Three of my best college buddies and I go away for an annual guys weekend at a cabin in the woods.
We’re all in our mid-thirties and we’ve been doing these get-togethers for close to a decade. It’s our way of staying in touch, since we’ve all got busy lives and some of us reside in different cities. Though at times I’ll go months without talking to them, I consider these guys my closest friends. We’ve seen each other through several relationships, two weddings, one divorce, one of us coming out as gay, one of us realizing he’s an alcoholic and getting sober, one of us becoming a father, dysfunctional family issues, the death of another one of our close college friends, professional successes and failures, and—you get the picture.
On our most recent get together a few months ago, I overheard my friends discussing me. Before this incident occurred, the four of us had been on the subject of my love life. My long-time girlfriend and I broke up last year for reasons I won’t go into here, but I did go into with my friends back when she and I decided to end things. Not long before my weekend with the guys, she and I got back together and I told them my ex and I were making a go of it again. They didn’t say much in response, but I wouldn’t have expected them to.
Later that day I stepped out for a walk, but soon realized I’d forgotten my hat, so I returned to the cabin to get it. The moment I opened the door I could hear my friends in the kitchen discussing me. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t keep myself from listening, since they were talking about my girlfriend and me. I wouldn’t say they were trashing me, but they did make critical remarks about the way I “justify” my relationship and other things about my personality that were unflattering. About five minutes into this, I opened the door and shut it hard so they would know I was there and they stopped talking.
I tried to pretend I didn’t hear what they’d said, but soon I told them what had happened. They were extremely embarrassed. Each of them apologized, assured me they meant nothing by what they said, and claimed they were only concerned that I’d gotten back together with my girlfriend, who they don’t think is good for me. I played it off like it was cool and acted like I wanted to let bygones be bygones, but it’s been a few months and I’m still bothered by what happened. I feel betrayed. It’s none of their business who I choose to date for one thing and for another I’m pissed they were running me down like that.
I recognize that I’m possibly taking this too hard. I’ll admit that I have talked about each of them with the others over the years. I’ve made statements I wouldn’t want the person in question to hear, even secondhand. The rational part of me understands that these sorts of discussions among friends are to be expected. It sounds weak to admit this, but I’m hurt. Part of me wants to tell them to go fuck themselves when it comes to the weekend at the cabin next year. What do you think? Should I forgive and forget or find new a batch of buddies?
Odd Man Out
Dear Odd Man Out,
What a disaster. How dreadful it must have been to hear your friends saying negative things about you. How mortified they must have felt when they learned you’d been listening. You have every reason to be upset and hurt. And yet….and yet—you knew there was going to be an “and yet,” didn’t you?—in the scheme of things this is quite small, quite ordinary. I’m positive you should not toss these friends aside for a new batch of them.
Besides—those new friends? They’d only talk about you behind your back too. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Perhaps the first step in getting over this is to talk to your friends and collectively acknowledge that what happened was indeed deeply unfortunate. By hearing what you were not meant to hear you punctured a social code that’s in place to protect your feelings. You heard your friends express opinions about you that they are too polite to tell you and they expressed them in blunt language they would not have used had they known you were listening. You witnessed a discussion that was being had about you that was unbound by concern for your feelings. No wonder you feel so stung. Anyone would.
That your friends have those opinions, however, does not mean that they don’t love you or value you as a friend or otherwise think you are one of the best people they know. That may be difficult to believe at this moment, when your feelings are so raw, but it’s true.
We talk about our friends behind their backs. We do. Ask any social scientist who has studied human communication behaviors. Even you admitted to doing this. Our friends are witness to our attributes and flaws, our bad habits and good qualities, our contradictions and our contrivances. That they need to occasionally discuss the negative aspects of our lives and personalities in terms less than admiring is to be expected. Like anything, there are healthy and constructive ways to do this and unhealthy and destructive ways.
A healthy way is rooted in respect and love. In this case, we make critical assessments and uncomplimentary observations entirely within the context of our affection and concern for the individual in question. Sometimes we talk behind a friend’s back in order to grapple with our doubts about or disapproval of the choices he or she has made. Sometimes we do it because our friends possess qualities that confound, confuse, or annoy the shit out of us, though we love them anyway. Sometimes we discuss our friends with others because we had a weird or rude or dumb interaction with one of them and we simply need to blow off steam. The baseline of these discussions is a grounded knowledge that we love and care for the friend—regardless of the things that irk, confuse, or disappoint us about him or her. The negative thoughts we express about this friend are outweighed by the many positive thoughts we have.
An unhealthy way to talk about a friend behind his or her back is rooted in cruelty, ill will and oftentimes jealousy. There is a lack of generosity and a cutting glee; one takes pleasure in ripping the so-called friend to shreds. Though we may pretend otherwise, we don’t truly want good things for him or her. We like to take him or her down a peg. We are judgmental and petty. We will not protect that friend, but are instead willing to betray him or her if the situation serves us. On the other hand, we are happy to use this “friendship” to our advantage, should the opportunity arise. Our affection is one of convenience rather than heart.
So. There’s a good way and a bad way to gossip, but either way it pretty much sucks to overhear it if you happen to be the subject of the conversation. There is no question that given what happened, Odd Man Out, you and your friends are going to have to repair a bit of damage. I believe that with some time, you can do that.
