The holidays are emotionally challenging for many reasons, but they take on a unique toll on working-class folks who end up in relationships with a partner who comes from a middle or upper-class background. As someone who grew up relatively poor with a single-mom who is currently under-employed, I have a complicated relationship to Christmas, but that became all the more complicated when I began dating someone whose family had a considerable amount more money than I grew up with. The first time I went to his house for Christmas, I felt short of breath at the site of the massive amount of perfectly-wrapped presents beneath the tree, gifts large and small that, when put together, likely added up to nearly a year of my mom’s income. Certainly it accumulated to the cost of her trailer.
As we opened gifts, I held back tears and feigned excitement over what, at the time, felt like insulting opulence. I cried myself to sleep that night, feeling bitter, angry, and resentful toward my partner. Their holiday became a symbol for everything that was wrong with capitalism, and for everything that ever went wrong in my mom’s and my life. Christmas was a minefield of class triggers, and that first year, I found them impossible to avoid. To be honest, the entire first holiday home with my partner was pretty miserable.
That was four years ago now, and I’ve done a lot of work to find ways to manage my emotions when being with my partner’s family during the holidays. But perhaps more importantly, my partner and his family have done work too.
Here are some ways that we’ve managed to survive the holidays as a cross-class couple:
Own Your Shit
I cling to my identity as a working-class person for a lot of reasons, most importantly because no matter how much I “class-transition,” I’m still a person who knows what it’s like to experience societal shame for using food stamps, who knows what a house feels like when the utility bills haven’t been paid, and who will never have the luxury of a parental safety net. Poorness lives in us, even if we get college degrees and decent pay checks. But I had to do a lot of reflecting on what it meant to hold onto that identity as a place of victimhood. Of course my mom, like all poor and working-class people, are victims of capitalism, (and as an activist, I work to challenge wealth disparities in our nation), but what good was it serving me to act personally victimized by individual rich or wealthy people? I had to stop projecting the system of unjust economics onto the people around me, especially the people around me I loved.
Years of therapy and yoga finally got me to see that holding steadfastly to working-class victim did no good for me, the people around me, or the broader society. Instead, I was able to own my shit and move forward, not as a victim, but as a working-class survivor. This makes my days easier, makes it easier to do activist work I care about, and has definitely made the holidays easier. Now if I start to feel overwhelmed with rage, I can breathe and remember that my partner and his family are kind and generous people who have benefited from wealth, but are not the oppressive hands of it.
That was the shit I had to own, you probably have some too. If you can’t afford therapy, try tarot. Watch some free youtube yoga videos. Breathe, reflect, journal, contemplate. Work it out.
Make Your Partner Own Their Shit
If you are in a relationship, there are almost inevitably going to be power dynamics. Whether it’s about race, class, gender, ability, or any other identity-quality that can be privileged or oppressed, you can’t build a life with someone if you do not address what each of you benefits from and with what each of you struggles uniquely.
If you are in a mixed-class relationship, your partner needs to be able to acknowledge that their experience growing up with more money than you means they have an immense amount of privilege that you do not. For example, people who grow up poor are more likely to experience trauma; people who grow up poor have increased risk of mental health issues like low-level anxiety (that no safety net thing doesn’t help us feel safe, ya know?); people who grow up poor have, in general, had to struggle harder to get educated, get jobs, get housing, and so on. If your partner can’t name that, make them read some articles.
This isn’t meant to make your partner feel guilty. As I mentioned, owning your shit can help you re-frame this from, “You are rich and therefore you are bad” to, “We have substantially different experiences, many of which means you had an easier time in life, and I’d like you to be able to recognize that because my background might show up in our relationship sometimes, and it’s important that you have some context.”
So, get your partner to therapy, yoga, or any other things that their middle/upper-class finances will allow.
More Radical Reads: How Gentrification Shrank My Self Confidence
Talk About Gift-Giving Expectations
This one was huge for us. As I mentioned, the sight of excessive amounts of presents under a tree can be really difficult for someone who is used to much smaller gift exchanges (if any) and if those presents are revealed to be expensive items, it’s not uncommon for poor folks to start doing some math in our heads. (“If everyone got apple TVs, and everyone got a Kate Spade bag, and everyone got….that would mean….at least 6 months rent.”)
Although it is not a middle/upper-class families job to change their behavior to accommodate you, it is worth having a discussion about what it means to display wealth in particular ways. In my case, my partner chose to talk to his family about scaling down–not just for me, but for everyone. The high-price Christmas’s weren’t benefiting anyone, especially as people in his family were planning for weddings, and house-buying. Thankfully, his family agreed it was a good idea to be a bit more modest with presents. The Christmas’s are still bigger and more lavish than I grew up with, but the number of gifts under the trees are no longer so exorbitant to send me into hives.
More Radical Reads: Over the Word Ally: 9 Ways Solidarity Is An Act of Radical Self Love
Boundaries are a wonderful tool always, but especially at the holidays.
Is your partner’s family expecting you to go out to bars every night, but the thought of spending that much money leaves you stressing? You can say no! Stay in while they go out. It wouldn’t hurt to have some alone time, I’m sure.
Is your partner’s family talking about all the vacations they went on, or the new remodel in the home that cost $10k, or the cost of a pair of shoes that could pay your student loan? Kindly excuse yourself from the conversation. No need to subject yourself to that which feels painful.
The possible scenarios in which you might have to set boundaries are endless, so make sure you have them at the ready.
If after all this work on your part, your partner’s part, and the family, you are still having trouble being in this space, set some boundaries for alone time and practice some self-care. Maybe you can go for a cold weather run around their neighborhood (let’s be real, they probably have sidewalks). Maybe just go in the guest bedroom (yeah they surely have that too) and read a book. Maybe bring your tarot deck and ask some grounding questions. Find something that slows your heart rate and let’s you catch your breath and remember that you are a valuable person who deserves better than capitalism gave you, but that also you are stronger than what tries to get you down. Remind yourself that your partner loves you, remind yourself that you’re safe.
[Featured Image: A photo of a tree with bare branches with colorful wrapped gift boxes hanging from the limbs. Source: Timmy_L]