Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: Has love become a luxury item?

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Are romantic relationships harder when money's tight and job security's gone AWOL? Are tough times forcing marriage into the sole domain of the wealthy?

Has love and marriage become a luxury rather than a necessity? Photo / Thinkstock
Has love and marriage become a luxury rather than a necessity? Photo / Thinkstock

That's the implication of a new paper titled Intimate Inequalities: Love and Work in a Post-Industrial Landscape by sociologist Sarah Corse from the University of Virginia. Corse writes:

"Working-class people with insecure work and few resources, little stability, and no ability to plan for a foreseeable future become concerned with their own survival and often become unable to imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others. Insecure work changes peoples' non-work lives."

The study, which analysed more than 300 working and middle-class people of diverse ethnicities and ages across the U.S., found that the steady decline of stable jobs for people without degrees has had a significant effect on working-class Americans, who are now less likely to marry, and stay married, than people with university degrees.

The educated middle-class workers they surveyed were less impacted by a shaky economy, and therefore had more in the emotional bank, so to speak, to spend on their romantic relationships.

They also had more in the actual bank, so were more confident about their ability to provide for a future family - which made them more enthusiastic about marriage in the first place.

Participants living in an insecure environment worried about the financial and material implications of marriage and child-rearing. Furthermore, noted researchers, the prospect of the emotional and psychological obligations of marriage felt daunting in the face of their ongoing, energy-draining struggle to make ends meet.

The result, as Corse puts it: "Marriage is becoming a distinctive social institution marking middle-class status".

But hasn't life always been tougher for the working class? Absolutely, but - as the study's co-author Jennifer Silva explains - marriage up until recently was a social and economic and imperative; as was staying married. Women especially were reliant on its structure for their - and their children's - survival. So people got and remained married as a matter of course.

Modern marriage, on the other hand, has shifted to become a choice, rather than an essentiality. Its makeup is "purer", in the sense that it's now viewed through the lens of intimacy and emotional fulfillment. But intimacy and emotional fulfillment require upkeep, and upkeep is pricey: date nights, for instance, or enough money to avoid financial stress, which can rupture the hardiest of partnerships in a heartbeat.

Understandably, it goes against romantic ideals to correlate love and money so blatantly. My love don't cost a thing, like Jennifer Lopez says. Just go for a nice walk on the beach together, etcetera. But that takes time, and when money's tight so then is time. Add a lack of resources and depleted energy and you have immense strain - both on young people weighing up the decision to wed, and those already married. The result? Marriage starts to feel like a risky and expensive venture for the former, and impossibly hard to maintain for the latter.

The rich, on the other hand, can afford the tools that help partnerships thrive: Marriage counselors, gym memberships for a clear head, a babysitter, dinners and a film, a physically comfortable space in which to conduct the marriage, enough sleep, holidays to reconnect and create memories, private medical specialists, an extra bathroom for privacy, healthy food for general wellbeing, a healthy social life, minimal aggravation over disparities in spending habits - the list goes on.

Taking it back a step, finding a partner to marry in the first place generally requires socialising and dating, both of which cost money and energy. And if you're working three jobs to pay the rent and eat, you probably don't have much of either. "Our interviewees without college degrees expressed feelings of distrust and even fear about intimate relationships, and had difficulty imagining being able to provide for others," the study explains.

Of course, the glaring argument here is that plenty of obscenely rich couples have miserable marriages, and plenty of working class marriages are the picture of solidarity. That might be true, and it goes without saying the rich don't have the upper hand in terms of their emotional capacity for marriage, but it's also a privileged, romanticised view of real life. The fact is, as writer Gerald Brenan once put it, "Those who have some means think that the most important thing is love. The poor know that it is money."

In any case, there's no denying the shifting mores of marriage towards a model of emotional fulfillment - combined with the psychological stress of a precarious labour market - has created a socio-economic dynamic that's unique to our times. What this ultimately means for the personal lives of everyday workers, degreed or otherwise, is only just beginning to unravel.

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