The growing chasm between America's rich and poor is shaping national politics, education, and even geography, as people increasingly segregate themselves into upper- and lower-class neighborhoods. Duke University sociology professor Jessi Streib wanted to understand how those class differences play out in our most intimate relationships, so she interviewed 32 couples in which one partner grew up "blue-collar" (a child from a home headed by a high-school graduate) and one grew up "white-collar" (in a home headed by a college graduate), along with 10 couples in which both members grew up in the same class. Her new book, The Power of the Past, is an initial exploration into how these relationships play out. The most striking finding was that even after decades of marriage, most mixed-class couples were fundamentally different in ways that seemed tied to their upbringing. Vox asked Streib to explain how class looms over our romantic relationships, even when we don't realize it.
Danielle Kurtzleben: How did you decide you wanted to study cross-class couples?
Jessi Streib: We are living in a time where the classes are coming apart. Geographically, we're living farther and farther away from people of different classes. Socially, we're becoming more different from people of other classes, and economically, the earnings gap between the classes is increasing.
With all this bad news about social class inequality in the United States right now, I wanted to know the good-news part: how did people come together across class lines in a time when the country is coming apart by class?
DK: So what are the biggest similarities you found with cross-class couples? What's unique about how people in these relationships interact with each other?
JS: Your class background shapes how you want to go about your daily life, and it does so in really systematic ways. Systematically, strangers who have never met yet who share a class background often have more in common with each other than spouses with whom they share their life if they came from different classes.
People from professional white-collar backgrounds tend to want to manage things. They want to oversee and plan and organize. And their partners who come from blue-collar backgrounds, working-class backgrounds, often tend want to go with the flow more. They let things come and feel free from self-imposed constraints. An example may be with emotions. People from professional white-collar backgrounds want to manage their emotions more often, meaning they want to think about them before they express them, consider how they feel, plan how they're going to express them if they do at all, and say it in this very intellectualized manner.
And their partners who come from blue-collar backgrounds who believe in going with the flow a lot more expressed their emotions as they felt them and did it in a more honest way.
DK: You write that the couples you interviewed didn't think class played a role in their relationships, and that they seemed almost angry when you suggested it might. Why do you think they oppose this idea so much?
JS: I think it's because we moralize class so much in this country. Because of our belief in the American Dream, we believe that if you're a hardworking and moral person and you play by the rules you're going to make it — which means conversely that if you're poor or working-class you must not have been hardworking or moral or you must not have played by the rules.
When you talk about class and you bring inequality into a conversation about a marriage, which people believe is between equals, the people I've talked to thought you'd be implying that a person from a lower-class background then came from a family that was less moral or less hardworking or less smart. They don't want to think that way, which makes complete sense.
We want to think of our relationships as two unique people in love, rather than that social forces outside of our control brought us together or shaped our lives in any way.
DK: I would think those ideas about morals would run the other way. I know people who take great pride in having worked hard their whole lives while, say, a richer person maybe didn't. Did you ever see that dynamic in couples?
JS: Yeah, occasionally. One couple, the guy grew up in a blue-collar family and his father worked really hard but just borderline — not having enough to live on — and his wife grew up in a much more affluent family, and he would say to her, "I started working when I was 14. I worked really hard my whole life. I've gotten by with very little. You've been privileged your whole life. So you work hard now. I'm going to retire early. We're gonna even it out."
And she would say, "I totally get where you're coming from; you've had it much harder than I have, but do I really need to pay the price for life being unfair?"
DK: What surprised you most about how these couples deal with each other?
The first is how systematic and how long-term these differences are. I studied upwardly mobile people from blue-collar backgrounds who had spent the second half of their lives in a middle-class, white-collar professional world and married somebody from a different class background, which suggests they might be more similar to people from professional white-collar backgrounds than people who married somebody of the same class.
They lived in middle-class communities with people who worked professional, white-collar jobs, so they were completely immersed in their new class and had been so for decades, often. So I expected the differences to be less pronounced between people of different classes, and then given that they were so pronounced I was somewhat surprised at how well the couples were able to negotiate them. It's possible it is because the people who are willing to talk to a stranger about their marriage are the people who are the happiest in their marriage and best able to do that.
DK: There were only white couples in your sample. Do you have any insight to what degree these dynamics are present in couples of other races or ethnicities?
JS: I don't have anything I can say for sure. I can guess there might be a few differences.
One thing is that whites are more segregated by class than other racial groups are. So white people grow up farther away from white working-class and white poor people than is true in other racial groups, and they have fewer family members that are from a different class. That might be one difference.
Also, the white middle class is much more financially secure than the black middle class. They have far more wealth. They're less likely to lose their jobs. They're more likely to be rehired quickly, partly due to racism in the job market. So being a white middle-class person and being a black middle-class person are different in those ways.
DK: You write that class differences are part of what attracted people to each other in the first place. Why would that be?
The way we grow up, we grow up with a lot in common with people of our classes because we grow up in similar environments of people in a same class. And when we don't like something about our own class background, we want somebody who has the opposite experience.
One way that plays out is the idea of predictable, stable lives. Given deindustrialization and declining wages for blue-collar workers, people growing up at the time period I was looking in had less stable jobs.
So they get these middle-class jobs and secure, stable lives. And [their white-collar partners] think the world is going to be fine and predictable and stable and they're going to be middle-class their whole life, and how nice is that? And [the blue-collar kids] wanted that feeling for themselves, so they kind of said, "This person has it. Maybe they can teach me to feel the same way."
It also went the other way. One thing about growing up middle-class is often middle-class kids are involved in a ton of activities. They're going to sports and art camps and tutoring and all these activities that take them away from their families. And they then met their blue-collar partners, who kind of just hung out with their families. These activities are expensive, they're time-consuming, and so their childhoods were more unstructured and informal. As a result, some of them gained these relationships with their families that were more informal and more emotionally intimate. And the partners from these middle-class, white-collar families were in awe of that and really wanted it for themselves.
DK: This was a pretty small sample size you worked with. Do you have plans to follow up with more research? What more do you want to know?
I'm currently following up with a few things. One, along with a coauthor, Steve Vaisey, I'm testing the main findings with national data. And two, I'm looking at how managerial and laissez faire approaches matter when people are looking for a job.
Other things I'd like to know are, one, how who we are is shaped by downward mobility (rather than just upward). And two, how the findings apply to different groups (especially by race and sexuality), and three, how class mattered in couples who broke up before marrying or who divorced.