Different class backgrounds may not hurt a marriage

Common wisdom might dictate that it’s dangerous for couples raised in different economic classes to get hitched; different financial upbringings will likely lead to arguments over budgets, spending habits, etc., and financial issues are often cited as a major cause of divorce.

But Duke University sociology professor Jessi Streib thinks that narrative is incomplete, possibly even wrong.

“Your class background shapes how you want to go about your daily life, and it does so in really systematic ways,” Streib told Vox’s Danielle Kurtzleben while discussing her book, “The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages.”

“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.”

So, according to Streib, it is certainly true that economic background impacts everything from how each spouse might organize time to how they express emotions. But while these differences were certainly “systematic” and “long-term,” Streib told Vox that she was surprised by “how well the couples were able to negotiate” their differences.

“Sociologists have usually said that these things that we grow up with that become part of our class — those are the reasons we don’t like each other,” Streib told New York Magazine’s Jesse Singal last month. “The people I talked to really talked about their class differences drawing them together.”

In other words, class and economic differences have a major impact on how couples interact with and relate to each other, but not necessarily in a negative way. In fact, according to Streib’s research, partners from different socioeconomic backgrounds were often attracted to their partner because of their differences.

As Streib notes, this brings a new perspective to understanding the financial dynamics of relationships. Study after study have found that money problems are a leading factor in American divorce rates, so much so that budgeting and financial literacy have become a major focus in the effort to curb divorce rates.

“When couples argue about money,” Psychology Today’s Leon F. Seltzer wrote in 2012, “their respective positions so deeply reflect core values that it’s hard for them not to get into antagonistic gridlock on the subject.”

According to Seltzer, couples’ “inability to appreciate and sympathetically discuss their conflicting attitudes toward money eventuates in all kinds of misunderstandings and hurt feelings,” which is a surefire recipe for dissolving a relationship.

But while Streib’s interviews indicate that financial arguments may cause a relationship to deteriorate, such arguments do not necessarily stem from differing class backgrounds. It’s the goals, the direction in which each partner is heading, that seem to impact the health of a relationship most. And interestingly, those who had different economic upbringings often marry each other because they, despite their past experiences, believe their partners can help them move in the direction they would like to go.

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