Marrying Across Class Lines

Photo by Garry Knight.
All marriages have their ups and downs, but cross-class marriages may see unique challenges. Photo by Garry Knight.

Christie, a cheerful social worker in her mid-40s, told me about the first time she met her husband, Mike. It was over thirty years ago, when they were in junior high school. She used to watch Mike as he wiped off the tables before the next round of students entered the school cafeteria. She thought he was cute and smart. And she was not fooled by his job—she knew that it was people like her who usually cleaned tables, not people like Mike. In fact, her father worked on the maintenance crew at their school.

Mike’s father, by contrast, was a productive professor who authored famous books and traveled the world attending conferences and giving lectures. As Christie knew, Mike washed tables in exchange for being allowed to go to the front of the line to collect his food, not because he needed the money.

When the couple began dating, their class differences became obvious. Her parents rarely bought new items; their cars were used and the ping pong table they gave her for Christmas was put together with items they found. Pop Tarts were her favorite food, but one that they could rarely afford. Mike’s family bought expensive new cars, went on annual vacations, had cable TV, and had enough money left over to tuck a good amount away in Mike’s trust fund. But while they had grown up with different amounts of resources, by the time we talked, Christie did not feel that their differences mattered. Over 25 years of marriage, they shared a house, a bank account, a level of educational attainment, and, later, three children. Their lives had merged, and so had their resources. To Christie, their class differences were part of their pasts, and, in any case, never mattered much: “I don’t think that it was the actual economic part that made the tension for Mike and I. It was personality style more than class or money.”

Christie was one of the 64 adults in 32 couples I interviewed about their marriages, their current families, and their pasts. In order to focus on how class background matters in a small sample, all respondents were white college-educated adults in heterosexual marriages. Half were like Christie—they had grown up in the working-class. The other half were like Mike—they had grown up in the middle-class. All were married to a partner whose class origin was different than their own. My goal was to discern how what most respondents, like Christie, did not think mattered—their class background—was related to their ways of attending to their own lives and to their marriages. Although respondents tended to think their class differences were behind them, irrelevant to their current lives, instead they left a deep imprint that their marriage, their shared resources, and their thousands of days together did not erase.

Social Class and Family Life

It is common knowledge that families located in different social classes develop different ways of going about daily life. Such differences were made famous in the 1970s by sociologist and psychologist Lillian Rubin in her classic book, Worlds of Pain. Rubin interviewed couples and demonstrated that the texture of family life, as well as ideas of what it means to be a good parent, child, and spouse, are all shaped by the resources and jobs available to families. Later, sociologist Annette Lareau offered another in-depth look, observing that the daily interactions between parents and children, and, to some degree, between adult members of the family, differed by social class. Middle-class parents, she found, tended to manage their children’s lives, while working-class parents more often let their children grow. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also observed wide class differences. He theorized that class not only shapes family life, but also individuals’ ideas and instincts about how to use resources, spend time, and interact with others. Sociologists do not see each family as wholly unique, but shaped by the resources available to them in their class position.

Such work suggests that people like Christie and Mike, who grew up in different social classes, were likely to have different experiences of family and develop different ideas about a “good life.” However, when scholars of social class and family life conduct research, they usually focus on the divide between college-educated couples and everyone else. This divide is critical for understanding inequality, but it is problematic to simply call couples like Christie and Mike a college-educated, middle-class couple. The label erases that Christie and Mike spent two decades in a class apart, and that upwardly mobile people like Christie may carry their ideas of family and a good life with them into their marriage and the middle-class.

Indeed, simply referring to Christie and Mike as a college-educated, middle-class couple ignores that Christie knew what it was like to grow up with limited savings, watch a parent go to a job that was consistently framed as a means to an end, and grow up in a family that expressed their emotions immediately and intensely. It ignores that Mike knew of none of these things. He knew, instead, of family safety nets, jobs that were enjoyed beyond their financial ends, and emotions that were rationalized and guarded.

When social scientists ignore these background differences, they present only differences between college-educated and high-school educated couples, overlooking differences within college-educated couples. And when married couples ignore these differences, they ignore that the class of each partner’s past organizes and shapes the contours of their marriage.

