Cinderella marries Prince Charming. Aladdin weds Princess Jasmine. In 50 Shades of Grey, Ana falls for Christian. From bedtime stories to films, we are exposed to a repeated idea: that love, or at least lust, crosses class lines. In fiction, cross-class relationships either end in marriage and happily-ever-after, or else in dissolution and even death. But what happens in real life?
Last year, I set out to answer this question by interviewing college-educated men and women who had married partners from different class backgrounds, for my book The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages. Not surprisingly, their relationships had little in common with the romances we see in the movies. Class had shaped each spouse so much that the people I interviewed had more in common with strangers.
Most of the time, couples’ recognition of their different pasts was acknowledged in little more than a comment about their father’s job or a lavish family vacation. Few people I spoke to reported having parents who plotted against their children’s relationships, or felt they were subject to social stigma for their cross-class relationship.
In fact, it’s usually not until meeting their in-laws that the couples themselves tend to become aware of their differences: More privileged partners spoke of the shock of walking into a house with hundreds of crystal figurines or trying to eat spam with a smile. Less privileged partners told stories of mistaking a “night sail” for a “night sale,” puzzling over how to use a dishwasher, and taking note that their in-laws prefer the theater to the rodeo.