August 21, 2013 in Features

Don’t judge by what you’ve heard

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: From what my daughter’s boyfriend has told me of his childhood, his mom sounds cold, unloving, even borderline abusive. He’s quick to reassure me that she’s changed since then. But I can’t unhear what I’ve heard.

I know the default is to be cordial when I meet her and give her the benefit of the doubt, but how do I handle it if she puts him down in my presence? – Uncharted Territory

This is actually two questions. The first is how to handle what you’ve heard, and the second is how to handle what you witness.

For the former I recommend, yes, the benefit of the doubt, but you can’t half-heart it, or else you’ll take the slightest of her transgressions as license to believe the worst.

So try looking at yourself through this lens for a moment. Page through your memories of raising your daughter, and fix on a couple of your lowest moments. Times you yelled, times you acted selfishly, times you said something mean. Now imagine your daughter spinning these tales for a therapist. Yikes.

You may know these were deeply regretted exceptions, typical and human and duly mended, but you also need to know that, if phrased just-so to someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t know you, these could paint a scary picture of you. Of anyone.

When you meet the boyfriend’s mom with that in mind, maybe you can upgrade your we’ll-just-see to a truly open mind. Think of it as innocence until she proves herself guilty.

As for any mistreatment you witness, handle it as you would any other: Stick up for the target. Anything from a raised eyebrow to a full-out “I believe you owe X an apology” can let people know unkindness is unwelcome here.

Email Carolyn at, follow her on Facebook at carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 9 a.m. each Friday at

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