Princess Jasmine fell for Aladdin, even after his Prince Ali façade failed. Lady Sybil Crawley married the family chauffeur Tom Branson, despite his socialist views and Irish, working-class origins. Richard Gere scaled a fire escape to retrieve his “Pretty Woman.” Typically, sociologists say, marrying across class differences happens much less frequently in real life than in popular culture. Jessi Streib, however, wrote a whole book about these uncommon couples. She tells New York Magazine’s Science of Us the findings in her The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages.
Streib’s interviews revealed benefits and challenges to class difference in marriage. Partners may recognize in each other qualities they felt lacking in their own class background. Thus, working-class individuals may value the confidence and sense of stability of middle-class individuals, while middle-class partners may gravitate toward the intimacy and expressiveness they perceive in working-class families. Middle-class individuals often communicate in a “managerial” style, which, according to Streib, means “They manage their emotions, so before you want to express something, you think about it first, you figure out what you really feel, you think about how to express it in a way that will make the other person most comfortable, and then you kind of quietly and very calmly state how you feel and make sure there’s a good rationale behind it.” Working-class individuals, on the other hand, have a more laissez-faire way of expressing emotions. They are more likely to state their honest feelings directly, even if they’re not particularly nice or polite.
While differences in communication styles provide opportunities for understanding, they also pose challenges. Trying to change the other person, Streib says, is not going to make a partnership work.
The couples who it went really well for were the ones who appreciated each other’s differences. So they would say things like, “You know, it’s not how I do it, but I can understand why that other way makes total sense,” or could actually use their partner’s differences to help them solve a problem at times. So keeping in perspective that difference isn’t necessarily bad, and that they love their partner despite or because of all these differences, could help a lot.
As in any relationship, cooperation and communication are keys to success. Cross-class marriages may not be incredibly common, but at least one sociologist is convinced Tom and Sybil could have made a life of it—save a few plot twists.