I get embarrassed by my boyfriend in public — he seems to lack tact, but also seems to enjoy getting under other people’s skin. While he is not conservative, he will always play “devil’s advocate” on issues of race and immigration around others, questioning things like DACA or the merits of allowing immigrants into the country at all. (I’m a minority woman and this always bothers me, but he tells me not to make an “academic discussions” so personal). He recently made a joke about his father “f***ing his mother too hard” in public out at a bar among my friends.
To him, this is who he is. I am perplexed that someone who can sometimes be kind and sweet can be so insensitive at times. Is it social anxiety, or is it actually about making others uncomfortable? What should I do if he’s not willing to take constructive criticism in this department?
-Weary and Wondering
I think we both know you should dump your boyfriend.
Once you’ve done that, I recommend writing out all the things you’ve wanted to say that he has squashed in you, the retorts you bit back and the arguments you whispered instead of shouting and the logical arguments he made you doubt. Write out what you wish you’d said during the biggest, messiest fights you could have had, the answers that sparked in your gut and could have roared out of your mouth like tongues of flame if he hadn’t doused them with cold water and made you forget you had the power of fire inside of you. Write them, then practice them in the mirror, then repeat them to yourself until you get sort of confused about why you’re still in the shower half an hour later or haven’t gotten out of your parked car yet, then repeat them to your friends like “I can’t believe I didn’t say this sooner,” then feel your spine get stronger from all that standing up for yourself.
Then, recycle your lists, because you never have to date such a spirit-smashing chauvinist ever again and you don’t need a reference to remember how it feels to recognize one of them next time, or how to reject him.
The person you describe is not accidentally telling you that your discomfort doesn’t matter. He is not accidentally saying racist things. He is not accidentally refusing to adjust his behavior even when he knows it hurts you.
Maybe his social anxiety is so bad that he can’t help but spew jokes about his parents getting busy; I don’t know. My profession is not one that deals in diagnoses, and I can believe that there may be ones that make it harder than I can imagine to stay on this side of propriety in public. But what you describe goes far beyond social propriety, and far beyond personality quirks. It’s beyond the provocative poking of a determined debater. (I am one — I would know.) Discussions verging on validating nationalism are not light barroom chat; they’re targeted in a way that isn’t merely provocative but pointed, designed to upset someone, not simply to engage them in intellectual curiosity. A devil’s advocate who pokes and pushes their fellow conversationalists to the edges of their comfort tries to learn something, to move the conversation forward. Someone who simply says the least popular thing they can think of is just trying to stir up shit.
You write that your boyfriend can be kind and sweet, that his gentle side makes you doubt his vicious one. The truth is that your doubts should fall in the other direction. That he is capable of such casual cruelty should cast a shadow on his sweetness. Someone who brings you flowers but tells you to leave your feelings at the door is playing nice, not being it; someone truly being kind would care how their behavior made you feel. Acting kind only when it serves you isn’t a kindness at all. It’s a manipulation.
Your boyfriend’s belief that “this is who he is” is not a reason for you to stay with him; it is a reason to leave, and quickly. Someone who not only delights in his own red flags but believes them to be permanently stitched into the fabric of his being is telling you with every one of them that he is not good, and not interested in getting better.
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that anyone who dares disturb the social fabric should be shunned; far from it. I know a number of those challenging, provocative, occasionally infuriating types who’ve never met a statement or a person they couldn’t question. I love several of them; I’m even related to a handful. Making people uncomfortable is part of life as an artist, a teacher, an out-loud thinker. It’s a gift and a privilege to have conversations that broaden the collective discourse instead of shrinking it, to meet someone who wakes you up and makes your brain flip over. Being challenged in a friendship is a feature, not a bug.
But there is a wide difference between churning up soil to make room for what could grow there and doing it just to kick rocks around, without caring if you happen to trample over what’s already there. Don’t mistake turbulence for growth. Don’t let moments of sweetness hide the poison they cover up. Don’t shrink yourself to fit around the rigid spaces this person has claimed as immovably his. Let that spark in your belly ignite something, and let yourself see what could happen if it burns.
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