When Love Crosses Class Lines

Cinderella and Prince Charming, Jasmine and Aladdin, Christian Grey and Ana Steele … As an article in the Atlantic makes clear, so many of our favorite fairy tales are predicated on the idea of love crossing class lines. But what happens after the besotted couple says “I do”? Does romance dismiss, or render irrelevant, all that came before? Jessi Streib investigates.

Most couples maintained that their class differences were behind them after marriage, as they now shared a bank account, a home, and a life. Yet, by analyzing how individuals talked about themselves, their partners, and their marriages, I discovered that this was far from the truth. Class had shaped each spouse so much that the people I interviewed had more in common with strangers who shared their class background than with their husbands and wives.

How could this be? It’s because class isn’t only about what you have. It’s also about how the amount of money and material things we used to have shape the type of people we become.

Class differences can come out in small but concrete ways: do you prefer certain kinds of food; do you know how to ski; do you have a passport and is getting on an airplane normal. But it can also express itself in ways that are both foundational and abstract like, do you feel secure?

People who grew up with parents who had more money, job security, and power grow up with more stable lives. In these conditions, they learn that managing their resources makes sense — both because their lives are predictable enough that they can plan and because their resources are plentiful enough that they can make meaningful choices.

A certain amount of money allows a family to manage in an active way; absent a certain amount of money, a family cannot assume the kind of stability that allows it to plan for the future. Streib notes that the ripple effects of this difference can remain visible, decades later.

This difference — taking a hands-off approach or a hands-on one — followed individuals from their pasts and into their marriages. It shaped nearly every aspect of their adult lives. In regards to money, work, housework, leisure, time, parenting, and emotions, people with working-class roots wanted to go with the flow and see what happened, while their spouses with middle-class backgrounds wanted to manage their resources by planning, monitoring, and organizing.

Love does not conquer all. Well, sure. That’s why so many fairy tales end at the wedding, and why more practical authors of romantic fiction like Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte often match their cash-poor female protagonists with men who are more privileged but still of their own general class. “’He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal,’” says Pride & Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet with spirit to her prospective aunt-in-law, when challenged on this point.

It’s less romantic to hear about how Jasmine and Aladdin need to learn to communicate, to articulate their needs while also striving to see things from their partner’s point of view. To discover that, duh, marriage is work, a continual process.

marriage did not magically transform the less privileged partner into a person who easily fit into their new class. As a result, some people who “married up” felt continually uncomfortable in their new class, though people who “married down” tended to feel more at ease around their in-laws.

Do these class distinctions — which persist even after a couple marries — lead to a greater likelihood of divorce? Streib doesn’t say; in fact, she ends on an optimistic note. Poking around, I haven’t been able to find a good answer. One Penn State study on why folks divorce doesn’t put “class incompatibility” anywhere near the top of the list of reasons. According to the abstract, “Infidelity was the most commonly reported cause, followed by incompatibility, drinking or drug use, and growing apart.

On the other hand, economist Stephanie Mechoulan argues that class has a role to play: she credits a societal uptick in marriage stability to “the increasing tendency of the well-off to marry similarly well-off partners and those marriages are more likely to last at any age.” There’s no link to or explanation of her data, though.

Absent any clear evidence to the contrary, I’m going to go ahead and assume that those crazy kids Aladdin and Jasmine have about as good a chance as any other married couple. If that’s believing in fairy tales, well, so be it.

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