What Happens When Rich People Marry Poor People

(Photo: Disney)

Money is a perpetual topic in married life. The process of combining two bank accounts, and sometimes two incomes, into one pooled set of resources is a fraught one, and it only becomes more so when childrearing and real-estate purchases are added to the mix.

A lot has been written about how married couples deal with questions of money. Less has been written, noticed Jessi Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke, about how married couples from different class backgrounds deal with having very different beliefs about money — not to mention differing when it comes to the countless other habits and social mores intimately connected to the social classes they were born into. (The Cut recently asked couples to delve into some of these differences.)

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In her book The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages, released earlier this month by Oxford University Press, Streib drew on extensive interviews with 42 married heterosexual couples, 32 of whom were born into different social classes, to learn more about how class mores affect marriages — and vice versa. Science of Us recently spoke to her about her research.

In your book, there was definitely a little bit of romance to the idea that in some cases, people are drawn to people from a different class because that person has something that their own background didn’t provide them.
That was kind of a new finding. Sociologists have usually said that these things that we grow up with that become part of our class — those are the reasons we don’t like each other: We don’t know what class other people are from often, but we notice these personality traits and then don’t like them because of that. And the people I talked to really talked about their class differences drawing them together.

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.

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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.

It seemed like the role of emotion was one of the biggest and most persistent cleavages you found in how partners from different classes operated.
The white-collar partners tended to have much more what I call the “managerial style.” They manage their emotions, so before you want to express something, you think about it first, you figure out what you really feel, you think about how to express it in a way that will make the other person most comfortable, and then you kind of quietly and very calmly state how you feel and make sure there’s a good rationale behind it. Whereas the people who grew up in blue-collar families express emotion in more of what I call a “laissez-faire” style, kind of an unregulated way: If you feel it, you express it, and it might not always be expressed in the nicest way or the calmest way, but it’s basically more honest.

That laissez-faire versus managerial divide manifested itself across many different aspects of the marriages you studied. How did partners who were different on that front bridge the gap?
The ones that weren’t really adapting well were the ones where one partner tried to change the other. These different ways of going about things are really engrained in us — they come from a place where it made a lot of sense in different class conditions and we practice them for years and years and years, and it seems so natural. So for somebody to come and say, Well you need to change that, it seemed to the person asking like they weren’t necessarily asking for that much, but in reality it was kind of asking for the impossible. And it was just kind of criticizing their way of being, their family’s way of being, their community’s way of being. So that created a lot of conflict and also just it didn’t work. 

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The couples who it went really well for were the ones who appreciated each other’s differences. So they would say things like, “You know, it’s not how I do it, but I can understand why that other way makes total sense,” or could actually use their partner’s differences to help them solve a problem at times. So keeping in perspective that difference isn’t necessarily bad, and that they love their partner despite or because of all these differences, could help a lot.

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.

And meanwhile, their partners from middle-class origins were a little bit baffled by that obsession, because their homes just didn’t matter to them the same way.
Right. They’ve never been judged for their home, and they knew that nobody was going to judge them for their home. They knew that their partner had actually done a pretty good job with making their home look like an upper-middle-class home, and so it wasn’t something that worried them — they weren’t trying to make up for anything in the past.

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Some of the stuff about divvying up of responsibilities was interesting, because you could easily imagine a trajectory where a blue-collar woman from a “traditional” family goes to college and graduates having picked up all these more progressive norms about gender roles. But it sounds like you found those women were the most likely to slip into a “default mode” on household work where they just didn’t really talk about it with their husbands, and as a result they ended up taking on most of the responsibilities.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. You would expect that you go to college, you get this middle-class job, you live in the middle class for half your life, that as a result you would develop all these tendencies that are pretty much identical to those of people people born into the middle class. And that actually never happens, or very rarely happens. Some blue-collar women enjoyed doing housework a little bit more than their white-collar counterparts. To them it wasn’t a source of a gender fight, right? They cared about gender equality, but the housework wasn’t the place where they wanted to fight that battle, and so they were happier in traditional roles and the husbands were happy that way.

And I actually think, in the long run, I’m not sure that they did any more actual work than women in other families, because the women from white-collar backgrounds spent so much energy monitoring their husband’s chores or asking them to do more or fighting over that, and that also creates a lot of extra work for them. So, kind of ironically, the people who cared less about divvying up housework might also not have done that much more.

The class divide on child-rearing seemed to nicely encapsulate the national debate on how busy kids should be. Generally speaking, parents of blue-collar origin wanted kids to have more free time, while those of white-collar origin were more into over-scheduling.
I think it might be a situation where learning from both sides is actually a pretty good thing. There are people who need their kids to be involved in a million activities and have the best educational opportunities of all kinds and everything’s a learning moment, and then there’s this other group right now who’re saying back off of it, let kids be kids.

I think battles over this are really battles over how people were raised themselves, so they’re very emotional battles over what they want their kid to be like, what’s important to them in general. But yeah I do think there’s a benefit to having your kid in a lot of activities — it does help them get into college — but there are also benefits from letting your kid take more control over their lives. So it can go both ways.

More broadly, do you think your work complicates some of the stories we’ve been told about how social norms are communicated and transmitted through peer networks?
Yeah, I think so. There are all these studies now that when your friend’s friend gets divorced, it changes your likelihood of getting divorced or whatever. And I’m certainly not going to say those studies are wrong, but for a lot of these things that are subtle, these ways of dealing with money and other important issues that you don’t necessarily talk about a lot with other people — they’re more intractable. And within the cross-class couples I looked at — who were married for an average of 13 years — those attitudes didn’t really change over time.

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So I think sociologists have a lot of thinking to do about how culture is transmitted, and if it’s able to be transmitted in marriages, which you would think would be the easiest way because you spend so much time with this person, and it’s a respected and loved person who you communicate with all the time. Maybe adulthood is just a harder time for some of these cultural adaptations to change. Or it could be that these underlying ways of life are just really hard to change.

Did you come away from this research with any ideas for sort of practical advice for folks who are dating or marrying someone from a very different background?
The biggest thing is not to try to change people. Some of the people that I interviewed married people with the very idea that they were going to change them. That’s not going to work, especially if it’s class difference — it’s just going to be a frustrating experience for both people. So marrying someone who you appreciate as they are is a really big part of it. I think I was just kind of encouraged at how much people can live together and love each other despite their class differences. These are some pretty big divides, and they were able to overcome them.

This interview has been edited.

By Jesse Singal

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