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Out-of-bounds offer of help causes rift

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Overstepped bounds now require a bigger production

Kansas: My new girlfriend has a big scar on her chest from a childhood heart surgery. When I introduced her to my family, my sister, who is a pretty accomplished TV makeup artist, offered her some tips on how to camouflage the scar using a certain type of powder. My girlfriend got very upset and offended, and the rest of our visit got pretty contentious.

I thought we could just move on, but weeks later I find that people on both sides are pressuring me to issue some kind of statement about this. I think it's really stupid and that as grownups we should just move past it, but since we apparently can't, what am I supposed to say?

For what it's worth, I can see both sides: My sister was just trying to help, but she really didn't know my girlfriend well enough to offer that kind of advice.

Carolyn: Your sister was wrongheaded and presumptuous to speak up, but your girlfriend is now ignoring the fact that your sister also had good intentions. This problem could have been dispatched immediately if your sister had merely apologized for overstepping her bounds, and if your girlfriend had accepted.

Now, it's going to take multiple, mutual apologies — your sister for overstepping her bounds, and then for failing to recognize she had done so; and your girlfriend, for holding out for her half of the baby instead of trying to find something to forgive.

I think you're being unrealistic about expecting everyone to move on, even if both parties behave like adults. When the bad feeling has lasted for weeks and others are now involved, you can't just expect people to shrug it off. It has to be reckoned with.

So, the "some kind of statement" would best be centered on the need for both sides to acknowledge missteps. The players on both sides are trying their best, each trying to live the way she thinks is right. That those two ways are in conflict doesn't mean they can't respect each other's efforts to live thoughtfully and with purpose.

The Road to Hell, etc.: Any time we say, "But he/she/they/we meant well," we're basically excusing plain old rudeness. Meaning well and speaking well do not equate.

Carolyn: I disagree. The law allows for mitigation, because it's moral, logical and just to do so. So why can't we, particularly in our most personal interactions?

Certainly some behaviors need to be decried more firmly and publicly than our society seems to have a stomach for — the demagoguery of this recent election comes to mind. However, just as it's possible to become so gray-tolerant that there's no respect for right and wrong anymore, there's also a risk of being too black-and-white. That's particularly true with conflict in our inner circles, where feeling aggrieved and misunderstood is no longer just a path to literary stardom; it's a nascent Olympic sport.

So. Take the immediate circumstances of the conflict, take the knowledge you have of the people involved, add other, relevant context, and then try to differentiate the good from the bad. Then, ally yourself accordingly. I could make an argument for approaching every conflict that way.

Out-of-bounds offer of help causes rift 01/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 8:56am]

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