November 23, 2016
All marriages, we hear, have power struggles. In my life, my relationship struggles have resolved more often over status.
Historically, people sought to gain higher status through their marriages. For some people, marrying someone of lower status feels like a loss, and they subtly withdraw. When status within a marriage changes — let’s say the lower earner gets a promotion with a higher salary — both partners are often aware of subtle effects.
I attended Yale, so I have Ivy League status. My partner for a decade had dropped out of junior college. I was okay with that consciously — he was a fascinating storyteller and insightful. As a writer, I envied his way with words, which impressed all my highly educated friends. But when I found him ignorant, I would sometimes feel a pit in my stomach. I didn’t feel superior, I felt frightened: “What am I doing with someone so ignorant?” I’d think. “This isn’t safe.”
Fear may seem an odd response. I learned later that we’re wired to feel a loss of status as a threat. The idea of sharing my life with someone who didn’t have my edge of knowledge and status became anxiety-provoking. Intellectual authority became a rough area between us. He liked the Christmas story, although he wasn’t religious. When I mentioned that the gospels of the New Testament contain different versions of the Christmas tale, he was shocked. He insisted that there weren’t five versions. I pulled out a Bible and showed him. This only made matters much worse.
I had another boyfriend who was significantly less well-educated than I am. I also had better finances. One day I beat him at ping-pong and crowed about it. When he eventually broke up with me, his parting words were, “Someday I’ll beat you at ping-pong!” I’d already forgotten about the game by then — but not he, because he’d lost.
I thought the solution would be to find someone who had high self-esteem about his intelligence. I met someone who was lovable but arrogant; I didn’t say anything for a while. But when he patronized me over some lapse on my part, I got sharp. He thought he was a “genius” because he had been the top of his computer science program at Cornell one year. I said, “Geniuses are rare. Someone was top at M.I.T and Berkeley that year and someone else was top at Cornell the next year. Are you all geniuses?” At one point we took an IQ test together and achieved the exact same score. I thought that would mend the problem. He broke up with me.
You might think that happy couples don’t fight or only have resolvable issues. According to couple counsellor and researcher John Gottman, all couples fight about conflicts that won’t go away. But the happy couples interject humor or affection, recognizing their differences at times without anger. In unhappy couples, we see criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
How might status fit in? People who become defensive may be protecting themselves against a threat to their status; people who stonewall may be asserting their greater status by indicating that the other person’s concerns aren’t important. Criticism and contempt may be attempts to get the buzz of higher status at your partner’s expense or restore a sense of status after feeling a threat. I’ll confess to my share of doing that.
If you can keep your ratio of positive to negative interactions to at least five to one, marriages last, he says. One reason may be that positive interactions soothe status fears and provide status boosters.
Also, couples might think twice about ignoring status issues when they make big decisions. Some people are more aware of their sensitivity to status than others — and we all need to respect that difference. How expensive a house do you need and where? Real estate agents used to say: “Buy the worst house in the best neighborhood.” Actually, that often doesn’t work as an investment. The day-to-day drag of hearing neighbors describe vacations she can’t afford might hurt a wife home with kids. You may choose to live in a bigger house in a less expensive neighborhood.
Maybe you prefer to let your child be the big fish in a less-competitive pond. High-achieving students are less confident in demanding schools than the same students would be in schools where they stood out. Weigh whether more competition will be stimulating for your child, or create too much anxiety. As a couple, you may disagree — but it helps to be accepting and realistic that status concerns have an effect.