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How Your Socioeconomic Status Affects Your Marriage

Intimacy issues among the haves and the have-nots

Key points

  • American society is starkly divided into two social classes, the haves and the have-nots.
  • The haves and have-nots hold different cultural values, shaped by socioeconomic circumstances.
  • Intimate relationships require a balance between personal connection and self-protection.
  • Counseling techniques that work for high-SES couples may not work for low-SES counterparts, who face a different set of problems.

“For richer or for poorer.” This is a promise many couples make as part of their wedding vows. The idea is that the couple pledges to stay together through the good times when they have plenty and the bad times when they have little.

Americans pride themselves on living in a classless society in which anyone can improve their lot through determination and hard work. According to Northwest University psychologists Lydia Emery and Eli Finkel, however, this notion no longer reflects reality in twenty-first-century America. Instead, the country has become split into two classes, the “haves” and the “have-nots,” with very little upward or downward movement between them.

The Haves and the Have-Nots

The haves are typically college educated, and their jobs are reasonably secure. They not only have sufficient income to meet their needs, but they also have disposable income to pursue their hobbies.

In contrast, the have-nots typically attain at most a high-school or vocational-school education, and face constant job insecurity. They barely make ends meet with the wages they bring home, and they’re always just one small crisis away from financial ruin.

According to Emery and Finkel, social class impacts your life in many other ways as well, including your happiness, your health, and even your intimate relationships. For instance, lower socio-economic status couples are less likely to get married and more likely to get divorced than higher-SES counterparts. Moreover, those who do remain together experience more problems in their marriages and are less satisfied with them.

Nevertheless, both rich and poor want the same things from marriage, specifically a trustworthy partner for pleasant companionship and emotional intimacy. So why do lower-SES couples experience more relationship problems than higher-SES couples do? Emery and Finkel argue that it’s because SES isn’t just about how much money you make; it’s also about the kind of culture you live in.

SES and Culture

The thoughts and behaviors of those in the lower economic class are shaped by a culture of “hard interdependence.” The culture is “hard” because life is full of danger and people need to be constantly on the lookout for threats.

But it’s also “interdependent,” because these people have learned that they can only survive if they stick together and help each other out. Lower-SES couples tend to provide a lot of support for each other, but they’re also worried about the possibility of being taken advantage of.

In contrast, those who inhabit the upper economic class experience a culture of “expressive independence.” Because their basic needs are met, they tend to focus more on self-fulfillment needs—such as hobbies and career goals—that are directed toward expressing one’s aspirations.

The culture is also “independent,” in that thinking is much more individualistic and behaviors are more oriented towards emphasizing one’s unique personality. Since these people feel more secure in their own circumstances, they tend to view intimate relationships as an occasion to open up and emotionally connect with a partner.

Personal Connection or Self-Protection?

Intimate relationships are challenging regardless of SES, in that we all need to balance the benefits of a close personal connection with the danger of being taken advantage of by a partner. Emery and Finkel propose that this balance tips in a different direction depending on SES. Those in the “hard interdependent” culture of low SES certainly understand the need to stand by each other in times of need, but at the same time they need to be on guard against being taken advantage of. In contrast, those in the “expressive independent” culture of high SES are more secure in their circumstances, and see a deep intimate connection with a romantic partner as especially meaningful in their largely independent and individualistic lives.

Studies by Emery and Finkel show that when people are concerned with self-protection, they feel less satisfied with their intimate relationships. Furthermore, lower-SES individuals are more likely to prioritize self-protection over deep personal connection. This, the researchers argue, is what accounts for the poorer relationship outcomes of low-SES couples.

Rich and Poor Face Different Problems

One of the goals of psychology is to find ways to improve the quality of human life. Over the last few decades, we’ve learned a lot about the dynamics of intimate relationships and the processes that lead to happy or unhappy outcomes. Our understanding of how to help couples overcome their problems and attain satisfying relationships has greatly increased.

And yet, when best counseling practices are applied to low-SES couples, they almost always fail. The reason is that almost all research in relationship science has been conducted on high-SES couples, who face a different set of problems from low-SES counterparts.

Counseling for high-SES couples focuses on communication skills and empathy building, but these aren’t the problems low-SES couples face. Having grown up in a highly interdependent culture, they’re already reasonably skilled at these. Rather, they mostly need help stabilizing their financial situation. Until their basic needs are met, people simply cannot focus on the higher psychological need for a deep intimate connection with a life partner.

In the end, Emery and Finkel seem to be arguing that “rich” people’s problems aren’t the same as “poor” people’s problems, and psychologists should stop assuming that they are. Instead, researchers need to extend the scope of relationship science to include more studies of minorities and the disadvantaged. Only then will we have a full portrait of the human experience.


Emery, L. F. & Finkel, E. J. (2021). Connect or protect? Social class and self-protection in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

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