[Paleopsych] NYT: When Richer Weds Poorer, Money Isn't the Only Difference
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Thu May 19 19:04:23 UTC 2005
When Richer Weds Poorer, Money Isn't the Only Difference
Class Matters - Social Class and Marriage in the United States of America
[Third of a series]
By TAMAR LEWIN
NORTHFIELD, Mass. - When Dan Croteau met Cate Woolner six years ago,
he was selling cars at the Keene, N.H., Mitsubishi lot and she was
pretending to be a customer, test driving a black Montero while she
and her 11-year-old son, Jonah, waited for their car to be serviced.
The test drive lasted an hour and a half. Jonah got to see how the
vehicle performed in off-road mud puddles. And Mr. Croteau and Ms.
Woolner hit it off so well that she later sent him a note, suggesting
that if he was not involved with someone, not a Republican and not an
alien life form, maybe they could meet for coffee. Mr. Croteau
dithered about the propriety of dating a customer, but when he finally
responded, they talked on the phone from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
They had a lot in common. Each had two failed marriages and two
children. Both love dancing, motorcycles, Bob Dylan, bad puns, liberal
politics and National Public Radio.
But when they began dating, they found differences, too. The religious
difference - he is Roman Catholic, she is Jewish - posed no problem.
The real gap between them, both say, is more subtle: Mr. Croteau comes
from the working class, and Ms. Woolner from money.
Mr. Croteau, who will be 50 in June, grew up in Keene, an old mill
town in southern New Hampshire. His father was a factory worker whose
education ended at the eighth grade; his mother had some factory jobs,
too. Mr. Croteau had a difficult childhood and quit school at 16. He
then left home, joined the Navy and drifted through a long series of
jobs without finding any real calling. He married his pregnant
19-year-old girlfriend and had two daughters, Lael and Maggie, by the
time he was 24.
"I was raised in a family where my grandma lived next door, my uncles
lived on the next road over, my dad's two brothers lived next to each
other, and I pretty much played with my cousins," he said. "The whole
concept of life was that you should try to get a good job in the
factory. My mother tried to encourage me. She'd say, 'Dan's bright;
ask him a question.' But if I'd said I wanted to go to college, it
would have been like saying I wanted to grow gills and breathe
He always felt that the rich people in town, "the ones with their
names on the buildings," as he put it, lived in another world.
Ms. Woolner, 54, comes from that other world. The daughter of a doctor
and a dancer, she grew up in a comfortable home in Hartsdale, N.Y.,
with the summer camps, vacations and college education that wealthy
Westchester County families can take for granted. She was always
uncomfortable with her money; when she came into a modest inheritance
at 21, she ignored the monthly bank statements for several years,
until she learned to channel her unease into philanthropy benefiting
social causes. She was in her mid-30's and married to a
psychotherapist when Isaac and Jonah were born.
"My mother's father had a Rolls-Royce and a butler and a second home
in Florida," Ms. Woolner said, "and from as far back as I can
remember, I was always aware that I had more than other people, and I
was uncomfortable about it because it didn't feel fair. When I was
little, what I fixated on with my girlfriends was how I had more
pajamas than they did. So when I'd go to birthday sleepovers, I'd
always take them a pair of pajamas as a present."
Marriages that cross class boundaries may not present as obvious a set
of challenges as those that cross the lines of race or nationality.
But in a quiet way, people who marry across class lines are also
moving outside their comfort zones, into the uncharted territory of
partners with a different level of wealth and education, and often, a
different set of assumptions about things like manners, food,
child-rearing, gift-giving and how to spend vacations. In cross-class
marriages, one partner will usually have more money, more options and,
almost inevitably, more power in the relationship.
It is not possible to say how many cross-class marriages there are.
But to the extent that education serves as a proxy for class, they
seem to be declining. Even as more people marry across racial and
religious lines, often to partners who match them closely in other
respects, fewer are choosing partners with a different level of
education. While most of those marriages used to involve men marrying
women with less education, studies have found, lately that pattern has
flipped, so that by 2000, the majority involved women, like Ms.
Woolner, marrying men with less schooling - the combination most
likely to end in divorce.
"It's definitely more complicated, given the cultural scripts we've
all grown up with," said Ms. Woolner, who has a master's degree in
counseling and radiates a thoughtful sincerity. "We've all been taught
it's supposed to be the man who has the money and the status and the
Bias on Both Sides
When he met Ms. Woolner, Mr. Croteau had recently stopped drinking and
was looking to change his life. But when she told him, soon after they
began dating, that she had money, it did not land as good news.
"I wished she had waited a little," Mr. Croteau said. "When she told
me, my first thought was, uh oh, this is a complication. From that
moment I had to begin questioning my motivations. You don't want to
feel like a gold digger. You have to tell yourself, here's this person
that I love, and here's this quality that comes with the package.
