I’ve been with my current boyfriend for three years. We’re really great together — similar interests, senses of humor, great sex. I love him so much — the only issue is that of our respective backgrounds. He grew up in a tony suburb, went to prep school, then to a very prestigious college, and finally the very prestigious graduate school where we met. I went to public school in a bad neighborhood, put myself through a not-so-prestigious college, made a name for myself in my field, then got into that same prestigious grad school. Our families could not be more different. I didn’t think it would matter so much, but something happened recently that I can’t shake.
My little brother, who has been a fuck up his entire life, has finally gotten it together and joined the Air Force. I’m not super pro-military or anything, but he was on a bad, bad path and now he has a job and structure and it’s been really good for him. When he finished basic training, we (me, my mom, and my boyfriend — our father has long been out of the picture) went to his graduation. I’d never been to one of these things before but it’s a really big deal for the airmen. A lot of them, my brother included, had never really accomplished anything worth celebrating before. My mom basically cried the entire time.
Unfortunately, throughout the day-long graduation, whenever we were alone, my boyfriend would bring the subject back to him. He looked around anxiously when we got there because most of the young men were in uniform. He kept asking me if he thought people knew that he hadn’t served. Then he would go on these weird defensive rants about why he hadn’t served, one of which included some pretty fucked-up ideas about people who don’t go to college. I got pretty annoyed at him for being so self-involved on a day that should have been about celebrating my brother. I didn’t say anything, though, because it was so out of character for him to behave like that.
In the couple of months since this incident, I get so angry whenever I think about it. I brought it up with him once, but he sort of dismissed me, saying that he wasn’t trying to draw attention from my brother. I actually totally believe him about that. I guess the thing that drives me nuts is that this person who has been given every opportunity and celebrated at every turn can’t stand one day when others are being honored and he isn’t. I’m probably being too harsh, but this is the narrative in my head.
This whole incident is bringing up some stuff from earlier in our relationship that I think I’d just brushed aside. When we first met, I honestly resented how easy his life had been compared to mine. I used to tease him for being a prep school kid and eventually he told me that hurt his feelings so I stopped. Since I stopped, we basically never talk about class-related stuff, so I think it appeared that we’d resolved that conflict. In reality, we just stopped talking about anything that would trigger any tension related to class. We also spend way more time with his family. It’s partially because we live closer to them, but also because I’m comfortable in his family’s world of affluent professionals while my boyfriend is just not comfortable spending a lot of time with my family in my old neighborhood. We do have pretty decent communication about other issues — this one just seems to be off limits for some reason.
I do love this man, and we’re starting to talk marriage (we’re both around 30). Can I be with someone long-term who I resent in this one way? Is it possible to love someone without wholly respecting them? Or am I being too hard on him? Ultimately it’s not really his fault that his parents have been able to give him so much. I just really can’t tell if this is something that will blow over in time or an indicator that this relationship isn’t built to last.
Help me Polly!
Confused About Class
Honestly, I think you misread your boyfriend’s reaction to your brother’s graduation. I don’t think he was envious of the attention. I think he felt unexpectedly droopy and emasculated in the company of all of those guys in uniform, looking sharp, accompanied by a lot of pomp and circumstance and talk about the incomparable honor of giving your life for your country. No matter how you might feel about the military or our country or the whole notion of having to give up your life at the whim of a potentially misguided leader, as a young man this experience would probably be unexpectedly intense. Your boyfriend is roughly the same age as all of these perceived heroes proudly proclaiming their willingness to die. It was understandably unsettling for him. He didn’t want you to see him as less heroic than those dudes. He didn’t want to see himself that way. He wanted to explain why he thinks those guys aren’t necessarily doing something that’s so honorable. He did this away from the rest of your family. He was trying to get you on his side, looking for your support and understanding. He probably said some dumb things along the way.
Not that I don’t understand why you weren’t aware of the particular folds of his emotional experience. You had your own concerns. This was your brother’s big day. And if your boyfriend blathered on and on about himself the whole time, in front of your family, that would be concerning. But I don’t get that sense. I get the sense that he made a series of discombobulated, defensive comments when you two were alone, and they stuck in your craw and made you wonder if he has any idea at all how totally pampered he’s been, how easy he’s had it, how hard other people have to work just to fucking exist.
I do understand your anger about that. Personally, I would want to explain the big gap between rich and poor, between sailing along and struggling tooth and nail, between floating through college and working really fucking hard in school while holding down two jobs, between sailing into grad school and working a real job first. And I think you should explain those things to him.
