Ten Miles Square

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January 23, 2013 10:53 AM Social Class and Marital Conflict

By Keith Humphreys

Oliver and Maggie are young, very much in love, and planning their honeymoon. What should be an exciting series of conversations becomes surprisingly unpleasant. Maggie resents Oliver’s nonchalance about where the trip should be; he’s seemingly happy with almost any destination. Oliver finds the normally easy-going Maggie strangely rigid and demanding about where to take the trip, and doesn’t understand her anxious, almost obsessive research into the possible details of each honeymoon location.

Finally, it occurs to Oliver to ask a question: “Do you imagine that this is the only trip we are going to take together?”.

Maggie bursts out “Of course it is!” and starts to cry.

What is going on? Oliver grew up middle class and therefore anticipates a lifetime of travel with his future spouse, of which the honeymoon is only one journey. Maggie grew up in a community where virtually everyone was flat on their uppers. For her, a honeymoon is the only trip a couple would take, the sole travel memory they would share between themselves and with their children and grandchildren for 50 years to come. For her the choice was thus fraught with fear that she and Oliver’s one and only venture into the wider world would be less than perfect.

Another couple, Alphonse and Pat, generally get along well until something in their household breaks and a long-running feud comes to the surface. When the dishwasher floods the floor, for example, Alphonse digs out the service manual and his tool kit and commences to tinker with it over a few days until its function is restored. Pat simmers with anger at the days without a dishwasher and the grimy tools and grease stains on the kitchen floor. Alphonse is bitter that Pat doesn’t seem to admire how handy he is at fixing things around the house.

What is going on? Alphonse grew up in a blue collar home in which calling a repairman was considered an extravagance and in which men were supposed to know how to fix things with their own two hands. Pat grew up in an upper middle class home in which the only thing in the tool box was a cell phone. When Pat’s high-powered professional parents needed something to be repaired, they hired someone and it was done immediately, no muss no fuss.

In both of these examples and many others I witnessed during my time as a couples counselor, no one is doing anything profoundly wrong or suffering from any serious psychopathology. The marital conflict is just a “class thing”, with each person living out the taken for granted world he or she knows. Unhappy American couples impressed me deeply with their ability to talk about how their marital strife emerged from their racial, ethnic and religious differences, as well as differences in personal experiences (e.g., if one went through a bitter divorce and has a hard time trusting since). But it was a rare couple who recognized that social class differences were a force which shaped their relationship.

The “classless” American marriage makes a stark contrast to places like Great Britain, where it is hard to listen to a couple talk about their relationship for even 20 minutes without class coming up as part of how they describe and understand each other. The comparative American class awareness deficit matters because a non-negligible proportion of the strife in some marriages can be traced to social class differences. And such problems are hard to resolve if you can’t see them (or don’t want to).

I am not sure that clinicians and researchers who focus on marriage have been much help in this regard, because they themselves tend to come from and live in homogeneous class backgrounds. As a graduate student I remember reading a research report by some eminent academic psychologists describing a study in which couples were measured on how much time they spent “processing each others’ feelings”, i.e., listening to each other quasi-psychotherapy style, promoting self-awareness and personal growth etc.

As the researchers expected, more educated and financially better off married couples spent more time in such interactions than did working class couples. But what shocked the researchers was that when asked to assess the quality of their emotional relationship and communication, the working class couples were much more satisfied. The blue collar couples viewed marriage mainly as (horrors!) a place to attain financial security, raise children and have some fun, so it didn’t bother them that their spouse wasn’t making like Sigmund Freud. The better off couples in contrast had this expectation (as the researchers probably did in their own marriages), and it was apparently too hard for many of the spouses to meet it.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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