Connect and protect: Explaining social class differences in romantic relationship outcomes
Social class inequality in the United States is pervasive, and it shapes nearly every area of people's lives. Within romantic relationships, lower-SES (socioeconomic status) couples tend to experience worse outcomes – they are less satisfied with their relationships, less likely to marry, and more likely to divorce when they do marry. Despite these robust findings, little is known about the psychological mechanisms that might explain them. One existing explanation is the deficit model, which argues that lower-SES individuals value relationships and marriage less. Conversely, I propose a protection model, arguing that trusting others is riskier in lower-SES contexts, and as a result, lower-SES individuals tend to self-protect. Self-protection is adaptive for individual well-being but may create challenges for relationships. I present two studies testing the deficit model and three studies testing the protection model. Contrary to the deficit model, I find that there are no SES differences in valuing relationships. In support of the protection model, lower-SES individuals do tend to prioritize self-protection in their relationships, and they display self-protective cognitive biases when thinking about their relationships. However, these effects only emerge when lower-SES individuals are feeling vulnerable in their relationships. These findings suggest that SES differences in relationship outcomes are due not to differences in valuing relationships, but to the real concerns about self-protection that arise in lower-SES contexts.