The Organization of Difference

Christie believed that her differences from Mike were driven by their personalities. She wasn’t wrong. What she did not realize, however, was that what she called their personalities were, in turn, related to their class trajectory. People like Christie—born into the working-class but now college-educated—tended to prefer taking what I call a laissez-faire approach to their daily lives. They preferred to go with the flow, enjoy the moment, and live free from self-imposed constraints. They assumed things would work out without their intervention. People like Mike—those born into the middle class—instead tended to prefer to take what I call a managerial approach to their daily lives. They preferred to plan, monitor, organize, and oversee. They assumed that things would not work out without their active intervention.

In the study, spouses from middle-class families took a managerial approach to their lives. Photo by Jodimichelle.
In the study, spouses from middle-class families took a managerial approach to their lives. Photo by Jodimichelle.

The people I interviewed did not just apply laissez-faire and managerial tendencies to one aspect of their lives, but seven. When it came to how to attend to their money, paid work, housework, time, leisure, parenting, and emotions, middle-class-origin respondents tended to want to plan, organize, and oversee. Working-class-origin respondents more often preferred to let things take their own course without as much intervention.

Take, for example, how Christie and Mike thought about money. When I met them, they had shared a bank account for over two decades, but they did not share ideas of how to use the money in it. Referring to money, Christie repeatedly told Mike: “Live for the day!” Growing up, saving for long-range plans was not possible. Christie’s family had to spend what they had to pay their bills today. A small amount in savings was also normal to her as a child, and continued to be normal to her as a college-educated adult. Christie said that she learned from her parents’ experience that worrying about money was unnecessary: even without much money, things would work out. Now that she and Mike were both college-educated professionals who earned much more than her parents, this seemed especially true. Free from concerns over necessities, she now made a point to be free from worrying about money.

Mike, however, grew up in a family with more money and more options. His family could pay for their daily needs, then choose how to save for college tuition, retirement, rainy days, and leisure. For him, thinking about how to manage money was normal and he learned that management could make a difference. As an adult, Mike budgeted, monitored their current expenditures, forecasted their future expenses, and worried about whether he was earning enough. When Christie told him to “live for the day” and worry less, he reported responding: “I see that. But at the same time, we had three kids in college, and we’re in our mid-forties. We have a lot of expenses.” He felt that Christie’s laissez-faire philosophy was reasonable, but he felt more comfortable with a managerial one.

Their differences also extended to work. Christie grew up observing her father work in a job as a maintenance worker at her public school while her mother did unpaid labor at home. There was no career ladder for her father to climb. Hours were circumscribed by a time clock and putting in more hours would not lead to more status or opportunities. Mike also saw his mother doing unpaid home labor, but observed his father, a professor, on a career ladder—from graduate student, to assistant, associate, and then full professor. More hours could lead to more books published, more prestige, and more opportunities to share his ideas.

Such differences likely shaped Christie and Mike’s ideas of work. Mike felt he had to prod Christie, a social worker, to not be “status quo”—to work longer hours and think about how moving to a new place might give them opportunities to get ahead. Christie, for her part, admired Mike’s dedication to work, but did not understand it. Mike owned his own business. He worked long hours (despite not being paid by the hour) and he constantly felt pressure to achieve more. Christie asked him to work fewer hours and have more faith that his business would do fine without his planning, strategizing, and long hours. So, just as Mike asked Christie to take a more managerial approach to work—one where she organized and planned her career trajectory—Christie asked Mike to take a more laissez-faire approach—one where he put in less time, did less planning, and assumed his career would be okay. Though each understood the other’s perspective, neither adopted it. Christie maintained her hands-off approach to work. Mike maintained his hands-on one.

A more laissez-faire approach characterized the working-class origin spouses in the study. Photo by Magic Madzik.
A more laissez-faire approach characterized the working-class origin spouses in the study. Photo by Magic Madzik.

This hands-on/hands-off, or managerial/laissez-faire divide organized many other aspects of their lives. Mike wanted to manage the division of housework by putting “more structure in the whole idea of who is going to do what” around the house. Christie wanted each to do the household tasks as they got around to them. Mike preferred to manage his feelings—to slowly process and weigh how to express them. Christie felt it was more genuine to express emotions as they were felt and in the way they were felt. Christie summarized their differences when she described Mike as Type A, driven, and organized—all things that she felt she was not.

