When Jeff* announced that he was leaving her after fifteen years of marriage, Beth was stunned. Beth felt so alone and so betrayed. She sought the solace of anyone who would commiserate with her and agree that Jeff was a selfish, heartless jerk. An inner voice cautioned that perhaps she was inappropriately sharing too much, but she took a perverse pleasure in trashing her husband and painting herself as the blameless injured partly. Her close friends and family circled with love and support, indignantly joining her in maligning Jeff.
As time passed and the pain eased, she began to remember the good times and Jeff's good qualities. Jeff had been her best friend, and no one knew her quirks better than he. So when Jeff showed up at the house three months later, telling her he'd made a terrible mistake and was heartsick he'd hurt her so badly, she was very torn.
Beth wanted to believe him, but wasn't sure she could ever trust him again. Beth sheepishly understood that a large part of her confusion was the worry about what she would say to those who'd listened to her endless complaints and might think she was foolish to even consider reconciliation. Or furious she'd let him come home knowing how much they disapproved of Jeff. How would she face everyone? She wished she'd kept her mouth shut.
Many of us learn discretion the hard way, when our statements come back to hurt us. We've all been in the position of regretting a confidence we shared, wishing to take back the onerous words as soon as they've left our mouths. In the heat of the moment, when we're hurting, we're likely to throw caution to the wind. When we speak negatively about a third party, we may stain that person's reputation and influence others against them. We may actually enjoy the shock value of maligning this person, so others no longer hold them in esteem. What sweet revenge!
What we don't allow ourselves to consider is that we once loved this person for an important reason. But, if we've been treated poorly, we've understandably turned our heads against the very qualities that attracted us in the first place.
What should we do if they seem to sincerely wish to make amends? We may have already determined that it is just not in our interest to become emotionally committed to this person again. Do we rigidly refuse them the opportunity to make up for the hurt? We certainly have this right. Taking this stance protects us from the uncertainty of opening our hearts to another betrayal.
Now, let's be clear, we're not responsible for another person's rude or offensive behavior. Each person must be accountable to decide how he will handle an upsetting life circumstance. If Jeff was unhappy in the marriage, there were many ways he could have addressed the upset with Beth, prior to announcing a separation. And, Beth now has the right to consider all of her options as she makes decisions to go forward. It's not a given that they should reconcile, just because Jeff has decided he's now ready to come home. On the contrary, there's clearly a lot of emotional and reparative work ahead for the two of them, to understand why things careened out of control. It will be important to clarify standards that ensure the interactions going forward will be defined by mutual respect, caring and consideration.
As we make major life decisions, letting everyone else's opinions influence what we do is a slippery slope. We may compromise our ability to evaluate the choice that is ultimately only our decision to make. Our loved ones may truly believe they have our best interests at heart, but they are not walking in our shoes and are not privy to the complexities that shape personal relationships. Unfortunately, their criticisms may ultimately damage family relationships because it will be hard to forget (and possibly forgive) their harsh commentary.
Certainly, if several close confidantes bring up valid reasons for caution, it may make sense to carefully weigh these factors as we make important life decisions. But, at the end of the day, learning to trust our own judgment and being able to stand firm in making choices that may be unpopular is a courageous life lesson that can be quite valuable.
Hopefully, the ones we care about are open-minded enough to not hold our choices against us. It takes a certain amount of courage and personal integrity to calmly say: "I've carefully considered the choices in front of me, and I've made a decision I believe is in my best interest. I'm hoping you will support me going forward." Taking this stance, while knowing others may disapprove, may cause some self-doubt.
Sometimes we become so caught up in worrying what other people think, we lose our ability to think for ourselves. We become so consumed by what we imagine to be critical judgments that we may be consumed by fear -- fear of being thought of as a jerk or a failure. When we focus solely on seeking approval, we may believe that those around us know what's right for us better than we do.
*Details have been changed.
Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Gardens office at 561-630-2827, online at www.palmbeachfamilytherapy.com, or on Twitter @LindaLipshutz.