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Carolyn Hax: Heal pain by making peace

Washington Post

Dear Carolyn: Recently, an e-mail exchange between my mother and my sister ended up in my inbox, I can only assume by mistake. It was full of criticism and hurtful comments. I had no idea either one of them had an issue with my family, or the way we are raising our kids. My wife was my only saving grace. She read the message, deleted it and helped me let my frustrations out to her so I wouldn’t say anything to them and do permanent damage.

We are supposed to see these family members soon. I want to go and try to enjoy the day, but I’m fearful that I might slip. What should I do? – Stressed-out Son

You’re right, your wife made an elegant save. Unleashing the raw emotions of your discovery would likely have made things worse.

Now that you’ve had time to collect yourself, though, you can figure out your next move by gauging whether you’ll be able to get past this. No doubt you are hurt; that’s a given. The question is whether this pain is out of proportion to your other feelings about your sister and mom.

One way to approach it is to consider things you’ve said to your mom about your sister, to your sister about your mom, and to your wife about both of them. Imagine what would happen if these conversations ever fell into the wrong hands.

In other words, if you’ve had conversations similar to the one you intercepted, and you’ve just never been busted, then I would use that to remind yourself that exchanges intended to be in confidence aren’t always pretty. As long as they aren’t motivated by spite, they can help friends and family understand each other, work through grievances, and even warn each other when something is amiss. If the e-mail could be considered well-meaning, by even the most elastic of stretches, then you have grounds for a conscious decision to let go.

If, on the other hand, there’s no room to interpret the message as anything but mean-spirited, then you might reasonably expect the injuries won’t heal on their own. If so, you owe it to yourself to say, calmly, to your mom (or sister, if you’re closer to her), that you received the e-mail. Let her know, and then let her speak her piece.

That represents your best chance at eliciting context and remorse, the two most healing quantities they can supply at this point. You obviously aren’t planning to estrange yourself from the family, so that leaves you with two plain if difficult choices: make peace with them, or with yourself.

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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