Research shows that Americans are much less likely to marry across class lines than they were a few decades ago. When it comes to income and education levels, it’s not as common for opposites to attract. But what happens when richer and poorer do make a go of it?
Last fall, Michelle Rider and Chris Heavener, young and in love, went to check out the Occupy Wall Street scene at Zucotti Park in New York City.
Standing together at the birthplace of the chant “We Are The 99 Percent!” struck them both as a bit odd, because Rider and Heavener actually grew up in very different percents.
Rider comes squarely from the ninety-nine -- her dad painted cars, her mom was a receptionist, and Rider lived most of her childhood in an apartment down a dirt road. But her boyfriend, Heavener? He grew up down the road from a country club and inherited a trust fund. “I would identify as someone coming from the 1 percent,” he says.
And yet somehow, at this moment in history where “class warfare” has popped back up in the American phrasebook, Heavener and Rider are making class love. They live together and are thinking about marriage. But the idea is daunting, says Rider, adding that one of the hardest parts is just “how uncomfortable these kinds of conversations are sometimes” about class and class differences.
That doesn’t come as a surprise to Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton. She looks at how social class shapes our daily interactions. “It’s rude to talk about somebody being more privileged than somebody else,” Fiske says. “Social class is such a taboo topic in American society.”
Fiske’s research sounds like a warning label for couples like Rider and Heavener. Consider the experiment where Fiske put volunteers in MRIs, and showed them pictures of people from different classes. When they got to the photos of really poor people, the part of the brain that normally lights up when we see another human being just didn’t light up. “What we find is that people say it’s hard to think about this person as a three-dimensional human being,” Fiske says.
And that’s just one example of the kind of subconscious hurdles cross-class couples have to jump. And yet, some of them make it over the hurdle.
How Many CDs is Too Many?
Bruce Levine and Mary Childers live in New Hampshire, in an airy house on a road called Blueberry Hill. And Levine has a copy of the Fats Domino song of the same name in his enormous CD and vinyl collection. The collection is a little too enormous for Childers.
“I do have a lot of them,” Levine says. “Maybe a thousand.”
“I think it’s astonishing. To have a thousand!” his wife says.
Childers grew up on welfare. She went on to get a graduate degree, and has a good job, but most of her family is still struggling. She often lends them money. And she thinks that gives her a really different perspective than her husband, whose family is solidly upper middle class.
“A different sense of who has a claim on us financially,” Childers says. “He doesn’t have as much guilt about spending money. But I’m acutely aware that I have relatives who have trouble putting gas in their cars to go to work. And so I’m always thinking of not being too self-indulgent.”
Levine nods. “I’ve always allowed myself to purchase certain things fairly guilt free. I don’t worry about not having money to send to family,” he says.
The Little Things: Socializing, and Denistry
"The secret was, believe it or not, her teeth,” says Andre Luck, of what first attracted him to his wife Iris nearly thirty years ago. When the two first met, their different class backgrounds were apparent as soon as she smiled. “Because she has beautiful teeth, and I don’t,” he says.
Iris Luck says she’d taken her smile for granted until she met her husband. It had never occurred to her that “you can determine the economic class of someone by looking at their teeth? But it also caused me to remember, I started going to the dentist when I was six. I had braces. The whole thing.” Things that, when her husband was young, his family told him they just couldn’t afford. “We were poor. We have bills to pay. Not bills to create,” he remembers.
The Lucks say they’ve discovered class differences hiding in a lot of the moments they’ve shared over the years: different expectations, different assumptions about the world, different ways of communicating. When Iris Luck spends time with her husband’s family, she catches herself trying not to talk too much about her own life.
“I do more listening than talking, because I might be perceived as someone who is trying to put herself above them, or looking down at them in some way,” she says.
"Which, um..." her husband interjects.
"Which I have been accused of," she says.
"Yes," Andre Luck says. "and I think sometimes it's been true."
His wife nods, "I agree."
"But," he continues, "I think it’s an issue of whenever you’re communicating you should"—and, as if on cue, Iris Luck finishes her husband's sentence. “Know your audience,” she says.
So what do all of the differences about money and family and dentistry that come up in cross-class relationships have to do with the rest of us?
“Well, we are in cross class relationships. Every single one of us.” says Jennifer Ladd, co-founder of Class Action, which gives workshops to couples and businesses on how to bridge class divides. Ladd says as income inequality has widened in the last few decades, there are fewer shared places where rich and poor intermingle. But she suggests, when we do meet on the street, or in a taxi or over a check-out counter, “let’s see each other, and take a moment to not just see their role and put them in a status of higher or lower, but see that human being.”
We may not be married to them—but we live in a country full of people with class differences. For richer or for poorer, ‘til death do us part.