Working with couples who hail from different class backgrounds is one of my specialties as a counseling psychologist. I offer an example from my counseling practice to illustrate how different class backgrounds, and their cultural assumptions, can confound a marriage. One couple met in college, where she got a para-legal certificate and he got a bachelor’s degree in business.
Working class Carla rebuked her middle class husband, Steve, “You’re so cold to my family, they don’t feel welcome to drop by.”
Steve replied, “Why do we have to spend so much time with them? The weekends are so short. Why do we go to your mother’s family dinners every single Sunday? We’re grown-ups now.” But Carla was raised to keep close family ties. In her culture, this is not a sign of arrested psychological development but of loyalty, love and respect.
“I love our Sundays!” She looked at me. “See?” she exclaimed.
In another session Steve complained, “Why are you spilling your guts to my boss’s wife?! I’ve got to project the right image to advance in the company!”
Carla retorted, ”Well, why do we have to go out with them anyway? On Saturday night?! This is your idea of fun? Sipping white wine with your boss?” She raised her imaginary glass with pinky finger extended. She said boss like it was a dirty word.
But Steve sees his boss as a generous mentor and friend. He is grateful his boss wants to see them. He reminds Carla, “That boss is the key to my success and our shared future.” Then turned to me “You see? I don’t even know if she cares about me.”
And ‘round they went. Misinterpreting each other through the blinders of their different class vantage points.
Carla’s working class life taught her that social relationships are supposed to be supportive, not challenging and not hierarchical. She assumes that real friends feel like equals; it’s just plain creepy to schmooze with ambition. Women from Carla’s background, if they like you, may share intimate life details. To do so includes the other woman, invites her into our world. It says, “You’re one of us.”
In the middle class, being cordial and reserved shows respect for others and oneself. Individuality and privacy are important. Sharing confidences with someone you hardly know might be considered rude or narcissistic; at least déclassé. It may be seen as a sign of danger: this woman is so messed up she spills her guts to anyone who will listen.
These same (middle class) boundaries and emotional reserve have a different social meaning in Carla’s first world. Reasonable interpersonal boundaries, by middle class standards, may register as coldness to working class people– a purposeful withdrawal of warmth that says, “Stay away from me.”
A middle class therapist, with no understanding of Carla’s context, might push Carla learn “better boundaries.” Then Carla’s world remains invisible to Steve, and, increasingly, to Carla herself. This class-straddling counselor saw Carla and Steve come to understand their cultural differences and, finally, listen with compassion to each others’ needs, dreams and fears.
When last I saw them, they were new parents, the architects of their children’s future backgrounds that would include learning rules and roles from both of their parent’s families, and allowed to embody their favorite aspects of either culture.
If you are in the New York City vicinity, you can catch Barbara doing a reading on August 16th from 7:00-9:00pm at Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 Allen Street (Lower East Side). (212)-777-6028.