by Liz Sullivan
When I first started dating my husband, I didn’t know he was wealthy. We were in college and he had a job, a regular apartment, bought two-buck chuck for date night, and parties always included two large pizzas for $20. It all seemed pretty standard.
Eventually, the clues started to add up. His family had multiple homes. They went on ski vacations to Canada for the holidays. Twice a year, they had a weekend of “family meetings” with a coach where they talked about tax structure and estate planning. I didn’t attend these meetings for the first few years of our relationship; now, I understand that they were protecting information about assets and investments, but at the time, it seemed strange, confusing, and exclusive. Eventually, Alex mentioned that his dad’s company went public when Alex was in high school, and his family had started a new foundation. I don’t even think I knew what a foundation was at the time.
The first time I felt our class difference acutely was when we decided to try to plan a trip to Ireland with his family. I was invited along, but when I saw the plane tickets were $1300, I explained that I just didn’t have the money to make that happen. After much discussion, his parents offered to pay for my plane ticket. I was thankful and overwhelmed and excited about visiting a new country. I also felt guilty as fuck. It somehow felt like a betrayal of my family to accept such a gift, since they would have given it to me if they could have.
Growing up, there were some instances of “no that’s too expensive,” but there were many more of “sure, we can do that.” I had an allowance, my dad turned over his 1987 Mustang when I turned sixteen, I didn’t have to work in college, and I graduated with relatively minimal debt. Our family was solidly, and as far as I remember, happily, middle class. And while I knew there were people that had more than us, and people that had less, the concept of class was outside my realm of thinking.
As my relationship with Alex got more serious, I was invited to attend parts of the family meetings, and eventually the full weekend. I joined them for ski vacations (where I sat in the lodge and read because skiing is just not my thing). I got more interested and involved in philanthropic and socially responsible investing work.
But despite having a grand old time, we butted up against class issues in awkward and weird ways. We had different ideas of what was “expensive.” Visiting with his family often included an international flight and a weeklong vacation, whereas visiting mine meant visiting suburbia for the weekend and playing cards. With his parent’s help, we eventually bought a house in San Francisco. I should say, he bought a house because I couldn’t significantly contribute enough to be included on the paperwork. I simultaneously wanted to celebrate and throw up. I still have trouble verbalizing most of the time that we own our home.
On top of feeling out of my element, it felt ridiculous and insensitive to be complaining about vacations and buying a house and not having to watch my cash flow like a hawk. I felt pressure to feel grateful and excited, instead of uncomfortable and undeserving. I had no framing for how to think about class or class differences. When I tried to talk about feeling like I was straddling two worlds, people looked at me like I was insane.
It’s important for me to state that neither my husband nor his family had a particular set of expectations around what it meant to be wealthy. Because it happened suddenly and later in life, his parents immediately knew they wanted to proactively and consciously handle being wealthy. Yes, they had multiple homes, but they were also very socially conscious, and for lack of a better word, down to earth. In terms of family and personal dynamics, I didn’t feel different hanging out with them than I did hanging out with my own family.
Most of the tension stemmed from the expectations and internalized feelings I had about what it meant to be wealthy. And I felt (and continue to feel) conflicted about enjoying luxuries that weren’t available to my family and friends. I also started to realize that my class privilege, while expanded by my relationship with Alex, wasn’t new. I had grown up with a ton of privilege and opportunities that I hadn’t recognized. Which also meant I had been living in a bubble where I didn’t realize how that privilege was influencing my way of being in the world.
Eventually, I found an organization that organizes young people with wealth towards creating a more socially, racially, and economically just world. I found a community of people facing the question: what does it mean to be wealthy in a world with such huge economic disparities? How do we act responsibly? Is it okay to enjoy nice vacations and owning a home? Should I give it all away? Ultimately, we face the question: how much is enough? And it’s fascinating to see how that changed for me as I had access to more.
Getting married brought up a whole new set of issues around budgeting and expectations, and brought our families squarely into the conversation around class. It isn’t just Alex and me in a cross-class relationship; our families are too, and they were having to face it. I shed a lot of tears before realizing that I’d been actively working on my relationship to class and wealth for two years and was only scratching the surface—so how could I expect anyone else to automatically get it?
After the wedding (which was joyous and wonderful and lovely in all the right ways), and our honeymoon, I found myself facing the reality that now I wasn’t just a partner to a young person with wealth. I was legally bound to one—with a prenup that put me on the deed of the house. And the reality that in his thirties, Alex will have access to a trust that we will have to decide how to administer. Not to mention the fact that Alex, as a tech sector employee, is a wealth earner himself. And while he has always been of the mind that his money is our money, I have been more resistant to accept the new responsibility of being a young person with wealth. But marrying him pretty much sealed the deal.
My relationship with Alex blew my relationship with class, wealth, and privilege out of the water. I’m so thankful for it, and it’s also overwhelming and messy and sometimes exhausting. Once I started digging into my class privilege, my eyes were opened to my white privilege. I started exploring my feminism more deeply and intentionally. This new lens has made me literally question my life’s purpose, and the decisions I make every day.
So many people say, “marry rich,” like it’s all gold plated hummingbirds and rainbows. Like it will solve all your problems. Instead, I found that marrying rich brought up a lot more shit than it solved. It’s made me more acutely aware of the privilege I’ve held my whole life and has made me commit my life to fighting for justice in a way that I never would have otherwise.
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