I will begin, like many other readers, with saying that I appreciate your insight and read your column with some regularity (when I can). I'm writing, like many others, with a relationship issue.
I really don't want to say it out loud, but is kind of a stay-or-go issue. It's about the way my boyfriend talks to me. A few times a day he gets this impatient tone in his voice that I find disrespectful and offensive. We have been together four years, and this has bothered me from the beginning. I tend to be a very sensitive person, especially in relationships, and when he has this tone, I can feel myself turning into myself and closing up.
He really has been trying to work on it the past year, but he says a lot of it is just his personality. It just sounds like he's mad at me or thinks I'm stupid or something, but he says he never thinks/feels that way. Sometimes, it makes me so upset and drives me so crazy I want to pull my hair out or cry or break up with him.
Can I have kids and live my life when someone is constantly making me feel crappy? Maybe that is the line you will pick out of this whole letter -- you deserve someone who doesn't make you feel crappy, even if they have some other irritating personality trait. On the other hand, besides this impatient thing he does, he is sensitive, listens well, is caring, affectionate, hardworking, really smart, we have great intellectual conversations, he is good to both his family and mine, he makes me laugh, and I've never had so much fun with anyone in my life -- and he is really supportive of my work, hopes and dreams.
My mother says I'm overly sensitive and I should just know that he doesn't mean anything by what he says and get over it. I've been kind of afraid to write you a letter because I'm afraid you will tell me to break up, and honestly, that's not what I want to hear. However, since you often offer insights I don't think the writer has considered, I thought I'd take my chances and write to you. Thanks.
Feeling Put Down
Dear Feeling Put Down,
Perhaps you wonder what it is like to be your boyfriend and why anyone would act the way he does because probably no woman you know would act that way so I will take my privileged position as a man of the male persuasion of a certain age to say that not so long ago being occasionally rude and insensitive was just being a regular knucklehead.
Now, being a regular knucklehead meant oppressing the weak and being all sorts of an asshole. But let us not pretend that most of us men were above it or oblivious to it unless you were raised in an Ashram or at Esalen or Summerhill. Many men and not just of my age but younger retain echoes of that system of male cruelty even as we attempt to form loving and sensible relationships as adults.
If those behavioral echoes of oppression, bullying, racism and homophobia can be recognized as such, as echoes of a conditioning over which one had no control, rather than as deep personal character flaws, perhaps some détente with your boyfriend can be reached. We are shaped a certain way is what I'm saying, and while we're not proud of it neither do these cultural conditionings from family and school simply disappear with hard-won political enlightenment. We still act like assholes from time to time. We are imperfect humans and sometimes must simply be forgiven for our cruelty, our meanness, our put-downs. (We learned to put down or be put down. It later is a reflex of fear.)
It took me a long time to get used to how sensitive my wife is. It kills me to feel this rudeness rise in my chest, this impatience, this arrogance, this anger; but there it is. I am a dirty, scuffed-up knucklehead playing a gentle prince in the school play.
My mom wasn't sensitive. Hell, no. She was intellectual and pretty and smart as a whip but she was no flower. My mom liked a good fight. She'd pull you into it and tangle. My sister wasn't what you'd call super-sensitive. So there weren't really any female role models of sensitive nature to learn from. It was just us boys against the women. And nobody ever said anything about tone of voice; being arrogant and insensitive was pretty much how you got along.
Isn't that unenlightened in the extreme? Yes, it is. It is so unenlightened. Yet it is the truth. I have had to learn over several years to quiet my voice and take time to concentrate and look at my wife and think kind thoughts and do a lot of other things to be less of a jerk.
I really wish women understood how hard we work to stop dragging our knuckles on the ground. Or, I should say, I can't talk for all men, but among my guy friends when I was younger, it was like, so you're a jerk, big fucking deal, what guy isn't a jerk. Oh, yeah, the only guy who isn't a jerk is the guy lying in the dirt that got beat up for being so sensitive.
Really, being a sensitive guy did not win points where I grew up.
I grew up in a not-nice time for boys, in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the South when you kind of had to be a jerk to survive. Nice boys got hit. It's true. Nice boys got kicked and shoved and pushed down. So you didn't want to be a nice boy no matter how it pleased the few adults who would say what a nice boy you were. The adults had no clue. It was the kiss of death for a mom to say what a nice boy you were; you would hear about it later, lying in the dirt, what a nice boy you were, how kind and sweet. But they didn't know, the adults; they were like ignorant informants, giving out information that led to hits.
So later as a young man, which is to say as an older boy which even in my 20s I essentially was, I came to California and saw people being nice to each other and I thought something was wrong with them. Didn't they know they'd get hit if they were nice? But there was very little hitting. Slowly I softened up. There were men who talked like women who weren't gay at all. There were other men who were totally gay, of course, and I had to sort out what was gay and what was not, and this seemed inordinately important at the time, which in an ideal man you'd think would be no big deal; in an ideal man, it wouldn't be any big deal because he'd know where he stood but I never knew where I stood, whether I was gay or straight or in between, frankly; I mean, how could you really, really know? And then there was the whole how-do-you-talk thing and where did these men learn to talk in such a respectful way, which sounded totally gay at first?
Well, it took lots of sorting out for a knucklehead like me. I'm not proud of being a knucklehead; I'm just saying that in the early days being a knucklehead saved me a good number of beatings. I'm not speaking for all guys or all regions of the U.S. or all time periods, but for me in my region and my time period being a gross, crude knucklehead was Job One for avoiding beatings.
So then you get into relationships with girls. What did I say, what did I do, why are you crying, what's the big deal, all I said was ...
I'm not saying I know your boyfriend but I'll bet he's not a serial killer or an opponent of women's rights. He's very likely just a guy, conditioned to be crude and raise his voice sometimes because when you're a guy, too, in your chest sometimes is a big shout that wants to come out; when you feel things you talk louder and people say, why are you shouting, and you're all like, I'm not shouting, and they're all like, Yes you are, and you realize, yep, OK, maybe you are kind of shouting, but it isn't like you're a serial killer or an opponent of women's rights, you're just talking at the volume that seems appropriate to the feeling in your chest.
I honestly don't know what you can do about his behavior. Have you tried beating on him with a stick?
(Oh, now, seriously, that was humor.)
Well, OK, the jury may still be out on whether and under what conditions acting out anger results in therapeutic catharsis and long-term improvement, but you could always get some of those foam bats people used in encounter groups in the 1970s and give it a try.
It might be cheaper than going to couples therapy.