11 Couples and Singles Talk About Love and Class

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Photo: Corbis

When you’re in a relationship with someone from your world, you can probably take a lot for granted. You don’t have to explain that you can’t afford table service because you have student loans. You don’t have to warn your date that he’ll be the only brown person at the party. You don’t have to explain squash tournaments or the foster-care system, which means you might not learn about harvesting agave or toasting marshmallows. You might not have your assumptions challenged while you’re wearing pajamas. In other words, you might miss out.

Class is a weird, messy thing in America. The Cut talked to 11 couples and singles about how class — with its intersections of wealth, education, race, religion, language, nationality, taste, and more — has affected their relationships.

1. I believed our love could get around everything.
“Growing up, I saw marriage as stressed-out, sexually frustrated people worrying about bat mitzvahs,” says Victoria, 31, from a “comfortable” New Jersey suburb. “Part of the attraction to Nacho was that it’d be impossible for us to be that.”

Nacho, 25, started working in agave fields in his Mexican hometown at age 6. “I grew up really simple,” Nacho, a farm worker, says. “I was the oldest, so I had to support my family. When I was a child I thought I’d have a wife at home to cook for me, but Victoria is the opposite of that.”

They met working on a farm. Both say that they fell for each other right away. As they waited for his visa, she visited him in Mexico. “Our base level of comfort is so different,” Victoria says. “He slept on a mattress in the kitchen. There was black mold everywhere. But I believed our love could get around it.” After they decided to get married, their differences seemed bigger. “We have different ideas about everything from how to talk to a little boy who’s crying to whether to save money,” Victoria says. Nacho concurs, “I live in the moment. She worries. The first problem was her asking about the future, talking about children.”

Now they’re separated but friends. “Working on the visa, the importance of everything outside the goodness of our fantastical love became more glaring,” Victoria says. “I know I have privilege. My kids don’t need new clothes, but I don’t want them to struggle, to have so much uncertainty. It was hard to have all this stuff come up and not just hate myself. I’d judge myself and think, ‘Are you saying he’s not good enough because he was born poor and Mexican?’ It’s sad. I know I have all these expectations, so I have a lot more room to be uncomfortable. He doesn’t get nervous. He’s survived a lot, so he knows he’s going to be okay.”

2.  She could afford all of this without me.
“When you’re black, it’s an inescapable truth, a full-body experience that’s happening all the time,” says Jack, 35. He says Jill, 35, his wife, who is white, talks about race by “trying to weave it into a higher morality.” He laughs: “I’m just trying to survive! She champions equality!”

Jill comes from a low-income family while Jack’s is middle class. Jill, like her mother, is the breadwinner. “It wasn’t weird to me that he didn’t have much money, and I was used to roles outside gender norms,” she says. “And neither of us grew up taking vacations.”

She paid the down payment on their house, which is in her name. “The house was my first choice, not his, and I’m sure some part of me was like, ‘It’s my money,’” Jill says. Jack adds, “There’s a 10 percent ping in my heart that she could afford all of this without me and I couldn’t afford any of it without her, but I pay half the mortgage.” She makes more money working via satellite from home than he makes working overnight in a warehouse. He gets frustrated when he returns to dishes in the sink. “She’s been home all day! I hate to say this, but I think she thinks earning more alleviates her of chores.”

3.  I feel a responsibility to pay sometimes.
Elise grew up “like one of three black people” in a suburb, and now at college she’s “paying her own way while other people go to Starbucks every day without thinking anything of it.” When dating, Elise “say[s] right away, ‘I don’t have a lot of disposable income right now,’” and suggests they cook together, but if they go out she “feel[s] a responsibility to pay sometimes,” even if the guy has rich parents.

