Dear Carolyn: I've been dating this guy for about five months. I live in the city, he lives in the suburbs. Since I live where there's more to do, and don't own a car, he usually drives into the city to see me.
Since we've become more comfortable with each other, he now arrives at my apartment and expresses a great deal of annoyance at the homeless people he passed on his drive, often for asking for money in an aggressive way or wandering about the road unsafely.
His annoyance verges on anger and really bothers me. I understand that harassment or unsafe driving situations can be very distressing and frustrating, but his anger seems to zero in on the homeless population, and I wouldn't devote time and energy to being angry at a group of people so obviously less fortunate than me. My boyfriend is very well off and had a comfortable middle-class upbringing. I see it as a reflection of his values that he can't seem to have any empathy toward this group just because they are causing mild annoyance.
Lately I've just been letting him vent, because we all need that sometimes and also because it has caused intense arguments when I've protested. But I can't shake the discomfort I feel when he complains about this group.
How can I approach this without seeming like I am dismissing his feelings of being harassed or unsafe?
Carolyn says: If he is irritated by panhandlers but not equally so by some Bimmer riding his tail for being in the passing lane for a nanosecond too long, then you might well have a classist jerk for a boyfriend.
But that's neither here nor there.
What is important:
• You question his character.
• But have learned not to do so out loud.
• Because his annoyance "verges on anger."
• And he fights off your questioning with "intense arguments."
Do you see it?
The specific issue could be anything. Let's say, for argument's sake, he rages equally at BMW drivers, so it's not about empathy for the downtrodden. You still have a dynamic where you have legitimate concerns — his entitlement and his regular, carry-over anger — that you choose not to talk about because he makes you pay too dearly for speaking up.
That is at best a recipe for misery, and at worst dangerous. He has become comfortable enough around you to start showing his true self, but you have actually become less so, by your own account of how you've learned to hold back, deliberately suppressing your discomfort. You cannot say, "When you vent about panhandlers, I hear a lack of empathy, and that bothers me."
You do not feel safe speaking your mind to this man.
Game over. He's not the guy.
Even if your hunch about his economic empathy deficit is wrong. Which I suspect it isn't, but that's neither here nor there.
Unless you can speak freely, and unless you like what you hear in return, he is not the guy.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.