The XX Factor

Marriage Is the New Middle-Class Luxury Item

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Cindy grew up in small-town Ohio, the daughter of a union factory worker and a homemaker. Her mom packed her dad’s lunch every day, the family headed to church every week, and summers were punctuated by car-trip vacations. Now in her mid-40s, Cindy is a twice-divorced single mom working a minimum-wage job at a local convenience store in her hometown. Her first husband deserted her; her second beat her. She now lives with her daughter Megan, 20, who never graduated high school, has already weathered one abusive relationship, and is currently dating a man who is in jail. Neither Megan nor Cindy is eager to get married anytime soon.

Compare them to Earl and Jan, a middle-aged, middle-class couple living in the Pacific Northwest with their two children. Earl and Jan maintain the health of their marriage by “eating dinner as a family most nights, scheduling couple’s ‘date nights,’ spending family weekends at their vacation cabin disconnected from electronics, and traveling together at least once a year.” When their daughter began acting out in her teen years, they constructed a barn, bought her a horse, and enrolled her in a private school “with an equestrian focus.” When their children left the nest, they recommitted to their relationship by investing in a gym membership for Earl and college courses for Jan. They remain happily married.

For their new paper “Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape,” University of Virginia sociologist Sarah Corse and Harvard sociologist Jennifer Silva interviewed 300 working- and middle-class Americans like Cindy, Megan, Earl, and Jan about their work and relationships. They found that as the American workforce and the American marriage have destabilized over the past half-century, marriage has become an increasingly inaccessible option for working-class Americans. While middle-class people like Earl and Jan are throwing money at their intimate relationships to keep them stable, working-class people like Cindy and Megan have been priced out of the institution.

Thanks to falling working-class wages, the outsourcing of American manufacturing, the thinning of company benefits, and the rise of part-time and self-employment, American jobs are, in many ways, less stable than ever. Unskilled workers without a higher education are finding it more difficult to translate blue-collar work into middle-class stability. Many of the working-class Americans interviewed by Silva and Corse are now too concerned with maintaining their “own survival” to “imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others.” Meanwhile, marriage itself has transformed into a luxury item. Over the past century, the old model of obligatory American marriage, which was “rooted in male authority” and “backed by both religious and legal mandates,” gave way to “companionate” marriages dedicated to prioritizing “the couple as equal individuals” in the family structure. Now, as Silva and Corse tell it, a new age of “therapeutic” marriage has arisen to focus on the “happiness, equality, mutuality, and self-actualization of individuals.”

That self-actualization doesn’t come cheap. The rise of the freelance economy and the decline of traditional marriage has made life less regimented for middle-class Americans, too. But middle-class people benefit from the educational backgrounds and salaries necessary to stabilize their own careers and relationships outside of these traditional social structures. People like Earl and Jan can spend their paychecks on therapy, horses, college, and gyms to stay happy together. Even middle-class Americans who can’t afford to buy their kid a pony have more resources to maintain their relationships through economic instability. For people at a certain education level and salary potential, the self-employment economy can provide the flexibility to spend time with their families; sharing resources with a partner is more likely to be an investment than a risk. But people like Cindy and Megan can’t afford to invest in this new model (and the old model, where a male breadwinner provided for the family, doesn’t exist anymore). As traditional work and family structures crumble in the United States, middle-class Americans have the money to build relationships, yet remain satisfied as individuals. For working-class Americans, personal stability sometimes requires staying single and avoiding the risk of abuse, abandonment, and even more economic and emotional disruption.