It seems clear to me that your friends were discussing you from a place of love and concern—the healthy place. My hunch is that your friends were unconsciously attempting to strengthen their bond with you rather than rend it when they were discussing you that day at the cabin. After all, when this “incident” occurred, you’d just informed them that you’d reunited with a woman they all apparently believe—fairly or not—is a negative force in your life. If they didn’t care about you, they wouldn’t have bothered to discuss this turn of events. Because they do care about you, they began speaking about it the moment they believed you were out of earshot. Collectively, they hashed out their feelings—in preparation, perhaps, to share a watered down version of them with you.
This is this because they love you. Don’t lose sight of that just because you all got caught in an embarrassing situation that I’ll guess every last one of us can imagine being on both sides of.
I suggest that you talk to your friends again about what happened, only this time you do it more forthrightly. No doubt, your hurt feelings are lingering in part because you so quickly attempted to brush them aside. Let the dudes in the woods debacle bring you closer to your friends rather than force you apart. Use this awkward experience as an opportunity to clear the air on the subject of your girlfriend and whatever it is your dearest friends think you’re justifying about your relationship with her. Tell them how hurt you were to hear what they said. Tell them why you think they are wrong. Tell them why you love your girlfriend and why they should be open to loving her too. Then ask them why they said what they did about you and her and do your best to listen.
Your choice of romantic partners is none of their business, it’s true, but the reason they have an opinion about it is because they want you to have a good life. They know you. They have listened to what you’ve told them about your relationship with this woman and they’ve made their own observations. I’m not suggesting that you dump your girlfriend because your friends don’t like her, but rather that you hear what they have to say. Perhaps they have a negative opinion of her because when you broke up with her and shared the story of that break up with your friends you cast her in an inaccurately unflattering light. Perhaps they simply don’t know what they’re talking about and you need to set them straight. Perhaps they see something you cannot see right now, blinded as you may be by desire for this relationship to work.
We can’t know. Time will tell. But I encourage you to swallow your pride and hear your friends out, to look at the image of yourself they’re reflecting back to you. It might be useful. It might piss you off. It might help you get over the tender feelings you have about what happened at the cabin. The complicated thing about friends is that sometimes they are totally wrong about us and sometimes they are totally right and it’s almost always only in retrospect we know which is which.
I have this dear friend I’ll call Beth. She fell in love fast and hard with a guy I’ll call Tom. Over the course of a year or two Tom took Beth on a ride of highs and lows. There was love, deception, abandonment, lies, passion, promises, and a whole bunch of absolute bullshit. She was up. She was down. She was standing on my front stoop shaking and crying or calling me to say how amazing Tom was. When I’d been witness to this relationship long enough that I’d formed my own opinion about it, I began sharing my concerns with Beth. I was gentle at first, but before long I could not keep myself from telling her exactly what I thought in the most blunt terms: this man was a player and by not ridding herself of him, Beth was only bringing pain upon herself.
It took another several months and false starts and betrayals before she believed I was right. By then she’d wished she’d listened to what I said way back when, but the thing is, I wouldn’t have listened either. Who does what a friend tells her to do? I can’t say I ever have, even when later I fully recognized that I should’ve.
After a while Beth began dating another guy. I’ll call him Dave. About a month into their relationship she called me up and told me they were engaged.
“To be married?” I stuttered, trying to conceal my disapproval and fear that this Dave person was going to be another disaster, another Tom.
“Yes! I know it’s fast, but we’re in love and we’re getting married,” she said. She was sure. He was great. She was so happy. She knew this was right.
I spent a half hour asking her one question after another in tone of voice that I hoped sounded upbeat, but when I hung up I didn’t feel upbeat. I felt worried. I immediately emailed another of Beth’s close friends—a woman with whom I’m only acquainted. I asked her what she thought about this crazy business of Beth getting married to this guy she’d only been dating for a month. We went back and forth, discussing Beth. We shared with each other her tendencies when it came to men, our observations of her strengths and her weaknesses, the things we hoped for her and also feared. We knew her. We loved her. We wanted her to be happy, but we were talking shamelessly about her behind her back.
Months later, after Beth married Dave, after I realized Dave really did make Beth happy and that he was good not just to her, but for her, I told her what I’d done. I told her how I’d emailed her friend because I’d been distressed about how quickly she and Dave had committed to each other. I could see the tension cross her face as I informed her that two of her best friends had been discussing her. I could understand why it made her feel defensive and uncomfortable. Who were we to weigh in on the subject of who she married and how fast? I understood that completely.
But I also understood who it was we were. We were two of her best friends. We were the people who listened to her tell all those awful and glorious stories about Tom and we would be the people who would be there for her regardless of how things turned out with Dave. We would be her friends no matter what. Because we loved her. If she needed us, we would go to her any time. We would stand by her. She knew this and I knew the same about her. I knew she’d always tell me the truth, even if it hurt, and I also knew that she’d take care not to hurt me. I knew over the course of our friendship she too might have opinions or concerns about me that she’d opt to discuss with someone else in words that would be best for me not to hear. And I knew that was okay, that it was a perfectly natural part of sustaining a true friendship over many years, that it wasn’t a betrayal, but a blessing.
That’s what you have in these men, Odd Man Out. True friends. Real blessings. Forgive them. Feel lucky you have them. Move along.