The Soapbox: Since When Is Wanting An Intellectually Equal Partner “Elitist”?

I am fan of GOOD’s dating dealbreaker series (eerily similar to ours, but whatever) because I think it does a good job of looking back on past failed relationships and identifying the reason(s)  things just didn’t work out. Sometimes these dealbreakers can seem insignificant on the surface, but actual indicate a larger problem; other times these dealbreakers are glaringly obvious compatibility flaws. Even if the specific story does not resonate with readers, the larger problems are often relatable. GOOD writer Melissa Jeltsen’s dealbreaker, according to the headline on her piece? “He Didn’t Go To College.” This made her an “obnoxious, pseudo intellectual elitist” in the words of Feministe writer Caperton.

I found Jeltsen’s story about breaking up with someone because he was not her intellectual equal to be nuanced, compelling, thoughtful, and self-reflective. Feministe’s takedown, on the other hand, while raising one or two decent points, was disproportionately nasty in tone. Yes, the title of her piece was somewhat simplistic, but it was eye-catching and likely written by her editor, as most headlines are. However, Jeltsen’s piece was about more than just breaking up with her boyfriend because he didn’t go to college. She writes that despite having a “deep and easy” connection with Duke, the boyfriend in question, she was not intellectually stimulated by him.

Duke was not like me: He was a reclusive Boston native who didn’t read, wasn’t political, and didn’t even own a computer. I grew up overseas, devoured newspapers, and felt happiest surrounded by lots of friends, debating into the night.

Duke, in addition to not being in school, also didn’t have a job, didn’t show interest in trying to get a job, and took money from his mother to get by. Clearly, this was not a man who bypassed higher education in favor of other pursuits. As Jeltsen progressed in college, her interest in academics grew and the distance between her and Duke widened. “When I came home at night, I wanted to keep talking — about literature, history, art, culture, the world outside of our little windows,” she writes. “I craved someone to help me parse new ideas, encourage me to think differently, question my views.” Still, Jeltsen stayed in the relationship, likely because, they were “earnest, young and in love,” and she couldn’t imagine life without him. She encouraged Duke — whose “undiagnosed learning disability” resulted in him dropping out of high school at 16 — to enroll in college, in hopes he would enjoy it as much as she did, and he reluctantly agreed. 

But college was a struggle for Duke. “I felt guilty and embarrassed for pushing him into a path that satisfied my interests, not his,” Jeltsen writes. Eventually, she ended things, ultimately because she wanted someone she could share the biggest part of her life with. “I wanted an intellectual match.”

The essay is bittersweet, compassionately written, and, I think, very easy to relate to, whether the issue is intellect or something more mundane. At some point, most of us have or will develop a deep, loving connection with someone who is just not right for us in some way — ways that may be obvious, even. Yet facing that reality, and making decisions that hurt in the present but are better for us in the future, are often easier said than done. If you never go through that, consider yourself lucky.

Caperton at Feministe seemingly read a different essay than I did.  I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how Jeltsen’s story — the way she characterized her relationship with Duke, their issues, and their eventual breakup — could make her so angry. The tone of her takedown is incredibly snarky and condescending, but more importantly mischaracterizes the motivation behind Jeltsen’s feelings and actions.

Not having stuff in common is a perfectly reasonable dealbreaker. … But go ahead, cram it all into a superior, elitist backpack labeled “never went to college.” Maybe if Duke actually went to college, he’d discover that he wanted to be an illustrator and still didn’t give two shits about politics or literature. Maybe he’d discover a love for computer science, end up making a ton of money, and still have nothing to talk about with you. Maybe now that you’re free, you’ll meet some handsome literature grad student in the coffee shop and spend your days discussing philosophy and classic texts, but always in your apartment because his smells like cat piss and his mom was late paying the power bill. But at least Cat Piss Grad Student would have the four-year degree that qualified him as people like you. … I’m super-sad that didn’t work out for you. And I’m sure Duke, if he were to read this (if he read things at all, which he totally doesn’t, amirite?), would cry a delicate, crystalline tear at his loss.

The title of an essay cannot tell you everything you need to know about what’s in that essay, but I agree that the title of Jeltsen’s piece — again, likely written by an editor for brevity and click ability — was shallow, especially in comparison to the depth within. Change the title to something more nuanced and Caperton’s whole point becomes moot. Jeltsen’s piece makes it clear that the dealbreaker was Jeltsen and Duke’s incompatibility intellectually, not his lack of a degree. Her desire to make it work — a feeling I think we have all experienced at some point — compelled her to suggest Duke enroll in college. It’s not that she wanted a boyfriend with a degree, but she did hope that Duke would be as inspired by learning as she was. At no point does she specify that she wanted him to take politics and literature courses, the subjects most interesting to her; my takeaway was that Jeltsen would have been thrilled to see Duke find his passion, just as she had found hers, and that them both having passions to talk about with each other would repair the intellectual disconnect she felt. That makes her a fucking elitist? 

