Social Class and Marital Conflict

American couples often don’t recognize how social class differences produce marital conflict

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 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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

38 thoughts on “Social Class and Marital Conflict”

  1. My wife grew up mostly poor and my family, I guess, upper-middle class (though with a very handy father who toiled most every weekend of his life fixing up the house).

    The great upside: Having experienced want, she knows how to save money. I used to roll my eyes at her cheapskate ways. Now that we have two kids and one less income than we did as newlyweds, boy do I appreciate them.

    1. Thanks James, in the preview the word was broken over two lines so I hyphenated it.

  2. Interesting post.

    My husband grew up in a very poor home with seven siblings. They were sometimes hungry as kids even though his dad worked steadily at a steel mill.

    What I notice most is he stuffs the refrigerator and pantry and refuses to turn off the lights or the radio just because he leaves a room.

    In other words, he refuses to act poor.

    It hurts ecologically more than budget-wise so I’ve adjusted, like using a compost bin and saving energy whenever I can.

    This plays out in other ways that I notice — and I’m sure there’s more I’m missing.

    1. My Canadian family was probably psychologically middle-middle class, although there were some class and rural/urban differences between my parents. Our actual economic status was all over the place, from owning a huge suburban split-level to my mother, sister and I living in roach-filled apartments when we were on welfare for several years before our dad moved back in with us. My parents were both Depression-born and good at scrimping, apart from my dad’s gambling addiction that cost us our house and his business.

      Results: I’m a packrat who holds on to all kinds of stuff “just in case”. This or that empty plastic container could be useful, you know. Meanwhile, my sister hoards food in her basement pantry, to the point where much of it gets spoiled or stale before it can be eaten.

        1. “Depression child” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as there were adults to address the child’s material and psychological and social needs. “Depression child” is a catchall phrase describing many different economic situations, everything from poverty and hunger to “my parents had to work extra hard”.
          It’s the Depression adults I admire, especially the adults who didn’t use or exploit others during the Depression.

  3. It works across generational lines, as well. My parents were not that well educated (one high school degree between the two of them), but made sure I had an excellent education. They were shocked by my nonchalance at turning this education into a paying job–something I had learned from the kids with which I was educated.

  4. @Modaca: my husband grew up poor and with 8 siblings. He shared a room with 4 brothers and his actual bed with 2 of them. His personal storage space consisted of one drawer in the communal bureau. He hoards too, even though we’re not flush, and it’s about both being able to have stuff (even just books from garage sales) and also having the room to keep it. It’s a little disabling, because he does not know how to track and manage all this stuff. Another difference: in his family conversation is often about expressing one’s presence and one’s affiliation, rather than expressing a point or an idea. These conversations, to me, are very predictable and very repetitive, but I’ve learned to go with the flow and enjoy them (very subtle humor often gets inserted in the most wandering conversation, I’ve found). I think this is in line with what developmental psychologists tell us about the language differences between wealthy and poor children vis a vis school readiness.

    1. Another difference: in his family conversation is often about expressing one’s presence and one’s affiliation, rather than expressing a point or an idea.

      That is really, really intriguing. One could hypothesize that because greater wealth is linked to individualism, affirming “tribal connections” in conversation becomes less important and the perceived risk of standing apart with an opinion is lower.

      1. Right, and the percieved (and real) value of group solidarity is higher and at the same time more subject to threat for lower income people. By the way, his background is rural. I notice the same tendency in low-income areas of Chicago, which tend to be African-American (and Latino, but I don’t follow the nuances of conversation in Spanish or even Spanglish as well). You can pretty much be sure that the first several exchanges in a conversation will be about expressing connection in some way or another, even implicitly; and even as the conversation continues there are returns to the task of reinforcing social cues at least as much as continuing the thread. Of course this happens in educated people’s conversations too, but not nearly as much. To go a little far afield, it also occurs to me that people with autism struggle with this type of conversation (as you would expect) and do better if they get an education, especially in a technical field, where there is much less expectation for affiliation-building niceties.

        1. It is customary among Native Americans as well to iterate and reiterate family and tribal connections as the first point of order in any conversation with other Native Americans.

        2. I think this is manifest in all walks of life.

          I recently moved from Virginia to Florida. When I meed new people, they generally start a conversation by asking how long I’ve lived here and where I moved from. When I say Virginia, the inevitable first question is “Do you know So and So, he’s from Virginia?”

          Hmmm … eight million people in Virginia? Yeah, but you’re from there, you might know him.