4. I want Chinese. Is that okay?
“My whole life I assumed I did things the wrong way, and I would feel bad about myself,” says, Jeanne, 52, who grew up working class. She deferred to Liz, 41, her spouse, who describes her background as a “very future-oriented, owning class.” Jeanne says, “It’s a silly thing, but I laugh really loud — early on that embarrassed Liz. I was hanging around all these middle-class people who’d look at me like, ‘Oh, you’re not quite right.’” At first, Jeanne and Liz thought theirs were personality differences, until Jeanne started taking college classes geared for adults, including workshops on class.

Jeanne and Liz began realizing that most of their conflicts stemmed from their different backgrounds. “It’s not about money,” Jeanne says. Liz adds, “It’s about power, communication. Pick a life activity and class touches it.” Being on time is a middle-class standard, as is asking unruly children if they want to quiet down. Liz is working on shedding her indirectness: “Instead of saying, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ I’ll say, ‘I want Chinese. Is that okay?'"

“Owning and middle-class people, we’re affirmed all the time,” Liz says. “We’re never asked: Are you missing anything because of your class?” Liz, though, grew up with a sense of “social isolation, a longing that she couldn’t put her finger on,” whereas everyone in Jeanne’s old neighborhood depended on one another and shared what they had. “We had parties, we were connected,” Jeanne says. “Liz didn’t even know she didn’t have any of that.”   

5.  I think I’m more intelligent.
“It’s not politically correct, but I think it’s difficult for people who weren’t raised in the same socio-economic background to be in a relationship,” says Sean, 32, a white, self-described “middle-class, well-educated” man who lives in Tennessee. “I hate to say it, but when girls aren’t from a good background, they’re usually not as educated, and they end up talking about a lot of surface gunk like pop music. It usually fizzles quick.” Part of the problem Sean sees is that “people from more advantageous backgrounds tend to be more intelligent — that’s a no-brainer.”

Sean dated a woman who’d grown up way out in the country, in a family with much less money. By that time, Sean’s father was a multimillionaire. Their families’ different circumstances didn’t matter, he says, because with her “the diversity and depth of conversation was there. She was smart and educated.”

6. I assumed my income would be supplemental.
“I dropped out of high school because I was working 40 hours a week at McDonald’s,” says Eric, 37. He met Becca — a 34-year-old Ivy League graduate with a masters — on Tinder about a year ago. “At first it was definitely intimidating to be with someone that educated,” Eric says. “My whole life I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck. I keep my money in a shoe box. I worked as a bike messenger, now as a tattoo artist, jobs that give me a certain amount of freedom.”

“When I was a kid,” Becca says, “every week at church I’d put a quarter in an envelope and give that as my offering. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in managing my money.” Meanwhile, at 15 Eric found his own place to live and needed to support himself. “No one ever taught him to save,” Becca says. He spends money as he earns it, a product, they both say, of his growing up without the luxury of long-term plans.

“I have no idea what the future would be like,” Becca says. “I have no doubt he’d be a wonderful dad, but could we have a kid? I’ve realized that until now I’ve passively assumed that my income would be supplemental.” When she chose her career, Becca was in a long-term relationship with a professional — she imagined only needing to support herself and wanting flexible hours when she had kids. “I was very dependent. It’s scary but liberating to think about really being independent — not having that other financial backbone … His optimism has rubbed off on me. I always wanted to start a private practice and now I think I can.”

7. I wanted to prove I was part of her world.
Michael, 29, says that while both his parents are doctors, he usually downplays their relative affluence. “I guess I don’t want any armchair psychology about me being a musician, living in Bushwick.” Once, though, he dated a girl whose dad was “the damn near senior guy” at a major corporation. “I kind of morphed,” he remembers. “She’s totally laid-back, not a name-dropper, but I’d talk about my parents’ lake house, mention that my dad golfs. I guess I wanted to prove that even if I wasn’t as stupid-rich, I was part of her world.”

