The holidays are supposed to be a time of warmth, joy, and pulling family closer. But, as so many of us know, the reality is often far messier. For those of us dating partners who come from a more privileged class background, the holidays can be awkward and even demoralizing.
The good news is that none of us want the holidays to be an alienating buzzkill or a (re)traumatizing culture shock for our partner(s).
With a healthy dose of humility, a touch of humor, and a lot of self-reflection and communication, you, too, can survive the holidays with your cross-class partner and hopefully even deepen your connection in the process!
Check out the following ways to facilitate understanding, goodwill, and self-care as you gather ‘round a crackling fire with cocoa (or find yourself hiding in a guest room watching Roseanne on your phone).
1. Take accountability for the power imbalances and points of underdeveloped awareness in your relationship.
I’m a white, cisgender, working-class queer femme woman dating a white, non-binary queer person from a wealthy background.
Given that wealth functions as a basic marker of stratification in a capitalist society, it has been challenging at times to navigate this in our relationship.
While class isn’t the end-all-be-all of privilege — as a cis person, I’m not constantly misgendered like my partner is, and as white people, neither of us are targeted by institutionalized racism — it is still a defining power imbalance in our relationship that we have to consciously work at.
For example, the differences in our class backgrounds have given us wildly disparate perceptions about what an average upbringing looks like. One time during a cuddly Netflix-a-thon I commented to my partner about how annoying and unrealistic it is that movies are almost always about (white, straight, cis) rich people living in McMansions.
While this was an obvious observation for me as someone who grew up in condos and duplexes and small homes, it made my partner stop and reflect on their class privilege, since they’d never had to think twice about the fact that the type of neighborhood they grew up in isn’t exactly representative of the lives of the vast majority of Americans.
If you have more access to wealth and economic resources than your partner, it’s imperative to truly listen to their experiences with economic oppression and, just as importantly, take ownership of your privilege rather than getting defensive.
What might you have never been aware of with respect to what it must be like to be poor or working-class? What issues are you only now becoming aware of?
Take time to do some learning (independently of your partner) on classism and structural economic inequality to broaden your understanding of how your access to wealth has shaped your worldview and impacts your romantic relationship.
2. Strive for mindfulness exercises and moments of self-care.
When I visited my partner’s parents’ house in New York for the first time, I had to seriously psychologically prepare myself. I let my partner know that I’d be feeling more easily overwhelmed and emotionally raw at getting a taste of the wealth my family of origin will never have.
Upon arriving at the house, I put in some extra emotional labor for my partner around how it felt to hear their family talk about renovating their million-dollar home while thinking about the decades my electrician father has spent wiring lavish houses his family would never be able to live in.
Emotional labor, of course, can quickly become exhausting and tokenizing. It’s frankly tough to be someone else’s learning curve.
It is crucial for those of us from poor and working-class backgrounds to practice self-care and to figure out how to do so in situations, like the holidays, where we might have less privacy or alone time to decompress.
This is where my witchiness kicks in! I suggest bringing calming and comforting essential oils with you like lavender or vanilla, and dab some on your temples, collarbone, and forehead when you feel yourself getting stressed.
Take a couple of minutes to connect back to your body, to breathe deeply into the aromatherapy and ground yourself, exhaling all the negative energy your body has absorbed.
Visualization can be extra effective in the shower. Feel the hot water raining down on you and envision it as healing white or green light that purifies and restores you while exhaling out the negative energy, allowing it to flow down the drain.
Imagine all the mental and emotional energy you’ve expended that day returning home to your body, no longer entangled in the day’s various social dramas, emotional responses, and obsessive thought patterns. As you fall asleep, listen to a meditation app or calming music with your headphones plugged into your phone.
And, if this feels at all good for you, do something a therapist once suggested to me and try to use any wealthy amenities and luxuries to your advantage. If you’re going to be stuck in a bathroom that looks like an upscale spa, you might as well take a decadent bath, no?
If someone is buying everyone food, no need to be the only person who doesn’t order dessert. Overall, be gentle with yourself and your emotions in these situations.
3. Act as a supportive buffer and check in with your partner.
Let’s say you’re enjoying a festive holiday dinner with family and your wealthy Aunt Millie makes a casually disparaging remark about “people on welfare” in front of your partner.
You — as the person in your relationship with more economic resources — cringe in horror as your partner, who you know grew up on food stamps, struggles to act like nothing’s wrong and make it through the evening socializing with your family, adhering to whatever cultural etiquette and social cues your family is accustomed to, and acting happy and at ease while being upset and uncomfortable. What to do?
Challenge Aunt Millie’s comment, dear reader!
