Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Feb 09, 2019

Protecting Me, Harming Us? Why Individuals of Lower Socioeconomic Status May Experience Lower Romantic Relationship Quality

Silhouette of a couple standing back to back with arms crossed

Economic inequality runs rampant in the United States and, if anything, is getting worse with time. Not only do individuals of lower socioeconomic backgrounds occupy disadvantaged positions in society with less access to resources, but they also face challenges in the private realm of their romantic relationships. But why do low socioeconomic status (SES) individuals generally experience lower romantic relationship quality compared to their high SES counterparts?

Lydia Emery and Eli Finkel of Northwestern University believe this may be due to the way individuals of differing social classes respond to vulnerability in their relationships. According to risk regulation theory, when individuals feel vulnerable in their intimate unions, they navigate the competing desire for closeness (where they seek connection) with the risk of rejection (where they seek self-protection). The duo hypothesized that low SES individuals may focus on the latter more so than the former, especially if they are used to needing to look out for themselves in an unpredictable and inequitable social context.

Emery and Finkel tested these ideas in a series of three studies and found that low SES individuals were more likely to report self-protection goals (e.g., focusing on the bad things that may lie ahead in their relationship) compared to high SES individuals, which in turn predicted lower satisfaction in their relationship. In addition, low SES individuals perceived certain aspects of their relationship in ways that further served these self-protection goals. Specifically, when partners reported being highly committed to their relationship, low SES individuals were less likely to accurately detect these levels and under-estimated how committed their partner was to them. Lowballing a partner’s dedication to the relationship may be one way that low SES individuals strive to guard themselves from getting hurt if the worst-case relational scenario does end up becoming a reality.

But what happens when individuals are asked to actually relive a vulnerable experience in their relationship? Emery explained that the pattern of results seem to hold. Low SES individuals who reflected on a time when they were disappointed by their partner (compared to those who reflected on job disappointment or those in a control condition) felt less willing to put themselves in a vulnerable position in their relationship, such as by asking their partner to make a decision about things that impacted them. As a result of their lower willingness to risk vulnerability, they felt lower relationship satisfaction.

Overall, lower SES individuals seem to prioritize self-protection goals in their relationships, especially when they are feeling vulnerable. “Although these goals are good for protecting lower SES individuals’ well-being in precarious contexts,” Emery explained, “they also stand in the way of having fully satisfying relationships.” When reflecting on how our own social class may shape our romantic relationships, it is important to consider how we balance the competing forces of protection and connection in ways can better enable us, our partners, and our relationships to thrive.


Written By: Rebecca Horne, PhD Student, Relationships and Well-Being Lab, University of Toronto
Talk Title: Connect or Protect? A Risk Regulation Theory Perspective on Social Class and Romantic Relationship
Symposium: How Social Class Affects Our Romantic, Friendship, and Workplace Relationships held Saturday, February 9, 2019
Speaker: Lydia Emery (Northwestern University)
Co-Author: Eli Finkel (Northwestern University)

About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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