Friday essay: ‘My family are always trying to buy us a house.’ We asked couples how class affects their relationships

When Patrick first held a driver’s licence, his P-plates, he drove a beaten-up car “almost as old as myself”. If police didn’t pull him over once a month, he’d be surprised.

His older brother’s girlfriend, “an upper-class girl”, was once pulled over while on her P-plates while driving a new car, having forgotten to put her lights on. The officer told her in a friendly voice, “You should probably put your lights on.” She had responded mildly with, “Oh, cool, sorry.” Meanwhile, in a similar situation, Patrick had been charged over an insignificant technicality to do with displaying his P-plates.

“Just the expectation from me of dealing with authorities is … I have to toe the line,” he told us, “my expectations are I’m going to get slammed by them.”

When we spoke to Patrick, he was in his thirties. Now, he was a computer programmer, living a comfortable life. But throughout his childhood, Patrick, who is white, shouldered significant responsibilities amid severe material deprivation – he recalled going hungry, for instance.

His girlfriend, Felicia, grew up in the “upper class end of things” in the quiet south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Her dad was a doctor and her mum assisted with the practice. She and her siblings attended the local private school because, Felicia believed, her parents wanted her to associate with “the right people”. She described her family background as Jewish, English and “brown”, and her childhood as a “very happy time”.

Patrick told us Felicia can “talk her way out of” situations with authorities. “She can always explain the situation and get leeway.” He sees a big difference between them around “expectation”: of their treatment in the world and their place within it.

These divergent expectations reached into various aspects of their shared lives. “Dealing with things like real estate agents or businesses or whatever, she’s always got the expectation that something can be worked out.” Put another way, Patrick felt Felicia’s view of the world was, “What she wants can be got.”

Patrick, conversely, described how he couldn’t “shake” the feeling he needed to always have “everything in line”. If he was submitting a rental application for a house, for example, he took care to have all the documentation watertight and in hand. This is much easier to accomplish now he is earning a high wage as a programmer and living a settled life. Yet he still carries a somewhat amorphous anxiety, steeped in his class experience. “If I have one thing wrong, that one thing’s going to trip me up.”

Love across class

We spent two years interviewing 38 people about their experiences of love and class: members of 15 couples, plus eight women whose partners declined to take part.

When we asked about our interviewees’ cultural backgrounds, their descriptions included “white”, “mixed race”, “brown”, Aboriginal, Jewish, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, English, Māori and Turkish.

What happens, we wanted to know, when people form a romantic relationship across class?

What happens when people form a romantic relationship across class? Tom the Photographer/Unsplash
What happens when people form a romantic relationship across class? Tom the Photographer/Unsplash

We were attracted to this question after a project where we’d interviewed parents about the changing multicultural dynamics of their local public schools and neighbourhoods. We noticed it was relatively easy for white, middle-class parents to recognise, feel positive about and know what to say about forming connections across “ethnic” difference in their school communities.

But they felt differently about their children forming friendships across class: this was far less appealing and more actively avoided. Many struggled to find a vocabulary to talk about the nature of class differences. These were communicated using other words, like “values” and “rough”.

We decided to embark on new research together, with “class” as an explicit focus. We interviewed people who perceived their class background, or “class origin”, to be different to their partner’s.

Many interviewees expressed relief and even catharsis in discussing class and its significance to their partnership – and their relationship to the world more broadly. We also talked with couples who felt confused about the role class difference played in their relationship, but sensed it was something they were grappling with. This was especially the case when people hailed from migrant or transnational backgrounds, or had experienced upward social mobility.

Two of our interviewees were hesitant to use the language of class: they worried it involved judgement and betrayal of their faith in meritocracy and individual character.

Class, we learned, manifests in subtle and not-so-subtle ways in these partnerships.

A similar place ‘from very different directions’

Patrick had spent his childhood moving up and down the east coast, “just random places”. His dad did “manual labour of various sorts” before a car accident wrecked his left arm. He did work “every so often” throughout his childhood, but was “mostly unemployed”. In his adulthood, Patrick’s parents separated and his mum started working in aged care.

Felicia told us Patrick was not a “man child”, unlike “so many of the people that I grew up with”. His maturity was very attractive to her, and she described him as “very emotionally intelligent”. As a child, Patrick’s family visited op shops to buy clothes, books and old computers. He talked about slowly building a nourishing life as he recovers from the psychic pain caused, in part, by abject childhood poverty.

Felicia says she and Patrick have arrived at a similar place “from very different directions”. She has come to feel increasingly “alienated” from “a lot of assumptions about lifestyle and money” she grew up with.

While her old school friends have mortgages and expensive cars bought with the “equity from those mortgages”, she rents in a lively, friendly neighbourhood and engages in just enough locum work as a doctor to sustain her lifestyle. She greatly values her spare time.

Felicia and Patrick’s close bond and respect for each other was clear to us. Yet Patrick also emphasised that his wounds remain raw, as he delved into the dynamics of their cross-class relationship.

Class is ‘one of our biggest issues’

Another couple, Caleb and Jacinta, described the class dynamics of their relationship in ways that echo Patrick and Felicia’s. However, they described a more pointed, building tension.

