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Guilt/Bitterness regarding privilege with partner

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This topic contains 28 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by avatar SherBear 3 months ago.

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  • #738931 Reply

    Hey all! I’m a proper lurker, but I’m having a rough time dealing with some issues and I couldn’t think of a better place to air it out and get some thoughts.

    I’ve been with T for over a year, and he’s a wonderful kind person. My time with him has been fun, exciting, fulfilling and full of tender moments where I feel we both learn and grow together. My only beef has only recently showed up, although I feel like it’s been in the back of my head for a while. Basically, I’m a non-apologetic feminist and I’m also not-entirely-white. It’s a complicated racial mix but I don’t consider myself white and I grew up in a developing country where most of the population isn’t white. So a lot of my activism tends to revolve about the many faces of discrimination.

    I spend a lot of my life thinking about privilege an inequality, and particularly how these things affect the career paths of me and my peers as we move around the messed-up world of academia (we’re both scientist, doing a PhD). I constantly keep in mind that I’m extremely privileged, I have a lovely stable family, I’m healthy, I’m not rich but I’ve never had to worry about my basic needs, and I’m doing a PhD in one of the best universities in the world, with a scholarship that allows me to live in basic comfort. I work a lot (we all do) but I get to do all sort of enjoyable things with my life. I get satisfaction out my research (OK, sometimes, but that’s PhD life), I travel, and I’m surrounded by amazing inspiring people.

    T has all of these things as well, but he also comes from a much more privileged background. He seems to go around life and things just sort of drop into his lap (his words). I know that’s not technically true, and he’s extremely smart and competent. I also know that he’s had some really rough spots in his life, mainly his mother passing away a few years ago. But lately I find my beliefs clashing with his more and more. Recently, my parents entered a rough situation, and had to leave our home country for political reasons. My extremely hardworking parents had to leave their comfortable life which they worked so hard to achieve and start from scratch abroad, with basically no savings. I know that they are extremely lucky to even be able to get decent paying jobs (they’re both highly educated) but the whole situation has been hard. I’m also very aware of the fact that they may never get to retire, because they would have to go home. So when I hear him talk about his lovely family, which had a crazy adventurous life, built an awesome house and retired early to a life of travel and fun, I can’t help but feel bitter. When he talks about following his dad’s footsteps because “corporate/academic life is so unsatisfying” I can’t help but thing “Yeah but your dad had a huge safety net, and he was really lucky. Most people don’t have the luxury to take a huge risk and live the wild life.” And he doesn’t seem to understand that, that their family is the exception, even though I’m sure they worked very hard for the life they wanted.

    I also have struggled with his passivity in the face of inequality in our work space. Recently some female PhD students have complained of the lad culture and how they’re routinely passed over for experiments and other opportunities. Of course, T and his friends got very defensive about it, because basically “they invite everyone to the bar (man and woman) and they’ve never actively discriminated anyone, so why are they being accused?” I tried to explain the subtleties of the whole issue, and some of the things that their coworkers might be feeling, but was met with a lot of sympathy and not a lot of action.

    I don’t think that guilting someone for their privilege is at all useful. But I do sometimes wish he saw the wider picture and realized that he has so much power for change, when the rest of us have to struggle just to be allowed in the room. To be fair, he’s not at all blind to injustice. But I feel that it makes him deeply uncomfortable to think about so he’d rather go about his life doing his thing.

    He literally wants to be an astronaut and in the back of my head I’m thinking “sure, you just rock up to a space agency, train for a couple of years and get sent to space, despite that it’s one of the most statistically unlikely jobs anyone could ever hope for”. But to be honest, he might do just that and get it because… he does seem to get what he wants most of the time. And that’s great! I love him and he’s amazing and I want him to get everything he wants. And I really want to be encouraging, and be good and supportive to his dreams as I know he is to mine. But I also find it hard to deal with the whole unfairness of it all. I know that I sound like a bitter person, and I am deeply concerned about that. I just don’t know what to do about it.