If you haven’t been impacted by the stigma of being labeled a “lazy” poor person while simultaneously being exploited by the cycle of poverty, it’s your job to use your own reserve of emotional labor to educate your wealthy loved ones about these issues in situationally appropriate ways.
Just make sure you don’t put the focus back on your micro-aggressed partner or expect your partner to serve as your family’s teachable moment.
A general rule of thumb is to always check in with your partner about ways you can best support them, whether they want to debrief with you about a relative’s insensitive comment or whether they need space.
They need to know that you’re a safe person who is aware of and cares about the impact of your class privilege on their emotional well-being.
To use a more well-intentioned example, did your dad just treat you and your partner to a costly holiday meal at an expensive restaurant where the tab costs more than your partner can afford to spend on groceries for weeks?
Checking in with your partner through non-verbal cues in the moment can be a great support, whether it’s making meaningful eye contact when your dad isn’t looking or squeezing your partner’s hand under the table in a show of solidarity.
4. Check in with friends who “get it.”
The more friends you have from poor and working-class backgrounds to check in with during the holidays, the better.
When you find your people who “get it,” ask them if you can check in with them, whether it’s to text them a photo of your horrified face after a super triggering class-related conversation or for them to text you a well-timed gif of the Monopoly guy and his bougie top hat.
Having supports outside the privileged bubble you’re currently in will help ground you and remind you that you’re real, your background is real, and more people’s economic lives align with yours than the top 20 or 10 or 1% of America. Plus, it might help you smile or maybe even laugh about the absurdities of wealthy living.
5. Practice wealth redistribution.
Do you have economic resources that you never worked for but which were bestowed on you by your family (i.e. intergenerational wealth)? Or did you work for what you have, but you have far more than you comfortably need to live and thrive? Spread your wealth as part of a radical commitment to working for a more economically just future for all.
“Redistribution of wealth is vital to social justice work,” writes Jamie Utt for Everyday Feminism. “It challenges the very system of intergenerational privilege upon which everything in capitalism is built.”
Check out organizations like Resource Generation, which is a place for wealthy young people from 18-35 to come together, build community, and strategize around how to re-invest their resources in ways that uplift communities that have been deprived of access to wealth.
6. Work on owning your trauma.
It is so important that those of us who grew up poor and working-class are able to uncover and name our pain, to experience both our rage and grief — at the system, at toxic or traumatizing events and environments we may have experienced growing up — without burying it or judging or shaming ourselves, and to commit to investing in our own healing.
Healing yourself is not a betrayal of your family.
Visit a therapist who can be supportive of your experiences under capitalism and class-based oppression, or keep a journal where you’re able to explore what you’re feeling and how your body is holding that pain.
Is your stomach in knots? Are your shoulders tense? Is your heart racing? Hone in on how your trauma around money and safety and resources is calling out to you. Write that down, sit with it, and begin the long but oh-so-needed process of transforming it.
You may also be feeling anxious about your wealthy partner visiting your family’s home over the holidays.
You may have internalized the idea that you should feel ashamed about the size of your family’s home, whether they rent or own, the shape their home is in, the vehicles they drive or don’t drive, their budget for gift-giving and feasting, and any other number of factors, especially if you’ve already seen how your partner’s family members live.
Vocalizing these fears to your partner is important as they may not have been aware that you felt this way. A supportive partner will step back in compassion and do the work to make you and your family feel respected and “enough.”
Remember that snapping at your partner over cookies and eggnog or latkes and applesauce because of unprocessed and unresolved anger and resentment doesn’t necessarily help you or your relationship.
You are worthy of healing and you deserve so much more than what you may have been given in this life so far.
At their core, cross-class relationships force us to confront who is bestowed with power from birth, who has access to resources to thrive, and the undeniable grief that comes from having to be face-to-face with class-based reminders of how our lives and the lives of our families of origin could be so much easier.
As Alaina Leary of EF writes, “The secret is that historically low-income people … will probably never feel like we’re financially secure.”
Poor and working-class people grow up with economic scarcity drilled deep into our consciousness and our bones in a way that people who were raised wealthy will just never be able to wholly understand.
But if you’re partnered to someone who comes from a less economically privileged background than you, it’s your job to do what you can to educate yourself and show up for your partner in ways big and small.
It’s about more than feeling weird about your trust fund: it’s about the deep injustice of a society that continues to step on the backs of hundreds of millions of hard-working people while simultaneously rewarding those who happened to be born into wealth.
So let’s be kinder and more patient with one another, both as we move through this holiday season and this dance called love.
Shannon Weber, Ph.D. is a Content Writer at The Body Is Not An Apology, a working-class queer femme witch, and proud puppy parent. Her work has appeared in Bitch Media, Teen Vogue, Alternet, and more. She is also a former gender studies professor and published scholar. Say hi on Twitter: @ShannonWeberPhD