Some of the differences that Christie and Mike expressed might sound like gender differences. Gender certainly shapes how much time each spouse spends on each task and how much power they have over decisions in different spheres. But with the exception of the highly gendered spheres of housework and parenting in which it was mainly women who followed the managerial/laissez-faire divide, class origin alone shaped how each partner wanted to tackle each task and use each resource. Take, for example, Leslie and Tom. They proudly proclaim that they are nerds: they met at a science-fiction convention, continued their courtship though singing together in a science-fiction themed choir, and, as a married couple, engage in role-playing games together. Their shared interests and college degrees, however, could not mask the lingering ways their class backgrounds shaped their lives and their marriage.

Leslie, a fit forty-year-old with short brown hair and glasses, was raised by a graduate-school-educated middle-manager and a college-educated homemaker. She attended private school with the sons and daughters of celebrities, judges, and politicians—where, she said, “famous and rich were people were the norm.” Her husband, Tom, a shy, dark-haired forty-eight-year-old grew up as the son of a high-school-educated security guard and a nurse. He attended public school. While their childhood class differences certainly could have been wider, they still mapped onto ways of organizing their lives. Leslie, like Mike, preferred a managerial approach to her life—scheduling, planning, organizing, and monitoring. Tom, like Christie, felt that a hands-off approach was a better way to live.

The differences that Leslie and Tom described about money mirrored those that Mike and Christie expressed. Leslie stated simply: “I’m the saver and he’s the spender.” But it was not just how much Tom spent that bothered Leslie, it was also that Tom did not actively think about managing their money. Leslie complained: “I do the lion’s share of work. Beyond the lion’s share of the work… Balancing stuff, actually paying the bills, keeping track of things, saying we need to have some goals. Both big picture and small picture stuff.” She said that Tom did not manage money; he spent without thinking.

Tom knew of Leslie’s concern: “She worries a lot more about money than I do. About how we’re doing… I think she would like it if I paid more attention to what our expenses are and how the money is going out.” They had been having these debates for the past 20 years, but their differences had not gone away. Leslie said she still couldn’t get Tom to set financial goals or think about how each expense fit in with their overall plan. Their compromise was that Tom checked with Leslie before making big purchases. But this was not an optimal solution for Leslie, who called herself the “superego”—the one who still had to make the decisions about how to manage their money, about what they really needed and what they could forego. Tom still assumed it would all work out, that a hands-off approach would do just fine.

Leslie also noted that she took a managerial approach to work, whereas Tom took a laissez-faire one. At the time of the interview, Leslie was college-educated, part-time secretary at her children’s school. Tom was a college-educated computer programmer. Though Leslie’s job was less prestigious, she found much more satisfaction in it, talking about the sense of accomplishment she had at work, the meaning of doing good work, and her goals for the future. She was not sure what her next career move would be, but she knew one thing: “I want to get somewhere.” Tom didn’t want to get anywhere with work. Leslie cried as she explained: “He’s been at the same job for quite awhile and only moves when forced to.”

Leslie clarified that her concern was not about how much Tom earned, but about his approach to his career: “I can totally understand being content. It’s more that sometimes I just don’t know what he wants and I’m not sure he knows. And this may sound dumb, but the actual goals, what they are, worry me less than not having any.” To Leslie, careers were to be managed. Goals were to be created and worked toward. Tom did not have the same sense.

Their differences also extended past what is directly related to class—money and work—to other parts of their lives. Like Mike, Leslie wanted to structure housework more than Tom did, so she delegated tasks and monitored his work. Tom, like Christie, figured the housework could be done when he got to it, without as much of a schedule. Leslie and Mike liked to plan and organize in general. However, while Mike appreciated that Christie got him to pause his planning and “stop to smell the roses,” Leslie was upset that Tom did not plan. She expressed it as a deficiency: “If you plan, if you’re a planner, you do that mental projecting all the time. You’re thinking ahead, saying, ‘What’s going to happen if I do this?’ I really don’t think he does that. I don’t know if it’s because he doesn’t want to, it’s too hard, he doesn’t have the capacity, I don’t know. But he just doesn’t do that.” Tom defended his approach: “She definitely wants more structure in things we do, more planning. I’m more of a ‘Let’s just do it’ [person] and it will get done the best way we can get it done.”

