What’s it like to be married to someone who grew up in a different class? If you asked most of the 64 college-educated adults who I interviewed who did so, they would tell you that it was like being married to anyone else. Most said that they loved their partner deeply, and, like all couples, they faced some challenges – challenges that they thought were based upon their own idiosyncratic personalities. But I also interviewed college-educated adults who married a spouse who shared their class background, and their experiences were very different. The “idiosyncrasies” of each person and marriage, it turned out, were not so idiosyncratic at all. Instead, they were related to the class in which each spouse grew up.
I found that couples in which each partner is college-educated, but in which one partner grew up in the working-class while the other grew up in the middle-class, face systematic challenges. Simply put, partners from different class backgrounds typically had different ideas of how they wanted to go about their daily lives, and so marriages between two people who grew up in different classes required navigating these differences. Highly educated adults with working-class-origins typically wanted to take what I call a “laissez-faire” approach to their lives. They wanted to go with the flow, enjoy the present, and assume that the future would take care of itself. Their middle-class-origin partners, however, tended to take a more hands-on approach, one that I call “managerial.” They felt that things would not adequately work out on their own, and so they felt most comfortable when they planned, organized, and oversaw. Thus, although respondents shared their lives with their spouse, they rarely shared their ideas about the best way to live them.
These differences in laissez-faire and managerial styles spanned across seven domains: finances, paid work, leisure, housework, time, parenting, and emotions. This meant that working-class-origin respondents typically said wanted to spend money without thinking and work without planning the trajectory of their career. They wanted to let their weekends unfold and thought it best to use time spontaneously. Working-class-origin women let the household division of labor fall into place, and men as well as women enjoyed watching their children grow. And, when they had powerful emotions, they wanted to express them rather than manage their display. Many of their preferences were likely responses to their childhood class conditions – they learned early in life that taking a hands-off approach was a successful way to respond to their limited resources and unpredictable circumstances. Some of their other preferences likely stemmed from their mobility. For example, some respondents had spent their entire childhood worrying about money. Now that they had more money, they relished the freedom of spending without thinking.
Their middle-class-origin partners, on the other hand, tended to take a different approach. They wanted to carefully monitor and budget their money, and they strategized about how to get ahead at work. They typically liked to pack their weekends full of cultural and self-improvement activities, and they wanted to plan what was coming next. Middle-class-origin women did not let their household division of labor simply happen, but carefully allocated and re-allocated tasks in an effort to create a fair distribution of chores. Middle-class-origin women – though not men – also tended to take a managerial approach to parenting – they enter parenthood with ideas of who their children would become and what strategies they would use to shape them. And, to both men and women with middle-class-origins, emotions were to be managed – to be processed and displayed after careful consideration. Middle-class-origin partners, in short, typically saw themselves, their children, and their resources as manageable, a belief that likely came from the class in which they were raised. Growing up with ample resources and some power, they learned that the world was theirs to mold.
Those who married a partner who grew up in a different class therefore had to constantly navigate the laissez-faire/managerial divided – a divide that did not exist for those who shared their class origin with their spouse. But despite their differences, the couples with whom I spoke usually reported being happy together. Class infused their marriages, but it did not extinguish them.
Jessi Streib is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at Duke University. More detail on the findings above can be found in her forthcoming book, The Power of the Past: Cross-Class Marriages and Intimate Experiences with Inequality.