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Let’s talk about inter-class relationships

While ‘marrying up’ or ‘marrying down’ isn’t as scandalous as it was 100 years ago, material inequality continues to affect relationships in 2022

In our new Class Ceiling series, we unpack how class actually affects young people today – from our jobs, to the way we have sex, to our general experience of the world.

Gifts from your partner’s parents are often unmemorable. Nice, but inoffensive and innocuous, like a nice bottle of wine or a scented candle. But 23-year-old Mia* can still recall the gift her ex-partner’s parents gave her several Christmases ago. As she unwrapped the small, beautifully-wrapped gift and the glossy paper fell away, her heart simultaneously swelled and sank. Inside the little white box was a solid silver bangle that they'd had engraved for her. It was beautiful.

“At the time, I was really touched, but I remember feeling embarrassed that I didn’t get them more,” she tells me. “I think I got them a bottle of cava.”

Mia was state-educated and received the maximum possible student loan plus a low-income student support bursary from her university. “This was a very different situation to the one my ex was in,” she says. “They were privately educated and had a lot of financial help from their family throughout university, such as having their rent and bills paid for them.”

Class difference is presented as a sizeable obstacle that lovers must overcome in 19th-century novels like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, so initially, it might sound anachronistic to suggest that it’s something that can affect your relationships in 2022. But is this really the case? Evidence suggests not. Research published in 2019 found that most people tend to choose partners who are similar to them, a pattern called “assortative mating”. 45 per cent of upper-class participants in this 2017 survey said they would not even consider entering into a long-term relationship with someone from a different social class. This much is clear from the fact that there’s a market for dating apps like Toffee, which is exclusively for private school alumni, and Inner Circle, a platform for “career-driven” young professionals.

In Marie Bergström’s book The New Laws of Love: Online Dating and the Privatization of Intimacy, she notes that dating app users often unconsciously filter out users from different social classes. A user’s profile, Bergström explains, often conveys class status in coded ways. For example, one socially aspirant middle-class man she interviewed expressed a dislike for selfies, but remembers being impressed by an elegant, black and white photo of a girl playing the piano.

Written communication on apps is also a way for users to make judgements about others’ class status. “Confident in their writing skills, the upper classes play out and enjoy displaying their cultural capital by crafting descriptions that, in many cases, simply cannot be decoded without the requisite cultural keys. Users from less privileged backgrounds, on the other hand, often post far more modest bios – or none at all.” She also points out that while judging users on their spelling is more socially acceptable, this too links back to class: “because writing is intimately but also unconsciously linked to social class, users have no problem with expressing their dislike, or even their contempt for bad spelling.”

Dr Jenny van Hooff is a sociologist of personal life, and she affirms that social class can impact romantic relationships. “Class has a huge impact on structuring inequality, and therefore our everyday lives and experiences, including relationships,” she explains. “There’s an assumption that sex, love and relationships are personal, private matters separated from material constraints, but research I published with Stephen Morris in 2020 showed that people in professional and managerial occupations enjoyed higher sexual wellbeing, meaning that power and material resources play a role in the structuring of intimate life.”

“The view that relationships are abstracted out from material inequality is naïve. Inequality and power affects all aspects of everyday life, including love and relationships.” – Dr Jenny van Hooff

“The view that relationships are abstracted out from material inequality is naïve,” she says. “Inequality and power affect all aspects of everyday life, including love and relationships.” James agrees: “Much as we don’t like to admit it, class is often a deeply ingrained part of our identity, loyalties and aspirations.”

Take Marianne and Connell in Normal People. The class disparity between them is only addressed explicitly once: “I am conscious of the fact that we got to know each other because your mother works for my family,” Marianne says, but the difference in their circumstances is always there, lurking beneath the surface. It’s why Marianne feels more comfortable dissecting literature among the educated elites at Trinity, but to Connell university seems “a lot of loafers and chinos and whatnot”.

Tom*, 21, was in a similar situation to Mia in his past relationship. “It was like the Lady and the Tramp,” he says. “I come from the outskirts of Leeds, from an area famous for growing rhubarb and far-right defence leagues. She came from Wimbledon, famous for tennis, Tories, and trust funds.”

“I took her out for tapas once and she ordered sea bream,” he recalls. “I asked her what sea bream was and she giggled at me and called me a ‘lovely goof’. How was I supposed to know what it was? The only fish I know is the one you get from a local chippy. Another time she showed me her house on Rightmove and it was worth £1.2 million. Mine was a sixth of the price. I felt dwarfed.”

In her 2015 book The Power of the Past, the sociologist Jessi Streib also points out that inter-class couples often have different views on child-rearing, money management, career advancement, and how to spend leisure time. For example, while one person might consider going clay pigeon shooting or horse riding a fun way to spend the weekend, that might be the other’s idea of hell. “Dinner table etiquette came up a few times when I was out with my ex’s parents, and I didn't know any of it,” Mia recalls. “They’d tell me I had to drink soup from a certain side of the spoon and point my cutlery in a certain way when I'd finished the meal to indicate how I'd enjoyed it.”

London-based therapist Olivia James explains that being too dogmatic about “inherited customs” can lead to power struggles in relationships. “Do you call a meal ‘tea’ or ‘supper’? Is it ‘ten pounds’ or ‘ten pound’? Is it acceptable to serve a Sunday roast made entirely from bagged frozen ingredients or should it be made from scratch using the finest organic produce? If there are strains in the relationship, these differences can become magnified and can lead to disapproval and criticism,” she explains. “Implying that your beloved is somehow uncivilised or snobbish is not a recipe for lasting happiness. Festering resentment poisons relationships.”

This isn’t to say that cross-class relationships can never work, but Dr van Hooff explains that it’s vital both partners are aware of their differences and can communicate frankly about them. “Relationships across the class divide can definitely work,” she says. I think acknowledging and trying to mitigate inequality would help.” James agrees. “The partners need to stay open and willing to communicate and compromise,” she says. “A sense of humour is essential, focus on the life you want to create together, and respect each other's foibles and family loyalties.”

While it would be misguided to suggest that class has no bearing on relationships, it would be defeatist, sad, and frankly unrealistic to limit ourselves to only dating others from the same class as us. As Tom says: love doesn't discriminate, it’s society that pulls strings.” Ultimately, with self-awareness, communication, and patience, it’s possible for love to blossom across the class divide.

*Names have been changed