Friday, 27 August 2010

Marrying Up? Marrying Down?

I've been invited again to ponder the issue of marriage and class. Like writing about chastity, this is not my most favouritest thing in the world.

I grew up ignorant of any kind of class system, except the one in British books. I went to the local Catholic school, where we discussed what we ate at home, but never what our parents did. Nobody seemed to be rich, and nobody seemed to be poor. So the strict hierarchy of British novels confused me.

"What class are we?" I asked my mother.

"This is Canada. We don't have a class system."

"In Britain there's a class system."

"Your father is an intellectual," said my mother. "We're exempt from the class system."

I found this marvellously cheering.

"What class are we?" I asked my British husband, who almost had a heart attack. Class is no longer as rigid here as it is in, say, India, but it still is an incredibly difficult, thorny issue, easily causing bad feelings all around.

"You have a foreign accent, and therefore you are exempt from the class system," said B.A. "You should be thankful."

However, I niggled at him until he came up with an answer, which I'm not going to share because it would be a social solecism. Anyway, we don't believe in class. We believe in values.

It is a smart idea to fall in love only with someone who shares your values, especially those values shared by your family. If a liberal arts education is one of the most important ones, you probably shouldn't marry the suitor who reads nothing but The Sun. (I once recoiled in horror from the story of a man, who, retrieving a book his baby son had thrown from a crib, said "That's right! Wait till the movie comes out, just like your old man.") If you and your family hate consumer debt, you definitely shouldn't marry someone who believes in shopping on the credit card until the man at the counter cuts it in two.

The four things that married people fight most about are money, sex, housework and religion. I suppose money is where class might come in, although I worry about false stereotypes. For example, one might think the middle-class are canny savers and that the working-class is drowning in debt, but in my experience, it is usually the other way around. Dozens of my university friends have student debts; I bet my hairdresser doesn't.

There are stereotypes about housework, too, and they change from country to country. Rich people may assume that the poor are dirty, but as a matter of fact the working poor of 20th century Britain were so obsessed with cleanliness that Muriel Spark wrote a satirical story about it.

But I suspect many marriages fail not because of the Big Four but of a hundred thousand tiny pin-pricks of annoyance. For example, because my parents leave coffee cups and books all over their house, I find a cup-and-book clutter very comforting and homey. My husband, however, hates it. It makes him depressed to find unwashed coffee cups in odd places and books strewn about. He also dislikes when I stick a sybaritic finger into the sauce on my plate, but he lost that argument when I saw X, grandson of the Y of Z lick up the last of the tea from his saucer. There's no point telling me that what is okay for X, grandson of the Y of Z is not okay for me, for I am Canadian and don't believe it.

After thinking very hard, I can't come up with any personal habit of my husband's that annoys me. I would be annoyed if he used bad words in front of me, but he doesn't. According to one of his friends, he treats me like fine Dresden china. That had not occured to me, but if that is so, I am grateful, for I would hate to be treated like anything else.

Oh dear. I'm straying from class again. One reader wants me very much to agree that it is a disaster for a privately educated woman to marry a tradesman, or for a British Prime Minister to marry a plump tea lady, but I can't. It depends on which privately educated woman. It depends on which tradesman. It depends on which Prime Minister. It depends on which plump tea lady. My head is beginning to pound.

I just can't believe that there really is something solid and unchanging and hiearchical about class. Simone Weil gave lectures in philosophy to French workers; they could brag of having been taught by Simone Weil. One of the most interesting men I know is a retired postie. The idiots who tried to firebomb Glasgow airport were doctors. The man who personifies Scottish contempt for terrorists was a baggage-handler. One of the Historical House gardeners collects first editions. My delightful friend A, the granddaughter of the B of C, never went to university.

And what occurs to me, once again, is Bernard Lonergan's dictum that "Only the Concrete is Good." We cannot judge people according to rough, imprecise categories like "class". We can judge only each man or woman as we find him or her.

This is not to say that rich men and women do not have to guard against grifters and gold-diggers. Conmen and gold-diggers have always targeted the rich, but these conmen and gold-diggers include the (formerly) rich. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, English aristocrats married one heck of a lot of rich American heiresses for their money. And even now women of all incomes have to watch out for the man who just wants to laze around, working now and again as it pleases him.

And this is not to say that men and women who have grown up thinking all wealthy people act like footballers and their wives might not be nervous when they first sat down to an ordinary, old-fashioned wealthy family's dinner table. And unless they had actually read studies about ordinary millionaires, they might assume millionaires always buy flashy cars and sprawling homes. Someone who belongs to a family that has been on welfare for generations may indeed feel very uncomfortable away from the housing estate. Someone who has never been taught the value of books will feel rather left out at a dinner party of people chatting about books.

But I firmly believe we can only justly judge a man or woman on his or her own behaviour. And the only kind of "marrying up" I believe in is when you marry a man or woman who loves you better than the last man or woman you married, and "marrying down" is when you marry a man or woman who treats you worse.

Off to find the ibuprophen for my headache. But I have just put myself through a mental test, and the answer cheered me greatly: Would I be happy if my daughter (if I had one) married a boy from the nearby housing estate? And my first answer was, "Depends on the boy."

I once dated a man who came from a Canadian housing estate; now he's fluent in three languages and hold a Chair in Political Science.


bolyongok said...

