In her book The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages, sociologist Jessi Streib interviews 32 “different-origin” married couples: couples in which one partner grew up with a college-educated father who worked in a professional or managerial job and the other partner grew up with a father who did not have a degree and worked with his hands. The blue-collar-origin individuals in the study were upwardly mobile, and all but two had completed college degrees.
The book caught my attention because of the qualitative interviews my husband David and I have done with both white-collar and blue-collar young adults in southwestern Ohio. I was curious to read about the class differences Streib observed and to see how class origin affected those who had grown up poor or working-class but had since moved into the middle class. I was particularly interested in how these differences shaped the marriages of participants.
What I wasn’t expecting was the book to teach me something about my own marriage. But that’s where it surprised me. Because at some point in the first chapter I tapped my Kindle screen to add a note: “Am I in a cross-class marriage?!”
It probably should have been obvious, but the thought that David and I had been raised in different classes had never occurred to me so explicitly before. I knew that our families had some differences. Going to college had been an expectation in my family, whereas David had been the first in his family to attend college (after spending his first two years after high school working in the warehouse where his dad sold animal health supplies). My dad had a master’s degree and his dad had a GED. We took different approaches to leisure time and vacations: his family liked a week at a cabin or beach house with no agenda, my family planned sightseeing and museum visits months in advance. We took different approaches to making decisions—my family researched and agonized and researched some more, his family didn’t seem to have the same paralysis before making a purchase or tackling a home improvement project. But I had never thought of these differences in terms of class, despite my interest in the topic and the fact that I think about class almost daily in my current work.
So it came to me as no surprise that one of Streib’s central insights is that “those in different-origin marriages were not aware of how class impacted their marriage.” I would have been one of these respondents had she interviewed me. Why had I overlooked these class differences?
At some point in the first chapter I tapped my Kindle screen to add a note: ‘Am I in a cross-class marriage?!’
Furthermore, it wasn’t just that respondents overlooked differences. As Streib explains, many “denied that class had any sway on their relationship or that it was worth thinking about at all. These respondents maintained that their class origin was irrelevant to their own identity, their partner’s identity, and their marriage. Their marriages did not increase their understanding of class, as they were confident that class was a category that they already understood—they understood that it was irrelevant.”
This made sense to me, as I’d noticed in my own interviews that matters of class are often fraught with tension (and therefore something to be ignored or diminished). In the Midwest at least, it is impolite, almost “un-American,” to openly acknowledge class differences. Most Americans like to think of themselves as belonging to the same broad and diverse middle class. In my own interviews this held true: both the stay-at-home wife of an engineer in a $350,000 house and the grocery store clerk who rented a two-bedroom ranch with her boyfriend (and shared it with a roommate) considered themselves to be part of the middle class.
Growing up in this milieu, I rarely thought of my identity in terms of class, which is probably why it had never occurred to me that I had entered a “different-origin” marriage. Since neither of our families were rich or poor, in my mind, both David and I were from the same class.
And of course, class really is difficult to define, as Streib acknowledges. For example, despite their different educational backgrounds, David’s father was very successful as an animal-health salesman and had a higher annual income than my father, who sacrificed potential income to work for a Christian non-profit. Whereas I grew up with hand-me-downs and discount brands, David shopped at the mall and wore name-brand clothing—so in some ways I saw his family as being more well-off than mine. But probably mostly because our families shared a common evangelical Christian culture, I had always thought of our families as more similar than different.
If Streib’s respondents may have downplayed their class differences because of ideas about a broad middle class or because of the nebulous nature of class lines, it’s also possible that they did so because of another American truism: you marry for love and not for money. In my interviews I was struck by how often people felt the need to explain that they had married for “the right reasons”—namely, for love—as opposed to “wrong reasons” like money or social mobility or because they got pregnant. As one blue-collar man said, “I’m not gonna love somebody just cuz they got money…. I’d be perfectly fine living in a shack up in the mountains right now, honestly.” Another young man finished the thought, “But if you’re getting married, you better make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. You’re doing it for love; you’re doing it for the two of you to be together…. Just because you want to.” It is possible that Streib’s respondents felt that to acknowledge class differences with their spouse would be to give an economic analysis of a relationship that should be about one thing and one thing only: love.
