Your problem is your own self-worth, not the privileged family you are considering marrying into, says Mariella Frostrup
The dilemma After what seems an age of online dating (five years) I met a
The dilemma After what seems an age of online dating (five years) I met a wonderful woman. We’re both in our late 30s and want to settle down. After just six months we are moving in together and I’m considering proposing. We’re very much in love and have a wonderful life. But on meeting her extended family and friends, it’s clear we are from incredibly different backgrounds. Mine is humble, hers is filled with professors and doctors, and has close links to the best universities and the cultural elite.
Her family and friends are lovely, but I can’t get over the feeling of inadequacy, particularly because I know how much value they put on education. They are very wealthy and she’s yet to visit my parents’ tiny semi in the Midlands. I feel her family will think she’s settling. There’s a similar situation with another family member. It’s often discussed, without the realisation that it is close to the bone.
I have a very good job and live a nice life with charity work and travel, but I really don’t feel good enough because of my background and education. Even thinking of the wedding guests mixing stresses me out so much.
Mariella replies Haven’t you done well! Don’t worry, I’m just messing with you. It’s sad that although privilege is no longer considered any guarantee of success, a man in love should be experiencing a class struggle within his own relationship. I’ll neither chastise you nor seek to dissuade you from giving the matter careful consideration. Hopefully you’re aware of how ill-founded your feelings of low self-worth are? Legitimate worry about how the disparity in your life experiences will impact further down the line is different from actually believing you are in any way lesser. As a self-starter myself, the greatest pride I ever experience is when I find myself in hallowed halls and mansions, among those presumed culturally or aristocratically elite, knowing I have earned entry under my own steam. Feeling I’m in elevated company is occasionally brought on by the presence of big brains, but never big bank accounts.
You say you work in the charity sector, which will have brought you nose to nose with those less privileged than yourself, so you will be better aware than most of the lottery of life and how luck is as much of a currency as talent or tenacity. Your girlfriend may be fortunate in her privileged upbringing, but it’s taken her just as long to find a real and realistic mate – so there’s an example of equality of opportunity for starters.
Your parents may live in a lowly semi, but they’ve created a god, or at least a god in your girlfriend’s eyes, so they, too, have abilities to equal her more fiscally fortunate family. I could go polemical about the inequality of our education system, of how much more admirable it is to succeed based on limited opportunity than an excess of advantages and how proud you should be that you can describe your life today as “wonderful”. It would be easy to elaborate, but by doing so I’d simply be reinforcing our deeply embedded belief that there are the haves and the have-nots, and there’s no good to be gleaned from mixing disparate elements.
The problem you have isn’t with your prospective in-laws, regardless of whether the frequent mentions of the member who married down are intentional or benign. The problem you’re experiencing resides where most of our issues emerge from – between your own ears. It doesn’t matter how convincingly I lecture you on the equality of all mankind and encourage you to be blind to your girlfriend’s advantaged relations, just as we are increasingly becoming to race and gender. Your letter makes plain your conviction of disparity and it’s that sense of your own shortcomings that will corrode your chances of happiness unless you manage to get it under control.
I wouldn’t often counsel counselling before you even get hitched, though it would put a lot of relationships on a firmer footing. In your case I’m convinced it would be worthwhile for you individually and perhaps also as a couple. You two need to sit down and be genuinely honest with each other and that’s often the hardest thing to be. Beyond the sugary sheen of romance, you need to grub about in the dark places that might otherwise take a decade to get to and, unchecked, have the power to cause irreparable damage. These feelings you are having need to be aired and shared, but I suspect doing so within the confines of the relationship won’t be enough, which is where a professional can really help. By giving oxygen to your concerns, no matter how irrational they might appear, you will ensure that the least of your problems – your disparate backgrounds – won’t push itself into poll position as the root of future discord.
There’s no reason why two people who love each other can’t surmount the barriers to be faced as you navigate a future together, but yours is deeply embedded and insidious enough to creep up on you when you are most vulnerable. Addressing your perceived inequality now is the best way to ensure its doesn’t come back to bite you.