Leslie also insisted that their children’s time be structured by adults, guided by routines, and directed at learning-related outcomes. But Tom, again, questioned this approach: “Leslie thinks they need more structure than they really do.” As such, when he was in charge of parenting, he did not ask their daughters to have a regular reading time or strict bedtime. He did not view each of the kids’ behaviors as in need of monitoring, assessing, or guiding. As sociologist Annette Lareau observed of people currently in the working-class, Tom, who was born into the working-class but no longer a member, felt that the kids would be fine without parents’ constant management.

Navigating Difference

The laissez-faire/managerial differences that couples like Christie and Mike and Leslie and Tom navigated were common to the couples I interviewed—college-educated couples in which each partner grew up in a different class. The systematic differences that these couples faced meant that class infused their marriages, usually without their knowledge. These differences, however, were not experienced in a uniform way.

Differences don't mean divides when spouses respect individual approaches. Photo by Michael Coghlan.
Differences don’t mean divides when spouses respect individual approaches. Photo by Michael Coghlan.

Most of the people I interviewed appreciated their spouse’s differences, or at least found them understandable and valid. A minority of couples, however, found their differences to be more divisive. In these couples, middle-class-origin respondents disdained their spouse’s attitudes and asked their spouse to change.

Christie and Mike were one of the couples who dealt with their differences with respect and even admiration. Mike did not always agree with Christie’s laissez-faire approach, but he appreciated her sense that he sometimes needed to manage less and live in the moment more. Christie sometimes found Mike’s managerial style frustrating, but she also admired how organized he was. She appreciated how well Mike had done in his career and respected that he needed more planning, organization, and monitoring to feel secure. They preferred different approaches, but they saw the benefits of the other’s way and tried to accommodate their partner’s differences.

Leslie and Tom did not navigate their differences with such ease. Leslie defined Tom’s hands-off approach as deeply flawed. As such, her strategy was to get him to change—to get him to do things in a more managerial way. But her strategy left them both unhappy. Tom resented being asked to change; Leslie fumed that Tom would say he would change, but did not. She explained: “Mostly what happens is he says, ‘You’re right. That would be better.’ But the implementation is just not always there.” Leslie remained frustrated with what she saw as the inadequacy of Tom’s style, and Tom remained frustrated that Leslie did not see the benefits of living a life that was less structured, scheduled, and planned. Asking for assimilation was a failed strategy, both in that it did not work and in that respondents said that it left them disappointed and dissatisfied.

Regardless of how they navigated their differences—with respect or demands for change—couples like Mike and Christie and Leslie and Tom had to navigate the subtle ways that the class of their pasts still shaped their lives and their marriages. The decades that each couple was together, their shared college degrees, and their shared resources did not erase the fact that the middle-class-origin partners preferred to take a managerial approach to their lives while working-class-origin partners favored a laissez-faire one. Just as taking the person out of the class did not take the class out of the person, a marriage was not a new beginning that removed the imprints of each partner’s class past.

Recommended Readings

Pierre Bourdieu. 1984. Distinction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Offers a theoretically sophisticated examination of how social class is related to tastes, worldviews, and dispositions.

Marcia Carlson and Paula England (eds). 2011. Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. Charts demographic changes that have occurred between families in different social classes.

Annette Lareau. 2003. Unequal Childhoods. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Explains how parenting styles differ by social class.

Lillian Rubin. 1976. Worlds of Pain. New York: Basic Books. Provides a detailed account of how marriage, parenting, and work are related to social class, especially for the working-class.

Comments 2

V Roscigno

May 20, 2015

Great and Interesting Piece!

James W Loewen

May 21, 2015

I dunno. Maybe. Seems like a couple of stereotypes, to me. The WC students I've taught seemed as much long-term in their thinking as anyone. Admittedly, they are in college; laissez-faire WC students (author's term) might not have made it in.
Also, in the biblio., what about Richard Sennett, THE HIDDEN INJURIES OF CLASS. Working-class laissez-faire may partly result from a lack of feelings of efficacy.

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