I could understand the mocking tone in Caperton’s criticism a little more if Jeltsen lacked insight into her own behavior and mistakes or if her point of view really was as elitist as Caperton made it seem. Caperton believes Jeltsen’s most egregious failing was “pressuring” Duke to go to college so that he would live up to her “elitist” expectations (like that he do something with his life?), and that she should have just ended things instead of trying to “change him.” But Jeltsen is upfront about having pressured Duke into enrolling in college — is college the new heroin, by the way? — and is clearly remorseful that in bending to her “pressure,” he had a difficult time. But more important than sharing her mistakes is that Jeltsen’s intentions clearly were without malice. She wanted to make their relationship work, to make them fit. She wanted to see this person she cared about do more with his life. And, as it so often does, trying to change him, to fix them, failed. That doesn’t make her a bad person.

Reading Feministe’s unfair and nasty assessment of Jeltsen’s piece really chapped my hide, but it was a series of comments from writer Amanda Marcotte on the Feministe post itself that got me thinking about the larger issue at play. Marcotte wrote:

Women’s hearts and bodies aren’t a democracy. If our hearts aren’t set afire by men who don’t share out interests in politics and literature, that doesn’t make us bad people. It doesn’t make us “elitists.”

There’s enough pressure on women to ignore what we really want from life and love and instead offer our bodies and our hearts up selflessly, giving up the hope of real satisfaction so as not to be “bad” girls who care about “shallow” or “elitist” things like what will make us happy. Sad to see a feminist blogger double down on that pressure.

Marcotte is right. The reality that a lot of people, women in particular, try to make relationships work that just won’t. Women in particular are pressured by society at large to settle for Mr. Good Enough. There’s practically a section at Borders devoted to the topic. So who can blame Jeltsen for trying to convince herself that the “deep and easy” connection she shared with Duke should be enough? And who can blame Jeltsen for wanting her partner to empower himself through education and earn his own money, to stop living off his mom? Like Marcotte, I’m dismayed to see self-described feminists (both Caperton and those snarking along with her in Feministe’s comment section) coming down so hard on a woman for recognizing that she wasn’t as fulfilled as she should be in her relationship and choosing not to settle. Marcotte continued:

The only thing [Jeltsen] did “wrong” was believe that she—despite being female and expected to sacrifice her own desires in order to please a man—should be able to have a relationship with someone who actually shared her interests. She wanted to have a home where her interests were welcome. She wanted what men are entitled to have, criticism-free.

Just last night, I was having a conversation with a guy I know who was telling me about his last girlfriend and how he broke up with her because “it just didn’t feel right.” That was it. He couldn’t explain what didn’t feel right, couldn’t get even a tiny bit more specific, yet that reason — “It just didn’t feel right” — has been used by more men than I count for ending their relationships. Frankly, it’s a perfectly good reason — your gut often knows what your heart and head don’t yet realize. And women, in particular, learn to second guess their guts because we’re taught by an array of cultural forces from a very young age that when a man falls in love with us and wants to be with us, we should feel grateful. We’re taught you can only end things with him if you have a good reason and “not being happy” is not gonna cut it. And as we’ve seen in the case of Jeltsen, even when a woman has a reason to end a relationship, that reason is heavily scrutinized and often dismissed. Oh, and then you’re shamed for not giving your “obnoxious, pseudo intellectual elitist” excuse earlier. Yeah, because it obviously would have been taken seriously and considered valid then, right?

Wrote Marcotte, in her debate with Feministe commenters:

It seems to me that if there wasn’t a constant drumbeat of messages to women that we’re “shallow” and “elitist” “bitches” if we want more out of our relationships, she would have cut the string sooner. The attempts to salvage the relationship strike me very much as a reaction to the fear that she would be judged for not wanting him because he didn’t share these interests with her. Her fears were obviously correct. 

I am a good example of someone who stayed in a relationship that was not fulfilling: my ex-fiancé. (I stayed so long, he broke up with me!) I stayed for complicated reasons. On one hand, like Jeltsen, I very much loved my boyfriend. Our connection was absolutely “deep and easy.” He was, for the most part, very good to me. We had a lot of fun together. He made me feel safe and loved, and, quite frankly, I put aside all of my reservations, worries about our compatibility, feelings of not being intellectually and sexually fulfilled, because I thought our relationship was the best I was going to get and I should be grateful. I was lucky to be loved by him and preserving our relationship meant I had to ignore the nagging feeling that maybe we weren’t right for each other. Trying to change things about him, pushing him to be the best person I thought he could be — as Jeltsen did with Duke — was a poorly applied bandaid on a wound that would not heal, but it was absolutely applied with the best of intentions. 

Of course, it would have been better for all involved to walk away. But tough decisions are rarely made so simply, especially they go against much of what we’ve been taught and are tied so closely to feelings of insecurity and self-worth. Eventually, my boyfriend broke up with me and for someone who was better for him. Someone with whom it did “feel right.”

Now, I am holding out for that, too.