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Ask friend why she broke confidence

Sun., March 29, 2009, midnight

Dear Carolyn: My best friend recently told me that her fiance doesn’t like me – which would explain why there’s always an excuse as to why he, and sometimes both of them, can’t come when I try to plan an activity.

Seems my best friend told her fiance that I thought she could do better. Not the best thing to say, I know, but this was over six years ago. I was honestly surprised to learn he had these issues with me, and I’m having a hard time accepting it. I’ve offered to talk to the fiance, but she advised against it since they’ve fought over this and she’s not willing to fight any more. They’re getting married in the fall. How do I navigate this water without feeling like a phony or P.O.’d friend? I can’t help but think this is bizarre. – Boston

I wish it were. It’s quite common wherever people function in groups – families, workplaces, schoolyards, anywhere. Dirt is currency.

You fault yourself for dismissing the now-fiance, but while I appreciate your willingness to take responsibility, I don’t believe your loose lips were the problem. In fact, I’d argue that as long as you didn’t have ulterior motives for speaking up, (*) then you were doing your job as best friend, by both not holding back and being open to changing your mind.

The main problem is that she severely mishandled your opinion. What did she hope to accomplish by passing on to her fiance something you presumably said in confidence? At best, it was an expensive bit of carelessness; at worst, it was calculated.

People use information as leverage and even mild self-promotion all the time. Sharing news about friends hints that you’re popular enough to be privy; office tidbits suggest you’re plugged-in. Swapping family news makes you central to these important ties.

Negative information is particularly potent. In sharing it, you form a mini-alignment with your confidant against the person you’re dogging, or whose confidence you’re betraying. Good news makes groups, bad news makes factions. Consciously or sub-, your friend chose factions. They’re now united against your inclusion.

When your friend then passed along his negative opinion of you, and discouraged you from approaching him to discuss it, she effectively finished building the wall. That’s also a commonplace. For some, more isn’t merrier, but instead more chances to get excluded. So they use their currency on individual loyalties – on splintering.

It might be unwitting, or well-meaning but misguided. So ask her – out of genuine curiosity – why she chose to “out” you both. Point out that the result has been to push you to the edges of her social life. Find out what she intended.

If it’s not what she meant to do – genuinely – then she’ll be willing to take the uncomfortable measures to make things right. That means her sticking up for you, and asking him to hear you out on that ancient critique of his worth. What you can disavow, I would hope he can forgive.

Remember the asterisk in the second paragraph? It’s a twist: If you told your friend she “could do better” because you, too, were choosing factions – trying to align her with you against this invasive new guy – then you’ll need to admit, and deplore, what you did.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 9 a.m. Pacific time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

 

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