    I’m also slightly worried about what this means for our future together. What happens when he discovers that life sometimes sucks? When we don’t have money to travel, or he doesn’t get the 12 weeks of holiday a year which he’s used to. Because I might be a pessimist, but looking around me I know that the next 10 years aren’t necessarily going to be a walk in the park. Maybe I just have lower expectations? How do I get rid of the bitterness (which isn’t useful/productive) and try to communicate my feelings and fears without accusing him or making him feel guilty?

    #738939 Reply

    I think you suffer from a combination of envy and blaming the wrong people. This seems to have shifted into over-drive when your parents had to leave their home country and the life they had built behind. That wasn’t your bf’s fault, or the fault of whites — it was the fault of (I assume) one faction of non-white politicians in your home land. The discrimination in your labs isn’t caused by your bf or the other male or white grad students; it’s caused by the professors and senior researchers and administration. It’s important to put the blame where it belongs, not with people who, despite having more advantages or privilege in their lives, are basically as powerless as you. That goes for grad school researchers and new employees — not where the power in the institution or in society writ large resides.

    Yes, you want a bf who is woke, and he at least sort of is. You seem to realize that just because he comes from more privilege than you that he is allowed to pursue grand dreams and that he is largely working for them, rather than just throwing his well-to-do-white-kid chit on the table.

    What can you expect of him? He should have empathy for and a desire to help those less privileged and less well off than himself. He shouldn’t expect his privilege as something he is owed or the natural state of God’s world. He should work hard to achieve his dreams. He should fully value you and your dreams. He should be inclusive, progressive, and active politically, because I don’t think you personally can accept less.

    Also, please consider that part of this is you and at least a tinge of guilt you feel for having a privileged bf.

    You also express a concern that bf is somewhat sheltered and not aware of the realities of life and that the harsh reality of introduction into the world of work as a newly-graduated PhD employee may be a greater shock than he can bear. Certainly doesn’t hurt to explore this more. I’m white, but grew up lower middle class and certainly not privileged, but the world of 40+ hours a week of work with 2 weeks vacation came as a jolt. I worked through the adjustment and in all likelihood your bf also will. Being European, you and he won’t ever have to get by on 2 weeks of vacation a year, so that’s a plus.

    Maybe you need to do some volunteer work alongside your bf, in which you can acquaint him with the grittier side of life on the other side of the tracks.

    #738943 Reply

    I think it’s a question of whether you’re compatible or not. You can’t force yourself to stop resenting him. Unless he’s shown much change over time, this is likely who he’ll always be. And it’s basically who he is and how he sees the world that bothers you — which is A LOT.

    I dated a guy who worked in a high-paying field where he never had to worry about a job. His dad had a fancy job, and his mom was one of those wives whose husband is so wealthy, she just worked on charity boards in her spare time. He was nice enough, but he was so sheltered. He couldn’t empathize with our friend whose grandpa died or his roommate who had to watch his money (including turning on his bedroom A/C when it was 55 outside, despite his roommate complaining about the electric bill going), and while it came across as sort of goofy, it irritated me that he couldn’t at least put himself in someone else’s shoes even if he’d never experienced loss or money problems. Ultimately, I felt like we saw the world too differently and we broke up.

    Anyway, I think you need to determine whether you see yourself happy with him in the long-term, and if not, maybe you aren’t compatible.

    ETA: Also, just because individual white people didn’t directly cause those situation doesn’t mean they don’t contribute to it. If everyone actually paid attention to privilege, etc., then the people in power wouldn’t be doing these things. To the LW, I am not in the same position as you — I’m white, so I have a lot of privilege there. But the field that I work in pays a lot of attention to social justice, and I personally couldn’t envision myself with someone who didn’t get that. Not that everyone has to feel that way, but I would feel that they didn’t get who I was deep down. I think this will ultimately be an unpopular opinion, but it’s OK if you consider that a deal breaker.

