Uh-oh, a lack of em­pa­thy isn’t this guy’s worst trait

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC -

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?

— Com­fort­able in the City

Com­fort­able in the City: 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 7-Se­ries 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.

Dear Carolyn: To­day is my older brother’s birth­day (mid-30s). I did not call and do not plan to. The only time he calls is when he needs some­thing — and even then, he calls our mother to ask the rest of the sib­lings. He has time only when he gets some­thing from it. He did not call when I got mar­ried, for Thanks­giv­ing, for Christ­mas, for his niece’s birth, my birth­day, nor has he re­turned my calls.

Ap­par­ently, I’m not the only sib­ling who “forgot” his birth­day, be­cause he com­plained to Mom that no one has called. So Mom has sent us each a text re­mind­ing us to call our brother, along with a guilt trip. I’m not try­ing to count beans, but I hon­estly don’t want to call him. What say you?

— “Forgot”

“Forgot”: Call, don’t call, ei­ther is fine, and both are now be­side the point, given that I file in ad­vance.

But your brother and mom, in their suc­ces­sion of choices, did draw a tidy di­a­gram of what prob­a­bly went wrong here.

Your brother never got the hang of the “give” part of give-and-take.

And your mother never stopped try­ing to in­su­late him from the con­se­quences of this dis­con­nec­tion, scram­bling to make sure he still got to “take” in spite of any deficits in the “give” col­umn.

Chicken first, egg first, works ei­ther way.

It’s sad. It was an un­forced parental er­ror, I’d guess. It puts all his sibs on the spot. More im­por­tant, though, it gen­er­ates stress for your mom and lone­li­ness for your brother.

So in­stead of count­ing beans or go­ing silent, get at the big­ger ques­tions:

“Mom, why do you think he goes to you in­stead of just talk­ing to us?”

“[Brother], I hear you’re look­ing for X. Why didn’t you call me di­rectly? Even just to say hi?”

Don’t get in the mid­dle, of course — no de­mand­ing or ex­pect­ing. But you have lit­tle to lose by call­ing the ele­phant’s name.

Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@wash­post.com. Get her col­umn de­liv­ered to your in­box each morn­ing at wapo.st/hax­post.

Join the dis­cus­sion live at noon Fri­days at wash­ing­ton­post.com/ con­ver­sa­tions.


Carolyn Hax

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