Jacinta, who grew up with far fewer opportunities and choices than Caleb, described class as “one of our biggest issues”.

Caleb is a white university student in his thirties from inner-city Melbourne, the sole child of “two detached lawyers”. Jacinta, who works as a TV producer, described herself as being from a “mixed” ethnic background. Her mum was a cleaner and her stepdad a security guard.

Caleb is “pathologically indifferent” to money, he told us. In their spacious inner-city apartment, Caleb appreciated both minimalism and quality. He enjoyed shopping at the local, pricier shops, rather than the supermarket where things were cheaper, and his approach to paying bills on time was relaxed. He explained with self-deprecating humour that he was “raised in the lap of luxury”, “firmly ensconced in the most comfortable class”.

Caleb, from a wealthy background, is ‘pathologically indifferent’ to money, unlike his partner Jacinta. Jonathan Borba/Pexels
Caleb, from a wealthy background, is ‘pathologically indifferent’ to money, unlike his partner Jacinta. Jonathan Borba/Pexels

“The class thing” had been at the forefront of Jacinta’s mind for a while, she told us. Despite Caleb’s family’s affluence, their wealth hadn’t been apparent to Jacinta in the early days of their relationship. Of course, she’d known Caleb’s family had money: their “nice house” was in “a very fancy part of town”, with “libraries of books on the walls”.

But they also actively obscured the advantages their wealth afforded them, and they loathed obvious displays of wealth. For Jacinta, who grew up under very different financial circumstances, this contradiction was difficult to grasp. Her in-laws lived a seemingly understated life, but one that was expensive to sustain.

Jacinta’s mum was 16 when Jacinta was born and later partnered with a man who also had a child and who already owned a house. Jacinta lived out the rest of her childhood with her mum, stepdad and three siblings in suburban Melbourne. Her mum was a primary carer and worked as a cleaner when she could. Her stepdad was a security guard. The family “sacrificed” so Jacinta and her siblings could play netball and gymnastics, although things like school camps were too expensive. Jacinta left school at 17, but eventually found her passion working as a producer in TV.

Once they moved in together, Caleb and Jacinta’s very different day-to-day approaches to financial matters became a hindrance and they found themselves frequently clashing over things “as basic as the food shopping every week”. On the one hand, Jacinta budgeted and planned. Caleb, on the other, reflected that he had “been kind of coasting” through life and wasn’t worried about money or accumulating it. “I’ve never really given a shit about that because it’s always been drummed into me that I don’t really need to.”

Different views on home ownership

It was the question of home ownership, and its relationship to growing wealth inequality, that really illustrated to them both how their differently classed childhoods had shaped their different relationships to money as adults – or their “different views of its possibility”, as Jacinta expressed it.

The role of intergenerational wealth in securing access to home ownership is frequently discussed in Australia. Owning assets today can pay more than working for wages, making intergenerational transfers of wealth a key mechanism in the 21st-century logic of class, centred on access to finance.

Jacinta and Caleb grappled with this painful new reality within their relationship. Renting had been a necessity for Jacinta since she left home – she now wants the security afforded by home ownership. Jacinta told us she was saving money and keeping a close eye on the housing market, as buying had become a very real possibility due to Caleb’s parents’ wealth.

“My family are always trying to buy us a house,” Caleb told us, laughing. His parents have even researched places and options, and stand ready to bear much of the financial burden. Caleb remains disengaged but felt that he and Jacinta will likely buy something in the end. “I don’t really care if I’m getting into the wrong part of the market,” he told us. “I don’t want to think about it that much.”

In sum, Caleb conveyed a cool disinterest that Jacinta could not entertain about this crucial question.

Realities of class

Our research shows that being in a cross-class relationship brings the realities of class more sharply into view. Couples like Felicia and Patrick, and Caleb and Jacinta, could not avoid conversations about class, as they grappled with possibilities, tensions and hurt that were in some way connected to their very different formative experiences.

Class proved a clarifying – and in some cases liberating – vocabulary to discuss some of these things. It provided our interviewees with a way to analyse the unequal distribution of advantages and material assets in our society.

Money is only one part of this picture.

Class can play a role in shaping our expectations, anxieties and confidence, as both Patrick and Caleb pondered, from very different ends of the class spectrum, in their interviews with us. Sometimes, the class-based priorities and values we are raised with in childhood might come to repel us as adults, as Felicia explored.

And for Jacinta, access to material assets, including housing, could not be seriously discussed without recognising the significance of class-based wealth. It was her romantic relationship across class with the wealthier Caleb, more than her trajectory through school, mature-age study and work as a TV producer, that had brought home ownership within reach. And ironically, Caleb’s own ease of access to the money to buy a house produced an indifference to the home ownership she wanted.

Cross-class relationships demand facing class honestly. And in an increasingly unequal Australia, class is something many of us should think about more often. The personal reckonings we have documented, we hope, will stimulate a more honest, society-wide conversation about class in the midst of this growing inequality.

This essay draws on research and interviews from Love Across Class (MUP) by Eve Vincent and Rose Butler.

This article is republished from The Conversation. It was written by: Eve Vincent, Macquarie University and Rose Butler, Deakin University

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Rose Butler has received funding from the Australian Research Council.

Eve Vincent does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.