Social Class: An Invisible Barrier to Financial Intimacy

Jul 21, 2022

Trying to navigate the financial aspects of marriage can be intimidating, especially if you and your spouse come from different social class backgrounds.


Social class creates an invisible barrier to intimacy that prevents people from getting the most out of their relationship and financial status, even when they’re committed to one another. In this article, we’ll look at why that is and how you can start to overcome social class differences to improve your marriage.


What is Social Class?

There are multiple layers to social class and how it is defined. For example, a person’s employment status, or the type of neighborhood they live in, can define social class. More commonly are your level of education and income. 


In reality, social class is a complex phenomenon that also includes

Patterns of thought 

Parenting styles

Communication patterns

Orientations to time

The types of documents that are kept

Which financial services are relevant 

The kind of food you most commonly eat 

The amount of travel you do and the type of travel you participate in. 


Each social class is like its own country. When we recognize that some sociologists identify 7 - 9 different layers of social class, we get a more nuanced understanding of why it can be so hard to cross and adjust to a new social class position two or more layers beyond where we started. 


Perhaps we have only heard about this other group of people but never had much direct contact with it. Add to it that we don’t walk around with sign boards on our chests that say I am from this or that social class. 


For those that transcend two or three levels or more of social class it becomes more like going to a new continent than going to the country next door that is more familiar. We take whatever areas of familiarity we have and try to adjust appropriately, but we stand out, more often than not, and stand out like a sore thumb. 


Hence the terms 


New Money Vs. Old Money 

Why Is It So Hard To Understand Social Class?

The rules of social class are not documented in a single book that you can consult to compare and contrast what is prioritized and why it is essential. The complexity of social class is why psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists try to look at, understand and define what is happening in the different layers of social class. 

Yet those that take the time to look closely through the window of social class will quickly see it is not as straightforward as it initially appears. Sitting with this ambiguity may be challenging but worthy of engaging. 


I have had the chance to ride in rickety motorcycles from one dirt hut to the next one doing microfinance work with some of the world's poorest women in the Philippines. I have also attended Estate Planning conferences in gorgeous auditoriums where attorneys describe how the political and economic environment will impact their billionaire clients. 


Stating the obvious, but wow, are they two different worlds. More significantly, much of the social class subtilities were lost on me. 


Having lived, worked, and transitioned into different social class positions, I can say that my own experience of social class still leaves me bewildered from time to time. Social class is far more complicated than just income and assets. 


The bewilderment raises the question of how do we live well with each other in our intimate relationships in light of social class differences we bring to the table. 


Living in A Marriage Across Social Class


Yet what brought the point home was living in my own marriage where my wife and I grew up and started our adult lives in different social class environments. Her father worked in professional technology sales and traveled internationally. My father was an electrician and worked installing and fixing pay booths in parking garages.  


Our starting assumptions and lived experiences around college attendance were fundamentally different. I became a professional firefighter and started my college at the community college while she attended Rice University. Notice that even as you read this, I name specifically where she went to school with the expectation you would know that college, and I don’t mention my community college name. 


In many ways, status is conferred and given in our society. When we partner with someone that has different social class status than our own, we more often feel it than know how to name it fully. 


I have worked with many clients that have overtly known and recognized that their social class differences were impacting their financial conflicts, and in many other instances, they did not realize the full extent to which their social class experiences were shaping part of their intimate relationship experience. 


The first step is to remember that you are both humans before you are social class beings. The need for belonging, connection, and love matter no matter what social class you identify with. 


From there, the hardest step is owning the privileges that come with your particular social class background. Not as a way of rubbing it in your partner's face, so much as not living in denial. 


When a partner of greater privilege fails to see or acknowledge their places of privilege, it can feel very disempowering and alienating to the other partner. At the same time, if you feel you come from a place of less privilege and you hold your partner's privilege against them, that can be just as alienating. 


This is a form of privilege shaming. None of us pick our starting social class position in life and it helps to remember this as we navigate this intersection of your shared financial life together. 


The journey to financial intimacy often means working with our own conflicted feelings about privilege, what that means to us personally, our partner, and how societal messages about privilege affect us. 


Come join other couples on the journey to financial intimacy in The Couples Guide to Financial Intimacy


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