But I also think that you have to empathize with him, not only about his feelings around this military graduation but also about his life in general. He was standing there feeling a little bit useless, in spite of his faith in himself and his beliefs about the world. He was feeling like a wilty little grad student among macho men. Men are really fucking sensitive to this kind of thing. Even the kinds of smart, sensitive late-bloomers that most of us favor have these moments of self-doubt where they wonder, “Christ, should I feel embarrassed that I’m not uniformed and heroic like these macho guys? Am I supposed to feel like they’re making good choices and I’m the wimpy dude back home they’re out there protecting?” It’s easy for women to forget how often men compare themselves to each other, and how sensitive they are to feeling somehow less studly in the company of overt machismo.
I know saying that makes me sound like a deluded Camille Paglia type. Throw in a little Greek mythology here and there and voila, six figure book deal. But I do think you’re not opening yourself up to your boyfriend’s experience enough, and you’re not going to have a healthy relationship with him if you can’t stop seeing the first 30 years of his life as a relaxing and leisurely stroll down Easy Street.
Imagine for a second going to your boyfriend’s little sister’s debutante ball. It’s her big night! She struggled with eating disorders in the past, but now she’s doing fine and she just got into a very expensive private college, and she looks just beautiful! Her dad is so proud of her, and her mom is crying big salty tears! What you’re thinking, though, is that these fucks would never ask YOU to wear a white dress, thanks to your zip code of origin. And in spite of the token people of color here and there, these people are obviously racists. Imagine that you stayed up late grading papers the night before, and your tuition fees are overdue, and there you are, surrounded by gorgeous little rich girls who never do anything more taxing than sitting still to get their nails done? And everyone can’t stop talking about how impressive and gorgeous and special they all are?
I know it’s not the same thing. And I know you would keep your mouth shut. But imagine the feelings you might feel. Imagine the things you’d like to say to your boyfriend, in private, after watching him admire the pretty spoiled girls from afar.
Listen to me: Your boyfriend was feeling feelings about that graduation ceremony. That’s all that was about. If you start discounting his feelings routinely just because he’s been a little pampered, your relationship will suffer. Your guy had his own hardships, trust me. You can say to yourself, “What a spoiled little fucker, and he doesn’t even realize it!” But that’s not fair to him. You love this guy. You need to find out more about the things that did challenge him, the situations that did unnerve him and make him feel bad about himself.
I grew up in a perfectly comfortable home in a perfectly nice middle-class urban neighborhood, first as a professor’s kid and then with a divorced working mom. We were usually in debt and I was always expected to scrub toilets, trim bushes, rake leaves, paint doors, empty gutters, pull weeds, whatever. I always had a summer job, starting at age 15. I never had a car. I was definitely jealous of my friends, with their fucking Clinique cosmetics and Esprit sweatshirts and Polo shorts, with their dermatologists and their expensive ballet lessons and their pretty redecorated bedrooms with walls and ceilings they didn’t paint themselves. I loved my friends but I was a real asshole about how spoiled they were. I used my resentment of their wealth as an excuse not to empathize with them. I discounted any suffering they told me they were going through. And some of them had real problems — deeply dysfunctional families, eating disorders, financial support that kept them semi-infantilized until their early 30s. I thought my own problems were somehow more real than theirs, just because they had a lot more money and didn’t have to work as hard as I did.
The truth is, we were ALL privileged. And I was particularly privileged, because I learned the satisfaction of hard work early on in life. I do mean satisfaction. I can’t count the times that setting my feelings aside and doing some really fucking hard work has pulled me out of a funk. Most of what’s good in my life found its way to me because I knew how to work hard without giving up, to work hard at something until I was better and better at it. I’m not a workaholic, not by a long shot. I am a lazy motherfucker. But I do understand and appreciate a concerted, strenuous effort. I don’t mind looking at my work and saying, “That could be better.” It doesn’t scare me that it’ll take MORE HARD WORK to take something from mediocre to great.
People who don’t understand hard work, who don’t appreciate and enjoy it, end up suffering a lot. That is a fact. Your boyfriend has nothing to do with this point I’m making; he’s in grad school, he knows how to work hard. I’m just telling you that there are many, many aspects of struggling that are a real privilege, that put you at an advantage, once you realize your full potential.
I want to challenge you to take more pride in your background. Not angry fuck-you resentment, but real pride. I know you think you have real pride, and you also think I am a fucking pampered piece of shit who doesn’t get it. You’re probably right about that. I still want you to listen to me: Real pride can be angry, sure. But real pride can also allow for difference. Real pride invites the privileged in, warmly, to witness with clear eyes, to share some of the many gorgeous aspects of growing up with nothing. There is ugliness there, but there’s beauty there, too. There are things about your family that might make you feel ashamed, but that should make you feel proud. My grandparents chainsmoked hand-rolled cigarettes and watched “The Family Feud” every fucking night on a couch covered in plastic. At the end of the show, my Carpatho-Rusyn grandfather would shout to my Carpatho-Rusyn grandmother cleaning up in the kitchen, “Dem Greeks, dey won, Ma!”
