Dear Carolyn: Two years ago, an acquaintance of mine – and friend of my sister-in-law, “Jane” – repeated to me Jane’s ventings about our family. Our family only thinks highly of Jane; she has two special-needs children, and my brother, her husband, is controlling and not an easy person to live with. She is from another country and without benefit of her family nearby.
My family hasn’t always supported her as they wanted, but most of us had small children. My mother was the most helpful.
When this acquaintance shared all the failings of my family with me, I was stunned and said, “I know my family has issues.” To which she replied, “I’ll say.” She has based all this on Jane’s venting.
At the time I thought, Jane has a difficult life and we all need someone to vent to. I never told my family and don’t plan to, since they love her.
However, two years later, I can’t forget the way she spoke poorly and unfairly of my family, particularly my mother. Should I talk to Jane about it, or just chalk it up to her falling off the pedestal I put her on? I think she has noticed a little less warmth from me, but we are still friends.
A: How about that indiscreet, judgmental, boundary-oblivious acquaintance of yours – do you have a little less warmth to send her way, too?
Because she, not Jane, is the wolf in this fairy tale. Your initial, charitable take on Jane was the right one. She is stranded without her family, she is married to a difficult and controlling man, she does have a relentless set of responsibilities in her children’s special needs, she does have reason to believe her husband’s family hasn’t been fully supportive, and we all need someone to vent to. This is all drawn straight from your own words, and unless you’ve never ever been guilty of piling on during a vent session, each is a valid, extenuating circumstance in Jane’s favor.
I’ll go one further, though, and say that pedestals are lonely places. The lonely are quick to let their guard down, and so are particularly vulnerable to those who would abuse their trust – who would, say, leverage their private frustrations by blabbing them to the source.
Maybe this friend didn’t intend to undermine Jane and instead thought she was helping – but still that’s casting herself as the hero in a drama where she has no role. What a betrayal or what an ego, take your pick.
And look what it wrought: You’ve cooled on Jane and this mutual friend is unscathed.
Instead of distancing yourself, why not try to see the venting through Jane’s eyes, and take it as constructive criticism? Yes, she should have spoken to your family directly and, yes, she confided in the wrong friend – but don’t dismiss the message just because the messenger botched the job.