I had no idea that there was so much contention about class still... I suppose my parents did a pretty good job bringing me up more or less egalitarian...
Of course I had their good example. My dad was the first person in his family to go to college and grew up on what was locally known as 'Murder Row'. He's been in the Civil Service for more than twenty years now and is one of two people in his high school graduating class currently alive and not in prison.
My mom went to college because it was expected of her and dropped out of grad-school to marry my dad, who had just taken five years to complete a four year engineering course.
None of their parents approved for a while and the resulting friction probably was a strain on the early part of their marriage. Then I and my brother were born and things got better.
Having gone to college, I'd like a college-educated husband, but failing that, I'd like one who solves things creatively and can do maths because I have a great fear and respect for lots of long numbers. Someone who can tame those is pretty much like a liontamer in terms of exoticness and appeal. ;) And if they find my whimsical, English-major way appealing, awesome!
As long as they're Catholic, pretty much everything else is negotiable.

bolyongok said...

Forgot- there was something I wanted to mention on a previous post but hadn't.
In the movie, The Young Victoria, Victoria's aunt makes the very wise comment that runs something like: if a rich woman marries a poor man, he has to work twice as hard as any other man. It's something like that anyway, the point being that if a better-off woman marries a worse-off man, he's got to feel that he is bringing something valuable to the table and may indeed have to work twice as hard for people to notice or for himself to be able to see that his contribution is valuable too.

Seraphic said...

Victoria was young in the 1830s, however. Hopefully we have moved on a little bit, and that women have figured out who to make their husbands feel like they bring more to the table than their paycheque. I think it is absolutely crucial to the self-esteem of both men that they work outside the home but...

It would be great, absolutely fabulous, if every single man in the world automatically made more than any woman who fell in love with him, and that there were slightly-richer than, or paid-exactly-the-same, men for every woman. But this is not true, and it is especially not true for 36 year old Single women making 80K a year or more.

Therefore women who make a ton of money have to understand that this is actually unusual for most people in the world, and men who marry women who makes more than them should remember that, too.

Love is not a competition. Once marriage becomes a competition, love is over.

theobromophile said...

I know this sounds really bizarre, but bear with me: you are actually sufficiently attuned to the distinctions between classes so that you don't run into the problem that other people do, i.e. confusing upper-middle class with rich. I also suspect that you, Seraphic, could be handed ten million pounds and would continue living your life exactly as you live it now, with perhaps a small pressie for your Inner Child.

It's people who think differently who end up with all sorts of problems in their marriages.

But I have just put myself through a mental test, and the answer cheered me greatly: Would I be happy if my daughter (if I had one) married a boy from the nearby housing estate? And my first answer was, "Depends on the boy."

Grew up in? or currently living in? I confess: I wouldn't care much about the former, but would be squeamish about the latter.

Maggie said...

Dearest Auntie,
Most of my friends can be pretty easily classified into one of two categories: “Serious Catholics/Traditional Christians” and “Secular/Irreligious but Otherwise Lovely Folks.” I’m sure this is common for many people. No matter which group I am seeing, I try very hard to make sure my behavior/decorum/language/etc is the same with both, though I know I falter at this. Because I am of an age (25) where I am seeking/praying/exasperated for a spouse, I’m not interested in the “silly/casual dating” undertaken by so many of my secular friends. But there is a severe dearth of eligible men (ie not seminarians/discerners, not already engaged/married, not SSA) in my Catholic friend group.

Meanwhile, my secular friends, both male and female, seem full of suggestions for guys they think I might like. Thus my conundrum: gentlemen suggested/met through my secular friends are seldom what I would deign “husband material.” They might be fun, witty, charming, handsome, intelligent, and successful on paper, but without the all-important cornerstone of common faith I cannot seriously imagine myself marrying such a person. I know, I know, St. Monica married a pagan and the marriage eventually produced St. Augustine. But if God wants me to be married, I dream of a spouse equally or more strong in his faith than I; a spiritually strong leader of our household on whom I can depend to help me get to heaven and remain accountable (and vice versa). So while “flirt to convert” might work for some ladies it’s not a path I’d choose for myself. I’ve been in relationships where I was the more spiritually mature of the couple and it was not something I’d ever want to do again.

At the same time, though, I’ve yet to meet a young Catholic man with whom I share common faith, interests, and the all-important “spark,” and it’s not for lack of trying! I work at a parish, so I’m there all the time, but I’m also involved in all kinds of young adult events in the broader diocese and through alumni events and try to meet different people when I go new places, but thus far this searching hasn’t yielded any fruit. I know my job is to pray and be patient, but sometimes I don’t wonder if I shouldn’t just go out with one of the non-Catholics (or not-serious Catholics) my secular friends suggest. I work in religious education so I see the conflicts that “mixed” marriages produce, especially when it comes to raising children, so I’m loathe to even consider dating a non-serious-Catholic, but I feel like I’m out of options otherwise. Am I overthinking this?

(on an unrelated note, I recently saw a movie called TiMER. It’s about digital matchmaking and very funny; I’d be interested in your take on it. It’s streaming on Netflix for those of us in the US, but I’m not sure about Scotland)

Seraphic said...

1. St. Monica had no choice. It was not a love match. Patricius had a nasty temper, was unfaithful and probably beat her. She advised other wives on how to avoid beatings from their husbands. St. Monica is a model of how to make the best of a very bad situation, but I wouldn't EVER hold up the Monica-Patricius marriage as some sort of lesson of how to be married.

2. Don't date non-Catholics, Maggie. You're only 25 years old. For heaven's sake! If you must "date" second-best type men, "date" men from other strict religious traditions, not secular humanists. (Watch out, though, that they don't have a "Catholic girls are for practise" mentality. Why on earth would you deliberately put yourself in a situation where men expect no-strings sex on the third date?

3. I mention the horrors of dating atheists in my book. We start off thinking "Oh, St. Monica turned her atheist husband around" and we end up demoralized and crying.

4. You are valuable. You are a 25 year old unmarried Catholic woman and therefore you are a precious jewel to be won by a good Catholic husband and not to be squandered for the entertainment of Mr Wrong.

I will answer your question in my next post.