      2. I agree, this is interesting. Would it be possible to give a couple examples? What might a conversation start like? I’m not sure I’ve seen this before or not.

  5. “Social Class and Marital Conflict” could very well serve as the title for a study of the novels of George Gissing.

  6. MaryL: my husband’s mother and favorite brother were very much packrats and yet organized. He’s one too, and, like them, organized, but it’s still clutter to my middleclass mind.

    EB: … family conversation is often about expressing one’s presence and one’s affiliation, rather than expressing a point or an idea. Whew! Although I’m not sure what you mean …

    When I talk with my husband (the eldest male of his family of eight), I often think: Every idea has been stated — but not several times by the dominant person, my husband.

    And I have a very difficult time letting him see I’m supporting him. He always thinks I’ve “taken the other person’s side” when I add something to the conversation.

    Is this a gender or a class thing?

    Now I’m interested in checking with what he thinks I’m doing because of my upbringing.

  7. Oliver should take control and plan everything – wouldn’t that ruin the trip if it is their only one, or if it isn’t?

    Pat got the dishwasher fixed in only two days, and isn’t ashamed of READING INSTRUCTIONS EVEN THOUGH HE IS A MAN and she’s upset? How long does she think it would take a repairman to fix it (the first time)?

    People are not aware of this even though the first question is “What do you do? In kindergarten (Kindergarten) the boys asked me what brand of car my parents drove. In grade school they asked what my father did for a living (never mind that my mother was at least as successful), in high school the guys never asked because there was no competition for attention from girls because there were none, and I still get asked what college I went to, even after I say I only lasted one semester. Newspapers describe women in terms of the career of the man they marry.

    I am so happy I don’t date.


    1. Well, first of all, this stuff shows up long before anyone gets married. One might guess that prior to that, the poorer person (typically) is probably covering up conflict to a certain extent, but unless someone is extremely unobservant, I would think these differences would show up.

      I would think it would be a very bad idea for Oliver to take over. Especially once he knows his wife’s views. She’s probably been to fewer places and ought to get at least half the say. If he wants to stay married, that is.

      I agree that Americans are too obsessed with money and jobs, but, that is no excuse for not socializing, Henry. You might find someone nice. Wouldn’t you be glad you tried, if you did? But I agree that “dating” is not necessarily the way to go either. So, you’re probably right about that. I think there is a sweet spot between the old, call Wednesday for a Saturday night dinner date regime, versus today’s youngsters who apparently never make plans at all, or even speak in person. (Though I’m sure that’s exaggerated too.) Someone here must have some good ideas.

    2. “Newspapers describe women in terms of the career of the man they marry”? Hahahahahahahahaha. Right, this is why I know only that Nancy Pelosi is married to, um, hmmm … a lawyer? Doctor? Real estate investor? I don’t know.

      I’m a newspaper editor and you, sir, have not read one in YEARS.

      1. Ella, you may be right re your newspaper stance, but the point is generally accurate in this society, at least in my view.

  8. Sometimes the whole class thing can linger for a couple of generations. My parents’ families were solidly middle class (lawyers, stock brokers, etc.). So the fact that my father chose to become a carpenter didn’t really impact how they raised their children to behave — we didn’t act “blue collar,” no matter what my dad happened to do for a living.

    Perhaps as a result, I get the occasional “hey, wait a minute!” moment when my wife (college educated herself, but a real blue collar family) does something that just seems well out of the “generally expected behavior” pattern. They aren’t necessarily problems, but they do represent the occasional jarring note in the relationship.

  9. Americans’ implicit rejection of an English style class system is one of this country’s great strengths. Teaching Americans to divide one another by “class” in addition to the preexisting classifications would diminish our society. If “Alphonse grew up in a home in which calling a repairman was considered an extravagance”, does adding “blue collar” before “home” add to his wife’s understanding of why Alphonse acts the way he does? Maybe the author should try to understand why he insists on seeing class distinctions when the couples he counseled did not.

    1. “Americans’ implicit rejection of an English style class system is one of this country’s great strengths. Teaching Americans to divide one another by “class” in addition to the preexisting classifications would diminish our society.”

      See Ibid. for a reference to people signaling “their presence and affiliation” instead of “a point or an idea.”

      By “implicit rejection” you surely mean “loudly and constantly declaring we don’t have one, vehemently denouncing any discussion of the topic as unpatriotic or worse, and nervously ignoring the evidence to the contrary.”

    2. “Maybe the author should try to understand why he insists on seeing class distinctions when the couples he counseled did not.”

