing. I watched my mother calmly get her money back so many times."
Alternately, when things do work out, it's often because those class differences are acknowledged and interpreted positively. In an interview at The Science of Us, Jesse Singal speaks with Jessi Streib, the author of a new book on class and love, The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages, and in it, we learn about a take on marrying up or down we don't usually hear.
Streib's interviews demonstrate that cross-class pairings are not blind to problems, nor are they doomed from the start. They can totally work, depending on whether or not the twosome enjoy and appreciate their differences. Streib tells Singal that this was a "kind of a new finding" compared to what sociologists often thought to be true: That rather than always disliking someone for being different from us (whether we recognized it as a class-based difference or not), that people who married across class were usually attracted to something in the other person missing from their own background, and they valued the difference.
What's an example of how that works in practice?
Often women who grew up in blue-collar families grew up in class conditions that were really unstable, and what we know about growing up in those conditions is sometimes people internalize a feeling that the world is an unstable place, that bad things could happen at any moment. So they met these men who didn't think bad things could happen at any moment, who in fact thought that was quite unlikely, and that sense of stability, that the world was all right, was really alluring to them. It's kind of something the women wanted for themselves, so that was one thing they mentioned a lot in what drew them to their partners.
And it works in the other direction, too, right? People from middle- or upper-class backgrounds would find something unfamiliar and attractive in a partner with a blue-collar upbringing?
That's right. The most common ones that they talked about was these people from more privileged class backgrounds would say, my partner just has this family that's so expressive emotionally and so intimate, and they hang out with each other in a way that's kind of unimaginable in my family and they're just so close. And while they love their families and feel privileged to be related to them, they didn't have the same kind of emotional relationship that they had with their families, and their partners love to learn how to have this like really intimate family that they didn't have growing up but they really wish they had.
Streib also gets at some of the underlying assumptions people have about class and what it means and how it should be demonstrated. Since these couples are married, most of the blue-collar people now find themselves in middle-class households. But class does not wash away with a bigger paycheck. As I often joke with my husband, who was raised more middle-class to my working-class, all the Whole Foods in the world can't erase the taste of so many Vienna sausages.
And, in pairings like my own, the middle-class person is far less likely to be so hyperaware of their class tells, Streib notes: even though they're not rich, the middle-class person enjoy a normalized status that isn't associated with any shame. For example:
There was something sort of exhausting in a couple of the scenes of people from more blue-collar upbringings feeling like they had to present their home in a certain way, or else they hadn't truly achieved middle-class-ness. Could you talk a little bit about that dynamic?
Exhausting is a good word for it, I think. The women dealing with this, especially, were exhausted. We judge each other a lot by our homes and judge each other's class position by our homes; homes are a symbol of our class. And so especially the women had felt very judged as children because of their class, had felt that their peers wouldn't play with them because of their homes.
So as adults they're determined not to let this happen again. Now they have the resources, so they can turn their homes into these upper-middle-class symbols that they've "made it." The problem was they didn't actually know how to do that because the resources were new to them, and it was a huge learning curve to try to figure out what an upper-middle-class home actually looks like. So they would obsessively read magazines and watch TV shows and go to stores and decorate their home and redecorate their home and try to figure out how to make their home look like an upper-middle-class home, and it was something that I don't think they could ever feel comfortable with. There was always this threat that somebody would come over and their true origins would be exposed.
I think about this a lot. But I've long ago decided that, rather than vigilantly working against being "exposed" as a formerly poor person, I should just talk about it and try to embrace it, to the extent that I can. This was my life experience, and now it's woven into my stories just like a year abroad would be, or an interest in Russian literature, or any other formative experience. Sure, it will always make certain people uncomfortable to have to hear about poverty, but you know what? Fuck them. What else are you supposed to do, anyway? Pretend such differences don't exist? That's horse manure. Remember, you're looking for someone who appreciates your background, not someone who judges you for it.
No one is saying class is an easy obstacle to surmount. But more research like this might show us that there are concrete ways through this divide. After all, Streib says she was encouraged by "how much people can live together and love each other despite their class differences." And of course, all relationships take work—but it's better to go into one being yourself from the start. So wear your class differences with pride, or at least acknowledge them. Better to find out now rather than years later that your secret love of Vienna sausages is unacceptable.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.