Cate's very generous, and she thinks a lot about what's fair and works
very hard to level things out, but she also has a lot of baggage
around that quality. She has all kinds of choices I don't have. And
she does the lion's share of the decision-making."
Before introducing Ms. Woolner to his family, Mr. Croteau warned them
about her background. "I said, 'Mom, I want you to know Cate and her
family are rich,' " he recalled. "And she said, 'Well, don't hold that
against her; she's probably very nice anyway.' I thought that was
There were biases on the other side too. Just last summer, Mr. Croteau
said, when they were at Ms. Woolner's mother's house on Martha's
Vineyard, his mother-in-law confessed to him that she had initially
been embarrassed that he was a car salesman and worried that her
daughter was taking him on as a kind of do-good project.
Still, the relationship moved quickly. Mr. Croteau met Ms. Woolner in
the fall of 1998 and moved into her comfortable home in Northfield the
next spring, after meeting her condition that he sell his gun.
Even before Mr. Croteau moved in, Ms. Woolner gave him money to buy a
new car and pay off some debts. "I wanted to give him the money," she
said. "I hadn't sweated it. I told him that this was money that had
just come to me for being born into one class, while he was born into
another class." And when he lost his job not long after, Ms. Woolner
began paying him a monthly stipend - he sometimes refers to it as an
allowance - that continued, at a smaller level, until last November,
when she quit her longstanding job at a local antipoverty agency. She
also agreed to pay for a $10,000 computer course that helped prepare
him for his current job as a software analyst at the Cheshire Medical
Center in Keene. From the beginning, the balance of power in the
relationship was a sufficiently touchy issue that at Ms. Woolner's
urging, a few months before their wedding in August 2001, they joined
a series of workshops on cross-class relationships.
"I had abject terror at the idea of the group," said Mr. Croteau, who
is blunt and intellectually engaging. "It's certainly an upper-class
luxury to pay to tell someone your troubles, and with all the problems
in the world, it felt a little strange to sit around talking about
your relationship. But it was useful. It was a relief to hear people
talk about the same kinds of issues we were facing, about who had
power in the relationship and how they used it. I think we would have
made it anyway, but we would have had a rockier time without the
It is still accepted truth within the household that Ms. Woolner's
status has given her the upper hand in the marriage. At dinner one
night, when her son Isaac said baldly, "I always think of my mom as
having the power in the relationship," Mr. Croteau did not flinch. He
is fully aware that in this relationship he is the one whose life has
been most changed.
The Woolner-Croteau household is just up the hill from the groomed
fields of Northfield Mount Hermon prep school - a constant local
reminder to Mr. Croteau of just how differently his wife's sons and
his daughters have been educated. Jonah is now a senior there. Isaac,
who also attended the school, is now back at Lewis & Clark College in
Oregon after taking a couple of semesters away to study in India and
to attend massage school while working in a deli near home.
By contrast, Mr. Croteau's adult daughters - who have never lived with
the couple - made their way through the Keene public schools.
"I sometimes think Jonah and Isaac need a dose of reality, that a
couple years in public school would have shown them something
different," Mr. Croteau said. "On the other hand I sometimes wish I'd
been able to give Maggie and Lael what they had. My kids didn't have
the same kind of privilege and the same kind of schools. They didn't
have teachers concerned about their tender growing egos. It was
catch-as-catch-can for them, and that still shows in their
Mr. Croteau had another experience of Northfield Mount Hermon as well.
He briefly had a job as its communications manager, but could not
adjust to its culture.
"There were all these Ivy Leaguers," he said. "I didn't understand
their nuances, and I didn't make a single friend there. In
working-class life, people tell you things directly, they're not
subtle. At N.M.H., I didn't get how they did things. When a vendor
didn't meet the deadline, I called and said, 'Where's the job?' When
he said, 'We bumped you, we'll have it next week,' I said, 'What do
you mean, next week? We have a deadline, you can't do business like
that.' It got back to my supervisor, who came and said, 'We don't yell
at vendors.' The idea seemed to be that there weren't deadlines in
that world, just guidelines."
Mr. Croteau says he is far more comfortable at the hospital. "I deal
mostly with nurses and other computer nerds and they come from the
same kind of world I do, so we know how to talk to each other," he
But in dealing with Ms. Woolner's family, especially during the annual
visits to Martha's Vineyard, Mr. Croteau said, he sometimes finds
himself back in class bewilderment, feeling again that he does not get
the nuances. "They're incredibly gracious to me, very well bred and
very nice," he said, "so much so that it's hard to tell whether it's
sincere, whether they really like you."