When I brought my boyfriend to visit my grandparents, was it uncomfortable for him? Of course. He couldn’t mask his emotions, as he spotted the plastic grapes in the little urn on the wall. People who grow up with lots of money often don’t have access to working class people, don’t have access to immigrants. But everyone is provincial in their own way. People who grow up in Manhattan can be hopelessly provincial, hopelessly unaware of the rest of the country, the rest of the world. If your boyfriend isn’t that comfortable around your family, that’s not necessarily snobbery, and if you cast it in that light, you’re being unfair to him and yourself. Some people out there watch “Judge Judy” and speak in double negatives. Shocker. Some people live in neighborhoods that seem scrappy and dangerous to outsiders. He just needs some time to get used to it. You need to insist that he get used to it. If you protect him from it while resenting him for that, if you avoid taking him home, you’ll injure your relationship. Give him the benefit of the doubt. I hate the phrase “It is what it is,” but when it comes to showing people where you came from, it comes in handy. This is how I grew up. It is what it fucking is. Did I choose this? Would I choose it again? Do I hate this? Do I love this? All of the above. It is what it is.
Also? Being a guy is not a walk in the park. The separation from your own feelings you have to achieve just to get by is crazy. Prep school, while it sounds absolutely luxurious to a poor kid, can be an insanely cut-throat, unfriendly place. Kids I know who went away to prep school often came back with completely different personalities, personalities that, quite frankly seemed a little defensive and overly cool, like they’d been traumatized by their exposure to a whole new level of uber cool, pushy rich kids and had emerged far worse for the wear.
That’s my casual observation, nothing more. But you really do need to open your mind and allow that your guy has had a very different experience than you, and not all of it boiled down to him getting his ass wiped by servants armed with extra-soft toilet tissue.
I don’t think you’d feel as angry at him if you’d chosen a time when you WEREN’T mad and explained the very particular folds of your background to him. I think this needs to happen, and you need to do it in a way that doesn’t make him feel defensive about the way he grew up. After you feel like you’ve been heard — and look, you’ve got to warn him, “I need for you to listen very closely to this. I need you to understand all the shit I had to do to get here” — then you’ve got to hear HIM out. You’ve got to ask him all about his upbringing, and you’ve got to be nice about it, really fucking nice, not dismissive and eye-rolly. You’ve got to appreciate the little bits and pieces of his past that feel crumpled or messy, that don’t fit together well, that made him feel sad as a kid.
He sounds like a sensitive person, just like you. Sensitive people don’t have an easy ride, no matter where they are. We will make mountains out of molehills wherever you plant us. And even though it’s easy to be unsympathetic and skeptical of that — and believe me, I can be — it’s still important, if you love him dearly, that you empathize with the challenges he faced and still faces, no matter how small they might seem to you.
It’s probably time to have some tough conversations. Don’t wait until you’re mad. Sit him down when you’re feeling good and look him in the eye and tell him you need to talk about your differences. Be gentle. There is no moral high ground in this conversation. You are simply two different people, with two different stories. He needs to understand that your family is important to you. Remember that it’s never easy to accept and embrace someone’s family, no matter what they’re like. Be respectful of that, but make it clear you feel sensitive about them and protective of them and you don’t really want him making negative comments to you about them moving forward. Just as he didn’t want to be teased about prep school, you don’t want to be teased about your background, and you don’t want him casting aspersions on your family’s choices. You should ask him to rethink the way he talks about people’s life choices when he talks to you and to them, with some acceptance that he may not have all the information he needs to draw conclusions about people from completely different circumstances from his. You should tell him that you’re going to try to do the same thing for him: Not assume that someone is lazy or spoiled, for example, or doesn’t know the meaning of hardship. There are all kinds of hardship out there.
It’s a big challenge, for two people from totally different classes to come together and smoothly navigate the world. It’s also really romantic and interesting and if you approach it with care and sensitivity, you’ll both grow into richer, wiser, more mature people together. You both have a great opportunity to learn a lot. Try to embrace it rather than avoiding it. Try to open your heart and be vulnerable and allow him the same safe space that you need.
It will be a challenge. Lean into the challenge and talk about it a lot, with a generous, accepting spirit, and your love for each other and trust in each other will grow in leaps and bounds.
This isn’t about your boyfriend wanting to be the center of attention. He’s grappling with something bigger than that. He has prejudices, sure, and also fears and insecurities. Let him show you the full scope of who he really is, flaws and all, and dare to show yourself to him. We are not ONLY safe among our own kind, in our own comfort zones. When we believe that, we make our worlds smaller and smaller. Take pride in your path here, and let him have his pride in his path, too. Dare to do this without anger and preemptive, self-protective resentment. Dare to do this with an open heart.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl’s existential advice columnist. She’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photograph by Teruyoshi Hayashida, from, of course, the incomparable Take Ivy.