8. He sees brown skin and thinks I’m a traitor.
“Some people are rough around the edges — he’s just rough,” Eva, 37, says of her boyfriend, Marcus, 36, who emigrated from Africa as a toddler and grew up in the projects and in foster care. She grew up in a middle-class family in a British colony, attending good schools and sneaking off to go swimming. When he went outside as a kid “he risked being shot,” and he doesn’t have any family. Eva and Marcus graduated from the same American college but at different times and met in a club in New York.

“I’m half-black, half-Portuguese,” Eva says. “I have a British accent. I don’t understand the way Americans view race. Some black people say I’m bougie and I’m acting white, but to me skin color doesn’t matter — I come from a beautiful island with British manners! This is just how I act. One day, Marcus said, ‘You get along so well with white people.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I get along well with all people.’ … He feels insecure sometimes. I’m not from the ghetto, so I don’t talk like I’m from the ghetto — that doesn’t mean I think I’m better than someone else. He sees brown skin and thinks I’m a traitor.”

Talking with him about his childhood helps her understand his anger. She says, “It took breaking down the barriers. I’ve learned from him not to prejudge.” Both Marcus and Eva are in New York to launch businesses. “We share a common goal. He loves talking about the future,” she says. “His big aspiration is to raise kids the way I was raised.”   

9. No one’s putting this pressure on me.
“I bought our dog a sweater and it fell apart after 30 minutes, so I returned it,” says Beatrix, 26, who was born in the former USSR. “My boyfriend would never do that, partly because he’s an introvert, but maybe it’s an immigrant thing. I watched my mother calmly get her money back so many times.”

Her boyfriend, also 26, doesn’t have student loans, so Beatrix has been committed to paying hers off before they get married. They’re engaged now that she’s just about paid them off, which took a lot of scrimping. “No one’s putting this pressure on me but myself,” she says. “At one point my parents had a lot of credit-card debt and I saw what it did to them. We lived in an apartment when my friends lived in houses. I always thought it was brave of my parents to show me the mistakes they made. But I’ve also seen their sacrifices pay off. I didn’t want my debt to affect our marriage.”

10. In my world, prestige and wit are valued above all.
“It feels uncomfortable even pointing out that we have a class difference,” says Kim, 30, of her ex-boyfriend, Nick, 33. Nick was white; before him, she’d dated a black guy and an immigrant. “My differences with those guys were so apparent that we had to acknowledge them. But I knew those guys from college and grad school so we shared a way of thinking and talking by the time we met. Nick didn’t finish high school. With his trade, he makes more money than me. It never even occurred to me that I’d ever date someone who hadn’t gone to college — that’s how rarefied my world is. Now I see that I had such a limited view of who I could be with. My world was, is, so homogenous.”

Kim’s parents work in finance and live in Manhattan. Nick’s mother raised several children in the country, on a substitute-teaching salary. Kim and Nick met online, and dated for several months, breaking up when he left town to go work for his brother’s construction company.

“No one would look at me and Nick and guess we’d grown up worlds apart,” Kim says. “We’d split the bill. We had a lot to say to each other. He’s smart — that wasn’t a problem. I found myself underplaying all the things that I’m usually proud of — my degrees, my job at a famous institution. He got quiet when I referenced work. It wouldn’t have been good for me long-term to be self-conscious about a big part of who I am. Could we have gotten over it? Maybe — his higher salary balanced things. I can’t help but see it as sexism on both our parts.”

11. I never thought about money.
“I’d say we were upper middle class, although interestingly I don’t know the specifics,” says Vincent, 25, who “naïvely, for better or worse” never thought much about money or class until recently, when friends from college started getting fancy jobs from their family connections.

An ex-girlfriend, a nail technician, struggled financially. Her father hadn’t worked in years, and her mother was a clerical worker. “She never once invited me to her house. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for this — her father, an alcoholic, had a history of abuse and her home was pretty unsettling … We never talked about it explicitly, but I assume that she had some shame or embarrassment about her family’s financial situation and the way her life looked compared to mine. Not that I was rich or anything, but I think my world — financially and emotionally — felt comfortable. She liked living it and sharing it with me and my friends.”