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Dating Advice #144 - The Great Social Divide

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Her family is impoverished; his is upper-crust. Can they survive the battle of the in-laws?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

Your column continues to amaze me and I enjoy opening my homepage to look for your insights every time!

Now it's my turn to write.

Almost four years ago I began dating my fiancee, "Lisa." Our relationship continued normally, but as I got to know her family, many of their attitudes and ways of raising children began to sound alarms for me. Her family is in a very bad economic situation since about three years ago, and this has caused them to be involved in a legal mess, too.

Their other children (not including Lisa) have bad manners, are poor students, and often get into trouble (or barely manage to escape it). The family seems largely unconcerned with education, professional success, and social etiquette.

While I have always been welcome in Lisa's house, she is seen by my family as someone who is "not worthy of their son."

I try to evaluate Lisa as an individual and not necessarily "one of them," to find merit in her actions, and to avoid falling into the trap of judging her by others. Her personal qualities -- humility, kindness, concern for others, good heart and reverence -- are the things most important to me. Even though I'm aware of what my parents are warning me about, I'm confident they can be talked out with my future life partner.

So we decided to get married, and when our two families met, my family (as I was expecting) did not find their family acceptable. My parents will have to pay for the entire wedding, since their family hardly has enough money to live each day. My parents argue (with reason) that Lisa's parents are irresponsible for not doing more to help their own daughter, plus her parents act as if they're entitled to an opinion on how the wedding should be.

I am now feeling the need to reevaluate our wedding plans, due to the constant -- and invariably stronger -- concern from my parents. I am aware that sometimes when making decisions one shouldn't evaluate them every second of the way, but on the other hand, wise people have been known to change their minds.

I know that my feelings for Lisa may be getting in the way of my clear view. I believe we could build a beautiful home and family together, but at the same time I may be a bit idealistic and sometimes that can be a rude awakening!

Please share your wisdom on how I should proceed.


Dear Alan,

The period of engagement is often very difficult. In addition to the pressure of wedding plans and setting up an apartment, most engaged couples face difficulties integrating the expectations and differences between their two families. Even people who come from the same cultural background and same economic class have to integrate the different ways their families have dealt with different attitudes about earning, spending and saving money, educational and career expectations, attitudes to child raising, sharing household responsibilities, involvement in the community, whether you can expect financial help from parents, and what kind of financial help you will give your own children when they are older.

Your own situation is compounded by the fact that you and Lisa come from different social classes. Many couples successfully balance their cultural differences by teaching each other about their respective cultures, respecting each other's customs and ideas, and choosing which practices and attitudes they would like to incorporate into their homes. Of course, all these adjustments have to be fine-tuned as time goes on.

Class differences can be the biggest challenge for a young couple. This does not mean that two people coming from different classes will not be able to have a wonderful marriage. It means that you should be aware there will be difficulties, that they are normal, and that there are ways to deal with them. You may find it easy to agree about some of these subjects, and you may have to work hard at reconciling the areas in which you do not agree.

Also, you may find that in some areas you will never come to an agreement. That's okay. In every marriage, husbands and wives do not come to complete agreement on every subject. However, if you recognize from the outset that your wife will not always think the way you do, and if you ask her for point of view instead of expecting her to share your outlook, you will avoid a number of arguments.

(It may be helpful for you to know that in our experience, couples are often able to adjust more easily to class differences when the man is from a more educated background, such as in your situation.)

We get the impression that you and Lisa have spent a lot of time talking about what you would like to accomplish over the next several years, as individuals and as a couple, and that you have spoken about the differences in your upbringings and the type of home you would like to have together, including the way you would like to raise your children. We also suggest that you talk about the relationships each of you would like to have with your respective families.

On one hand, you have two sets of parents who love their children very much and want the best for them. On the other hand, being around either family on a regular basis will not be helpful to your growth as a couple.

Lisa's family seems like a loving, good-hearted family, and they have accepted you with open arms. We can understand that you are worried that her family's lack of manners and their casual attitude toward education may have a negative effect on your own marriage, especially on the children you and Lisa hope to have. This is a legitimate concern, since environment plays a very big role in our lives. However, if you live a distance from Lisa's family and do not see them on a day-to-day basis, this should not be a significant concern.

Similarly, we recommend that the two of you do not live near your family. Eventually, Lisa will learn, if she doesn't already suspect, that your family does not hold her in high regard, that they do not see the wonderful person she is, and are influenced by her parent's poverty and their cultural differences. We can understand that your parents resent the fact that Lisa's parents cannot afford to contribute to your wedding, and they may even feel that Lisa is marrying you for economic reasons. You should do your best to shield Lisa from these negatives.

Unfortunately, your parents' attitude is beginning to influence your own views. Many engaged people experience occasional doubts, and when someone regularly hears negative statements about the person he plans to marry, those doubts may intensify.

You can reinforce your belief that Lisa and you are right for each other by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Are many of our values similar? Do we think the other is a good person?
  • Are we moving in the same direction? Are our goals for the future compatible? (They do not have to be identical.)
  • Do we respect each other?
  • Does she have personal qualities about Lisa that I admire? Does she admire personal qualities that I have?
  • Have we developed an emotional connection? Are we able to trust each other, confide in each other, share our feelings and thoughts?
  • Have we learned to solve some of our differences in a positive way?
  • Do we feel affection and attraction?

From what you have written, it sounds like you can answer "yes" to each of these questions. If so, then you and Lisa have the foundation for a good marriage, and we encourage you to do all you can to disregard the negative statements you parents continue to make. If you have a married friend, rabbi, or other person who has seen you and Lisa, and likes the two of you as a couple, we suggest that you ask that person to "hold your hand" over the next few months before your wedding. This positive support and encouragement will help counteract any negativism you may be getting.

Although your parents' attitude has the potential to be a destructive force in your marriage, you should still maintain a good relationship -- speaking on the telephone regularly, writing or e-mailing, and occasional visits. Of course, these problems may never go away, but if you work together you can find ways to make your visits more enjoyable, by focusing on the good points in each situation. After a few years, when everyone is more comfortable with each other, you may even feel comfortable living closer to them.

It is also important that you and Lisa present a united front when dealing with both families. For example, if there is something in Lisa's family that makes you uncomfortable, she may want to discuss the subject with her family. Lisa can tell her family how much you appreciate the warm way they have welcomed you, and how you are looking forward to sharing so much in the future, and then point out what you are sensitive about and ask them to take your sensitivities into consideration.

You will have to "handle" your parents in a similar manner. Although you cannot expect their attitude toward Lisa to change overnight, you can ask them to be a bit more considerate in the way they speak about her and her family. Start by thanking them for all they are doing for you, and how you and Lisa appreciate their making a beautiful wedding. You can explain that while Lisa may not be aware that they resent her and her family, you are afraid that their negative feelings will come out eventually, and this will not be good for your marriage. You can ask them, out of love for you, not to say anything negative about Lisa or her family any more, and to try to be more accepting of your marriage. You can also express a fear that this negativity could damage your own relationship with your parents; in our experience, parents who cannot be gracious to their child's spouse often drive their child away.

The road ahead may be bumpy, but if you and Lisa believe you can build a wonderful life together, then it is well worth it. We wish you the best of success,

Rosie & Sherry


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