With all of these things in mind and a new realization that perhaps class matters had some influence in my own marriage, I was now hooked and didn’t want to put the book down. Was it possible that some of the marital disagreements I’d chalked up to personality differences were actually related to class origin?
Was it possible that some of our marital disagreements were actually related to class origin?
As I read Streib’s account of the different sensibilities that blue-collar-origin and white-collar-origin adults bring with them to areas like money, work and play, housework and time, parenting, and emotions, I often felt like I was reading about David and myself. Streib found that respondents with blue-collar roots took a “laissez-faire” approach to life and preferred to “go with the flow,” whereas white-collar-origin respondents “wanted to manage their lives” and “organize, supervise, plan, and control their resources.” These summaries describe my own experience in an inter-class marriage.
One of the earliest frustrations in our marriage was that I always wanted a plan—a plan for the week, a plan for the weekend, a plan for household chores, a plan for our future education and careers, a plan for how we would spend the next hour of our lives, and a plan for how we would spend the future—but David had a more relaxed approach. That meant he often didn’t have a plan and didn’t initiate planning, which made me feel like it was all up to me. Whenever something would go wrong, I tended to blame it on David and his lack of planning (even when there was no such easily apparent connection). To this day I still talk about planning so much that our three-year-old son often wakes up and asks, “So what’s the plan for today, Mom?”
In the area of work and play, David and I also exhibit different class-based sensibilities. Just the other night I emerged from the room where I’d just put our youngest son to sleep to find David sitting at the dining room table with a beer in hand and a bowl full of pretzels—his way to relax after a day’s work. I have a harder time separating work from play, something that Streib noted was a challenge for white-collar respondents who were more likely to blur those lines. My idea of relaxing after the kids go to bed is to sit down at my computer with the to-do list I’ve wanted to get to all day. I can relate to respondent Alexa (white-collar-origin) when she talked about her penchant for checklists: “I actually have more play doing work than I do doing things that are play because the things I enjoy the most have end results. They’re for a purpose. They achieve things.”
But as was the case for Streib’s respondents, these differences are in part what drew us together. From the beginning of our relationship, I admired how laid-back David was. That quality put me at ease and made me feel like there wasn’t anything to worry about. When I first visited his family, I was struck by how much time we spent sitting on the couch doing nothing but talking—and how the richness of that time helped to explain the close relationships they shared. David, in turn, tells me that he was impressed by my foresight and drive in school, work, and extracurricular activities at the college we attended.
Many of our class differences are not problems to be solved but complementary traits to be appreciated.
It’s possible that sometimes the differences that initially attract cross-class individuals to each other can become the very thing that drives them apart. Streib did not interview couples that divorced, so she speculates that the couples in her sample were those couples who were most able to navigate their cultural differences. Others may not be so fortunate. I think of Tasha, a white-collar-origin woman I interviewed as she sipped a drink from a patio chair pool-side and told me about her six-year romance with a mechanic from her home town. He was her high school sweetheart, but she broke things off when she went to college in “the big city” and realized that her boyfriend would always be “small town” and might hinder her plans for medical school. Of her ex-boyfriend she says:
And then Kyle was a mechanic and he’s still a mechanic. And he can’t keep a job…. And he doesn’t want to get up in the morning and go to work…. He’s a great guy. He’s sweet. He’s just not for me. It’s not where I’m goin’.
Kyle’s new girlfriend “comes from the same kind of background, and she loves him and that’s great.” Tasha’s story helps us to understand why, as Streib reports, cross-class marriages are increasingly rare.
Still, given that I am so often writing about growing inequality and the downsides to class differences, it is refreshing to reflect on the “cultural complements” that drew my husband and me—and many of Streib’s respondents—together. It is a reminder that any discussion of how to solve the class divide must begin with a willingness to see that many of our class differences are not problems to be solved but indeed complementary traits to be appreciated. As Streib puts it, The Power of the Past dispels the myth that “class differences experienced as cultural differences are necessarily divisive.”