Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Double Your Flavor, Double your Fun

It's a great day when the same question shows up in two different columns, I can remember the first when reading the second, and I can find both!

Printed by Carolyn (April 22) and Annie's Mailbox (June 3), the question is:

Dear Annie: Recently, an e-mail correspondence between my mother and sister somehow ended up in my inbox. I can only assume it got there by mistake because it was full of criticism and hurtful comments about my family. The saddest part is that I had no idea either of them had issues with my wife or the way we raise our kids. My wife has been the only saving grace. She was able to calm me down and help me deal with the pain. She read the e-mail, deleted it and made sure I said nothing about it to my mother or sister to avoid damaging the relationship permanently.

We are supposed to celebrate July 4th with my extended family. [Carolyn's column printed"We are supposed to see these family members soon" instead] I'd like to go and enjoy the day, but fear I might slip and say something about the e-mail or engage in a conversation that might not be appropriate for a family gathering. What should I do? — Stressed-Out Son

Kathy and Marcie's brief, pragmatic response:

Dear Stressed: It is not unusual for family members to criticize each other, especially in-laws, in private. (You and your wife have probably done the same.) No one is looking for trouble, which is why Mom and Sis would never dream of saying these things to your face. We know your wife was trying to spare you, but it might be better to discuss this openly. Tell your mother and sister that you saw the e-mail and are disappointed they harbor such negative feelings, but you hope you can all get past it. In order to salvage the relationship, you must find a way to forgive them.

And Carolyn's longer, more pondering one:

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.

Arrrrgh, the only thing worse than accidentally sending an email specifically to the very person you didn't want it to go to is being the person who receives it (discussion for another time: the merits and challenges of the emergency follow up email featuring "PLEASE DELETE EARLIER MESSAGE IT WAS NOT MEANT FOR YOU" in the subject line).

Carolyn, as usual, advocated taking a long look at oneself, and making a fair effort to understand the other person's perspective before acting--she's often more reflective than Annie's Mailbox. But, even after all that reflection (which I'm not trying to devalue) her advice was, in the end, virtually the same as theirs.

And I pretty much agree with it, too. It's too bad the first double printed letter I've found since I've been actively paying attention wasn't a more controversial one!

Also: it makes me giggle that Carolyn's editors replaced "the 4th of July" with "soon." At the time that this guy wrote to Carolyn, his bile was rising even as he looked toward an event 3 months (possibly more) in the future, with no intention of seeking any resolution in the interim.

Given that, and given that he clearly wrote to multiple columnists, I think Carolyn at least (maybe too late for Kathy and Marcie) could have just told him to drop the issue for a week or two or even more, and carry on with life as usual. If it's still eating at him, and the deleted words are still burned on his brain, and he can't communicate normally with mother and sister, THEN follow through on clearing the air with them.

Also, it seems impossible that the sister/mother didn't put 2 and 2 together and realize their mistake. They, too, are probably just waiting for the storm.


Anonymous said...

There has got to be some back story here. I'm sure this e-mail didn't come out of nowhere; maybe there was a dispute at a previous family gathering that set off their hurtful comments. I know several people whose in-laws don't like them, but their hurtful comments are always more passive or flippant than in-depth, even when the person isn't around. It's more like we're sitting at a wedding and the kids are running around and someone says: "She really shouldn't let her children do that here." Only someone who had absolutely NO idea how e-mail works would 1) actually write down her feelings about her family so they could potentially be found some time down the road, 2) send it to the person they were talking about, and 3) not eventually realize that the intended recipient didn't get the e-mail, check the info on the e-mail, and realize they made a horrible mistake. It almost makes me think this wasn't an accident. Almost. Unfortunately, people really are that ignorant sometimes.

The thing that is really starting to interest me about these letters is how far removed we, as readers, are from the actual situation. There is almost always some back story leading up to the situation that leads a person to write in, which we will never know about. Of course these writers are going to try to put themselves in the best light as they write in, and I wonder how much of what they say is spun in their favor. This is totally fascinating to me.

Becky said...

You're definitely right. That's what can make Carolyn's weekly live chats so interesting. Often the answers that columnists give are by necessity vague, because they know they don't have all the information, and can't be more specific. Very often when someone poses a question on the chat, Carolyn will ask them pointed questions about their specific situation. It always shapes, and sometimes totally overturns, her response.