published Sunday, October 27th, 2013

Baumgardner: Dealing with ‘hidden beliefs’ of social class

By Julie Baumgardner

When two people fall in love, they will often tell you that love will help them overcome any obstacle. Those who have been married for more than a week know that it takes more than love to make a marriage last.

Dr. Ruby Payne, educator and author of “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” experienced this firsthand when she married Frank.

Ruby met Frank at college. Neither of them had any clue that the environment in which they were raised would have a significant impact on their marriage. She came from a middle-class home; he was raised in extreme poverty. Her family owned their home; Frank’s family would never have considered that. Her family saw money as something to be managed; Frank’s family viewed money as something to be used and spent.

In Frank’s family, the driving forces were survival, relationships and entertainment. Ruby’s family valued work and achievement.

It is often these hidden rules among classes that throw couples a curveball.

The difference in the way Frank’s family viewed and approached life compared to her own family intrigued Payne. She began researching these hidden rules and has devoted her life’s work to helping people understand how they impact life.

An unexpected consequence of her lectures across the country came in the number of people who told her that, if they’d had they had this information years earlier, it could have saved their marriage. This led to Payne’s most recent book, “Crossing the Tracks for Love,” which explores the hidden rules of class as they show up in relationships.

“Whether you’re from old money, some money or no money, the ‘hidden rules’ of your class follow you everywhere,” says Payne. “When people from different classes marry, it impacts everything about their relationship, from how money is managed, getting along with in-laws and employment to how you raise your children.”

Payne describes the hidden rules as representing mindsets, beliefs and behaviors that people live by within each class but never articulate. When classes intermarry, there is a collision between two very different perspectives of how the world operates.

For example, after the Paynes were married for a year, Ruby wanted to buy a house; Frank had been taught that, if you buy a house, you will go in debt and the bank will own you. They argued for a year about buying a home. Eventually, they purchased one home, but his mother told neighbors that Frank and Ruby were going to lose the house. A year later, they sold their home for 60 percent more than they paid for it. Frank’s family was amazed.

So what does it take to be married to someone who comes from a different class background?

“Negotiation and knowledge of the hidden rules is important,” says Payne. “Mutual respect is critical. There must be an equal exchange. Both people need to be able to give to the relationship and feel that their contribution is valued. Commitment is important, along with understanding and acceptance.”

Whether you come from poverty and marry wealth or you come from middle class and you marry poverty, understanding the hidden rules of class can be liberating and foundational to the success of your marriage. “Crossing the Tracks for Love” gives people a roadmap for navigating marriage when you and your spouse grew up in different worlds.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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