    #738957 Reply

    You have the right to break up for any reason that makes you unhappy.

    That said, I don’t understand how it is a clash of values that your parents had to flee their country and his didn’t. I assume his dad would flee if necessary and your parents would have stayed in place if they could. Are you saying that he has no empathy for what happened or are you jealous that nothing terrible happened to his parents. Don’t forget that his mom died so in the grand scheme of things if she could have chosen to flee and start over and be alive over being dead she might have felt that was preferable. You are downplaying the hardship and tragedy in his life. Being dead isn’t easier than being displaced. Losing a parent isn’t easier than watching parents start over.

    What did you expect him to do about the inequality the female grad student’s felt? What could he do? Were they treated unfairly. When I was in grad school in a science field I never felt that the women were treated less fairly than the men. That certainly could be different where you are but look at the claims and see if they are fair.

    Does he get what he wants because someone pulls strings for him or does he get it because he is smart and works for what he wants? There is a huge difference. If he is earning his success by working for it then you shouldn’t begrudge him his success in the same way he shouldn’t begrudge you your success. You seem to feel that he hasn’t earned the success that he has. Not everyone who is given the opportunity for a good education takes that opportunity and is successful. A great many people squander all of their opportunity and are happy to live off of their parents. He doesn’t sound like that. It seems that he works hard although he comes from a family with financial means. That doesn’t mean that they haven’t worked hard or that they haven’t earned their way.

    Are you jealous of him? Do you wish bad things would happen to him? Are you angry with the world for being unfair? Don’t forget that you can’t see the entirety of his life. Bad things will happen to him. You won’t know what until it happens. It could be death in an accident or cancer or infertility or some crippling disease like MS or Parkinson’s or ALS. I know a man who is currently dying of ALS. He has had a successful career and a huge, beautiful house and a wife who looks like a model and he will soon be dead at a relatively young age. He has also provided a home for the handicapped. People can be both privileged and caring and empathetic.

    #738962 Reply

    First, I find your post way too long… You are lost in general cliches. How could his parents have a life of travel and fun in their retirement if his mother died too soon? I think you are mixing general, social issues with individual experience. You blame your boyfriend for collective reasons which have nothing to do with his individual perception. What your parents had to live was terrible and traumatic. But how is your BF lucky to have lost his mother? What is worse than death?? Social inequality exist and has to be fought, yes, but not against an individual who chose you, and loves you as a person, and has done nothing wrong but being just there next to you to be blamed for others. So if you want to stand up against discrimination, then do it on a collective basis, against the right target. Join an association, a charity, a political party, whatever, but focus on the right scale. And never forget that an individual will live his life in a subjective, singular way, that you can’t reduce to a class, a race, a gender… Like losing a relative: that is a universally human, and also a totally personal experience.

    #738984 Reply
    Northern Star

    You sound like a resentful, bitter asshole. And I’m being blunt because you compare your boyfriend’s “charmed” life to your parents’, when he suffered one of the most painful things that can happen to a young man- the premature death of his mother. What the fuck are you talking about when you call him privileged? You think having money means more than having a MOTHER?

    Break up with him immediately, so the guy who continues to live his life to the fullest, even without his mom, finds someone who doesn’t resent him for being successful. Jesus.

    #738996 Reply

    I think you should break up with him. He deserves to be with someone who will support him, not look at a failure and snort “Ha! Serves you right! How you like it now, bitch!?”

    #739012 Reply
    Dear Wendy
    Dear Wendy

    Yeah, echoing other people that your letter is “off.” You say you are “extremely privileged,” you have “a lovely stable family,” you’re healthy, and you have a scholarship at one of the best universities in the world where you’re getting a PhD, and, yet, you’re concerned that your boyfriend — who lost his mother young — won’t know, in comparison, what life is like when it sucks?! Are you serious with this shit? HE LOST HIS MOTHER!! You, by comparison, have two healthy stable parents with good jobs, and YOU are worried your boyfriend doesn’t know what it’s like to struggle, to deal with adversity? He lost a parent. Young.