Mr. Croteau still seems impressed by his wife's family, and their
being among "the ones with their names on the buildings." It is he who
shows a visitor the framed print of the old Woolner Distillery in
Peoria, Ill., and, describing the pictures on the wall, mentions that
this in-law went to Yale, and that one knew Gerald Ford.
Mr. Croteau and Ms Woolner are not the only ones aware of the class
divide within the family; so are the two sets of children.
Money is continually tight for Lael Croteau, 27, who is in graduate
school in educational administration at the University of Vermont, and
Maggie, 25, who is working three jobs while in her second year of law
school at American University. At restaurants, they ask to have the
leftovers wrapped to take home.
Neither could imagine taking a semester off to try out massage school,
as Isaac did. They are careful about their manners, their plans, their
"Who's got money, who doesn't, it's always going on in my head,"
Maggie said. "So I put on the armor. I have the bag. I have the shirt.
I know people can't tell my background by looking."
The Croteau daughters are the only ones among 12 first cousins who
made it to college. Most of the others married and had babies right
after high school.
"They see us as different, and sometimes that can hurt," Maggie said.
The daughters walk a fine line. They are deeply attached to their
mother, who did most of their rearing, but they are also attracted to
the Woolner world and its possibilities. Through holidays and Vineyard
vacations, they have come to feel close not only to their
stepbrothers, but also to Ms. Woolner's sisters' children, whose
pictures are on display in Lael's house in Vermont. And they see, up
close, just how different their upbringing was.
"Jonah and Isaac don't have to worry about how they dress, or whether
they'll have the money to finish college, or anything," Lael said.
"That's a real luxury. And when one of the little kids asks, 'Why do
people sneeze?' their mom will say, 'I don't know; that's a great
question. Let's go to the museum, and check it out.' My mom is very
smart and certainly engages us on many levels, but when we asked a
difficult question, she'd say, 'Because I said so.' "
The daughters' lives have been changed not only by Ms. Woolner's warm,
stable presence, but also by her gifts of money for snow tires or
books, the family vacations she pays for and her connections. One of
Ms. Woolner's cousins, a Washington lawyer, employs Maggie both at her
office and as a housesitter.
For Ms. Woolner's sons, Mr. Croteau's arrival did not make nearly as
much difference. They are mostly oblivious of the extended Croteau
family, and have barely met the Croteau cousins, who are close to
their age and live nearby but lead quite different lives. Indeed, in
early February, while Ms. Woolner's Isaac was re-adjusting to college
life, Mr. Croteau's nephew, another 20-year-old Isaac who had enlisted
in the Marines right after high school, was shot in the face in
Falluja, Iraq, and shipped to Bethesda Medical Center in Maryland.
Isaac and Jonah are easygoing young men, neither of whom has any clear
idea what he wants to do in life. "For a while I've been trying to
find my passion," Jonah said. "But I haven't been passionately trying
to find my passion."
Isaac fantasizes about opening a brewery-cum-performance-space,
traveling through South America or operating a sunset massage cruise
in the Caribbean. He knows he is on such solid ground that he can
"I have the most amazing safety net a person could have," he said,
"incredible, loving, involved and wealthy parents."
On the rare occasions when they are all together, the daughters get on
easily with the sons, though there are occasional tensions. Maggie
would love to have a summer internship with a human rights group, but
she needs paid work and when she graduates, with more than $100,000 of
debt, she will need a law firm job, not one with a nonprofit. So when
Isaac one day teased her as being a sellout, she reminded him that it
was a lot easier to live your ideals when you did not need to make
money to pay for them.
And there are moments when the inequalities within the family are
"I do feel the awkwardness of helping Isaac buy a car, when I'm not
helping them buy a car," Ms. Woolner said of the daughters. "We've
talked about that. But I also have to be aware of overstepping. Their
mother's house burned down, which was awful for them and for her and I
really wanted to help. I took out my checkbook and I didn't know what
was appropriate. In the end I wrote a $1,500 check. Emily Post doesn't
deal with these situations."
She and Mr. Croteau remain conscious of the class differences between
them, and the ways in which their lives have been shaped by different
On one visit to New York City, where Ms. Woolner's mother lives in the
winter, Ms. Woolner lost her debit card and felt anxious about being
disconnected, even briefly, from her money.
For Mr. Croteau, it was a strange moment. "She had real discomfort,
even though we were around the corner from her mother, and she had
enough money to do anything we were likely to do, assuming she wasn't
planning to buy a car or a diamond all of a sudden," he said. "So I
didn't understand the problem. I know how to walk around without a
safety net. I've done it all my life."
Both he and his wife express pride that their marriage has withstood
its particular problems and stresses.
"I think we're always both amazed that we're working it out," Ms.
But almost from the beginning they agreed on an approach to their
relationship, a motto now engraved inside their wedding rings: "Press
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