Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Working with couples who hail from different class backgrounds is one of my specialties as a counseling psychologist.  I offer an example from my counseling practice to illustrate how different class backgrounds, and their cultural assumptions, can confound a marriage.  One couple met in college, where she got a para-legal certificate and he got a bachelor’s degree in business.

Working class Carla rebuked her middle class husband, Steve, “You’re so cold to my family, they don’t feel welcome to drop by.”

Steve replied, “Why do we have to spend so much time with them?  The weekends are so short.  Why do we go to your mother’s family dinners every single Sunday? We’re grown-ups now.”  But Carla was raised to keep close family ties.  In her culture, this is not a sign of arrested psychological development but of loyalty, love and respect.

“I love our Sundays!”  She looked at me.  “See?” she exclaimed.

In another session Steve complained, “Why are you spilling your guts to my boss’s wife?!  I’ve got to project the right image to advance in the company!”

Carla retorted, ”Well, why do we have to go out with them anyway?  On Saturday night?!  This is your idea of fun? Sipping white wine with your boss?”  She raised her imaginary glass with pinky finger extended.  She said boss like it was a dirty word.

But Steve sees his boss as a generous mentor and friend.  He is grateful his boss wants to see them.  He reminds Carla,  “That boss is the key to my success and our shared future.” Then turned to me  “You see? I don’t even know if she cares about me.”

And ‘round they went.  Misinterpreting each other through the blinders of their different class vantage points.

Carla’s working class life taught her that social relationships are supposed to be supportive, not challenging and not hierarchical.  She assumes that real friends feel like equals; it’s just plain creepy to schmooze with ambition. Women from Carla’s background, if they like you, may share intimate life details.  To do so includes the other woman, invites her into our world. It says, “You’re one of us.”

In the middle class, being cordial and reserved shows respect for others and oneself.  Individuality and privacy are important.  Sharing confidences with someone you hardly know might be considered rude or narcissistic; at least déclassé.  It may be seen as a sign of danger: this woman is so messed up she spills her guts to anyone who will listen.

These same (middle class) boundaries and emotional reserve have a different social meaning in Carla’s first world.  Reasonable interpersonal boundaries, by middle class standards, may register as coldness to working class people– a purposeful withdrawal of warmth that says,  “Stay away from me.”

A middle class therapist, with no understanding of Carla’s context, might push Carla learn “better boundaries.”  Then Carla’s world remains invisible to Steve, and, increasingly, to Carla herself.  This class-straddling counselor saw Carla and Steve come to understand their cultural differences and, finally, listen with compassion to each others’ needs, dreams and fears.

When last I saw them, they were new parents, the architects of their children’s future backgrounds that would include learning rules and roles from both of their parent’s families, and allowed to embody their favorite aspects of either culture.

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Barbara Jensen is author of Reading Classes, On Culture and Classism in America (2012, Cornell University Press), available from Class Action’s online store.

If you are in the New York City vicinity, you can catch Barbara doing a reading on August 16th from 7:00-9:00pm at Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 Allen Street (Lower East Side).  (212)-777-6028.

3 Responses

  1. Young Lawyer

    This is a very interesting look at a cross class relationship. As a single professional class-straddler I think that this is an area that is not often discussed. Class and upbringing play a huge role in any relationship be it a friendship, dating, or a marriage. I’ve never been married, but I have been in relationships and have had friendships where class, in both social and professional forms play a large role. Class can bring power into a relationship, in money and influence. I have dated “up” and dated “down”, with both sides having their own issues to work from. In dating up, I found it difficult at times to deal with her family, as well as expectations she held based on how she grew up. In the end this caused the relationship to fall apart, much to her father’s pleasure. On the other end, in another relationship I dated a girl from a blue collar background, she was not college educated, and worked in the service industry. She was a nice girl, but had a very different picture of what she wanted out of life, and neither of us were very comfortable in each other’s world. I did not really care for big family get togethers, conversations of football, trucks, and hunting. She never really cared for networking, pub crawls, and conversations about law, trade policies, or world events. That, plus money did that relationship in. All in all it is interesting to think about, and it’s something that really isn’t discussed. I’m no relationship expert, but I would hazard a guess that the factbthe young couple in your post made it to marriage was that they met in college.

  2. Susan

    This sounds like boilerplate to me; everything fits expectations from the world of academia, and there’s a subtle feel that Steve is right. Ambition is a driving force in the US; Carla undoubtedly had ambition as well to to herself to college. I would be surprised if a tight family connection as depicted here would remain long in a woman who structured her life as she did, yet this example is of two people whose real connection is not revealed – why did they marry? These people are depicted as rule-followers, yet a cross-class marriage says otherwise. To me, this shows an ignorant, rule-following counselor who is not doing well for anyone.

  3. I really appreciate what you wrote, Barbara. I have several relationships that did not survive the economic class distance between us. I was the one with less financial resources and he was the one with money, earned and/or inherited. No amount of negotiation helped us. No therapy helped us stay together.

    When we were in dating mode, my paying for a dinner or bar tab was considered charming. In fact, I could hide the many things I sacrificed in a given week just to make up for that explicit display of extravagance. I dressed the part. I tipped well. I took great pride in being able “to provide” as much as my male counterpart.

    But when things got more serious, and we were either living together, or married, there was no paring down our consumerism because there was always more money. I’d say, “let’s wait and save up.” He’d reply, “But why wait. Why go without when I’m loaded.”

    The real rub came in our different philanthropic practices. I felt excited that we had lots of money because it meant we could give away more. He did not feel the same way, and so we argued about why we had to share with the global community at all. And that was a repeated argument in most of my relationships.

    My brushes with wealth started early in my life when my parents wanted to arrange a marriage between me and someone I didn’t love but who was able to pay for my education. Ultimately, I refused the arrangement and I paid for my own education–working 2 jobs while studying full time.

    The hardest times for my partners and me were when we had to solve conflicts or issues. My solutions had to be resilient and clever. He only had to call his accountant to discuss a transfer. Vacations, travel, fine wine, expensive meals were always accessible to us. We never had to put off or deny ourselves anything.

    I found out, as many of us might, that I would make a great wealthy person! After all, you can have good taste if you can buy the best or go to the gym to stay in shape or get your hair done on a regular basis. But that wasn’t the point. Could I live WITH wealth on my own terms? And not let it change me. In the end, I found out that wealth was not the problem. What I really wanted was my own money to share with the world, and not someone else’s.

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