    I think it may be *you* who doesn’t understand what a really sucky life event feels like.

    #739014 Reply

    I woke up this morning thinking about this letter. You have such a lack of empathy. Your only focus is on your life and it’s hardships, which you admit has been privileged, and complain that he hasn’t had your adversity, even though he lost his mom. You are seriously lacking in empathy. You complain that he is successful but admit that he is extremely smart and competent. Instead of bragging about his achievements he says they dropped into his lap. He is downplaying his achievements and yet you resent the phrase he used to do that downplaying.

    Did your parents earn everything they had by nothing but hard work or was it because they were affiliated with the party in power and so were among the privileged few who were selected for university positions and good jobs? Stop and think about who has benefited from privilege and it may be that it was you more than him. Maybe your life was as privileged in it’s own way as his has been. Now you are angry that your parent’s privileged position ended and his dad still has money. At the end of it all his mom is still dead so I guess she was the least privileged of all.

    #739017 Reply

    A thing you need to understand is that when someone sees a close friend or relative die young it often changes the way that they live their life. You assume your parents will live into retirement but he has no illusion about that happening. He knows that you can die young and that knowledge affects the way he lives his life. Many people who have lost someone at too young an age live for today because they realize that they aren’t guaranteed tomorrow. They don’t put up with an unpleasant life if they can change it to something better. They value current quality of life very highly because they know it may be the only life that they get. It is natural that your boyfriend is thinking about how he wants to live his life and that he wants it to be pleasant. He wants to spend his life in a way that makes him happy. He is willing to work hard but wants that hard work to bring pleasure. There is nothing wrong with that. It is what happens when you realize that life can be short.

    If he does become an astronaut it will be because he worked hard. The competition is fierce. You seem angry and bitter that he sets high, hard to achieve goals.

    #739020 Reply

    Hmmm. Look, unlike everyone else here I’m only half white so I get the privilege you mean. White privilege. It means that never getting followed by security in a department store, unless looking like a down and out or acting suspiciously as an example. Or the fact that as POC, you’ll have had to work harder to get to exact same place as anyone else and yet have it questioned ( did get your place at College due to a diversity drive? Are you representing all of “your people ” in the right light and not just you as an individual? Are you argry at times, because you didn’t smile? This isn’t even going into the systematic racism at play .) And you’re a woman so you get that sexism edge too. These challenges can get in the way being with someone who has never experienced them or ever cares to understand them.

    But do you actually like, respect and love your boyfriend ? And how supportive is he of you and those you care about? Because like everyone said, he’s gone through some stuff big emotional stuff despite having money and being a Caucasian man. You’re dismissive of this,so that is harsh and unfair. Your parents are both alive & have a good relationship with you and each other. They’ve had a hard life in someways, but they’re together. Did his parents get on and were they close to him? Does he take care of your needs or his friends? It’s possible his lack of understanding others points of view is based on losing his mom young (a shut down of emotions) or that could mean he is open to it, if approached in a different way. We don’t know as we’ve never meet him, but you have & do. Because if you don’t have those feelings about and for him, then get out of relationship. If you do, then you need to work on either showing him how to be more open to others- compassion ( volunteering and maybe discussions using the socratic method etc) but you need to let go of thinking you’re better than him & vice versa.

    It may be that you’re just not compatible in the long term or that your/or his attitude makes it harder to be together. So think on this.

    #739025 Reply

    @heatherly I’m white and have been followed through stores. The first time it happened I was a child and couldn’t figure out why this lady was following me around as I walked through the toy section looking at things. The most recent time was last summer when my husband and I went into a shop in England and the owner followed us to the back and stood acting busy right beside us while we looked for tea towels with images of the local town. After we left the shop I told my husband that apparently the owner didn’t trust us. I don’t know why he didn’t trust us but he didn’t.

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