      Similarly, biology professors should try to understand why they insist on believing that bats aren’t bugs when the students they instruct believe that they are.

      1. Americans certainly have classes, and it’s one of our central myths that these don’t exist. You call it a strength, Bruno, but ignoring facts can only serve us to a point. On the other hand, the article’s author leaves off before discussing how class might be a potentially troubling category in itself. Others here have pointed out the differences between income and class, so to extend this line of thinking, you have to ask if discussing class itself helps resolve the many strands of difference between two people: money, education, family and social expectations, etc. For the British, more so. For the Americans, less so. I read a few people in this forum as having their patriotism tested, which is the best way to avoid learning anyting from this interesting topic.

  10. It sounds like the conflicts you’re describing have a lot more to do with differences in income, than differences in social class. The two are related, but not identical; and that (I think) is a big reason why Americans tend to ignore income levels when examining their own relationships. How people relate to money is only a small part of their social class. A person’s social class has as much to do with their race, ethnicity, geographic origin, politics (relative to the dominant party in the area), and occupation, as it does with the amount of money their parents had in their bank account. And more importantly, there really doesn’t seem to be a sense of solidarity between people based just on income level (except possibly for people in situations of extreme wealth or extreme poverty). Just knowing that somebody earns as much as you do, doesn’t really say how similar in social class you are, or how much cultural solidarity you’d share. A “working class” white Southern Baptist from rural Alabama might feel more at home with an “upper class” white Southern Baptist from rural Mississippi, than with a “working class” African-American agnostic from New Jersey.

    1. I think this misses the subtleties of class. English class is about much more than income (a primary signal is in speech). One can be poor upper, or rich lower, and endless varieties of middle. As an Australian I was always tripping over invisible lines when living in London. I imagine US class is somewhat similar, but regional and other affiliations are much more stressed than social level. Anyway, interesting post and responses.

  11. Great post. I examine potential class-based conflict in my work with couples as well; when partners understand the historical roots each others’ behaviors it usually results in “aha!” moments of understanding.

    An excellent text for deconstructing class – rules, language, communication patterns/styles, worldview, mindset – in all kinds of relationships is Payne’s “Understanding Poverty.” Has helped me immensely in my work, and general understanding of ‘global’ class based distinctions.

  12. “middle class and therefore anticipates a lifetime of travel with his future spouse”.

    Maggie is probably closer to the truth on this one.

  13. I find that I get along better with my wife, and with other people, if I don’t postulate class and environmental explanations for their behavior. Some people like to plan vacations, some don’t. Some people fix their own houses, some don’t. Social theorizing to explain someone’s behavior you are intimate with often leads to polarizing attitudes and behaviors. Maggie may have started out with the reasonable expectation that her fiance would want to participate in planning their honeymoon and grew rigid, demanding, and obsessive in reaction to Oliver’s nonchalance.

    Reality intrudes. Poor people fix stuff around the house because the can’t afford professional help. People, rich or poor, who don’t plan vacations, unless they are lucky, have unpleasant vacations. Perhaps Americans, as DeTocqueville observed, have figured out that their behavior need not be determined by the class they were born into, but can change depending on the situation they find themselves in.

  14. very interesting post. there have certainly been class issues in my marriage, tho’ it’s the culture differences that may do us in.

    separate story – a long time ago the school i was teaching in had a day of feminism. one of the presenters talked about the restriction on the professional aspirations of women, and the expectations on wives. i pointed out that this may be true of middle class women/wives, but could not be generalized, as in my working class immigrant corner of the culture, women often (not usually, but often) had more education and higher status jobs, including professional ones (nursing), and this situation provided no marital conflict. i was told that i could go be working class (vel sim). so yes, cross-class marriages can certainly have class-based issues.

  15. I found this discussion very interesting. It brought up memories of a man I dated for a few short months 10 years ago. “The people you socialize with wear white shirts to work” he would point out, and “When was the last time you went bowling? When was the last time you went to a bar?” He wanted to pinpoint the ways in which our class differences showed in our daily lives. In short, he was uncomfortable with these differences. He couldn’t measure himself against my friends and take credit for being better read and able to think faster than most of my white-shirt-wearing peers. It didn’t matter that these things didn’t matter to me (and I had been unaware of them until he brought them up). The class differences were just too large for him, and he was very clear about articulating the ways in which he was uncomfortable.

    After he said good-bye, I met and married someone whose friends more evenly matched mine (shorthand for “we were of the same class”). The dynamic that class differences can have on a relationship have been part of my observations every since. Thanks for this post! It helped to confirm what I had experienced.

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