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The daughter of a close friend of mine endured a broken engagement. She was devastated when her fiance ended things for reasons that just seemed bewildering, and she sought comfort and solace from many wonderful friends and relations. Her parents, of course, have been worried about her and have been her confidantes as she works through the pain. I'm one of the other family friends the young woman has confided in.
Luckily, she seems to be doing much better now — she has dealt with her sadness, she has made some positive changes in her life, and I really think she has moved on.
The problem is, her mom — my close friend — continues to tell me how broken her daughter is and how horribly worried she and her husband are about her — to the point where I fear my friend might do something drastic like move halfway across the country to "take care of" her daughter.
I want to reassure my friend that actually, her daughter is getting so much better and is, by now, pretty much fine. But to do that, I would have to violate the confidence of the daughter who has apparently shared with me some of the better news and happy developments she has not shared with her own parents.
What can I do?
When Drama Happens to People who Don't Like Drama
Dear When Drama Happens,
Oy. What a bummer situation. It speaks to your compassion as a friend that both mother and daughter are confiding in you. But the situation also speaks to the communication breakdown between this mother and daughter. They should be speaking directly to one another (the daughter to share more about her sense of restored well-being, the mother to share her continued concern).
That being said, you have a few different options. You could:
1. Tell the daughter her mom’s still worried about her
This could make you party to a certain degree of drama. But it would eliminate the problem of making the mom feel bad about the fact that her daughter confides more in you, than her. I imagine the daughter, if apprised of the fact that her mother is considering moving halfway across the country, would talk more directly to her mother.
2. Tell both of them what you’ve told me in your letter
This would definitely mean putting yourself in between them, at least in the short term. But the long term goal would be to encourage both of them to be more direct with the other. And to make clear that while you want be a sympathetic ear to both, they need to be more direct with one another.
3. Say nothing and let them figure it out
They are, after all, both grownups. This is a tough experience for the daughter to go through, clearly, but also for a mother to witness. Still, it’s their experience to work through. If you really don’t want drama, you can simple listen to each and let them figure it out.
...drama tends to happen to people who invite it, either consciously or unconsciously.
After all, if and when the mother does announce to her daughter that she’s considering moving closer, the daughter will presumably share her feelings about that. And probably let her mom know that’s not necessary.
4. Some cannier version of option B
My general experience within my own family, and observing other families, is that they tend to withhold the truth from one another and often seek to confide in someone outside the family system. Why? Because family are often deeply conflicted about offering support and/or losing support.
I mean, specifically, that part of the reason the daughter isn’t sharing news of her psychic rebound with her mom may be because some part of her wants her mother to remain on call. Likewise, mom is telling you how worried she is, but doesn’t want to freak her daughter out — or drive her away — by expressing this worry directly.
There is space within this dynamic for you to gently suggest to each party that they need to share these feelings/plans with the other. For instance, you could say to the daughter, "I’m so glad you’re feeling better. You mom must be thrilled. What did she say when you shared this with her?" Or, to the mom, you could say, 'What does your daughter think about the idea of your moving closer?"
That gives you a natural opening to suggest more direct communication.
In closing, let me offer one final observation. Which is that drama tends to happen to people who invite it, either consciously or unconsciously. Part of this has to do with your own capacity to set boundaries, quickly and without drama. The fact that the daughter fell into a pattern of talking to you about her emotional state, rather than her mother, is something you participated in. Just as you did with the mom’s anxieties. It’s not a system that you designed, but you did enable. Again, mostly out of compassion, but perhaps unconsciously because there’s a part of you that invites drama into your life.
Even as you seek a practical solution that gets you out of this loop, I’d think about the behaviors on your part that got you into it.
Author's note: As should be clear from the column, I actually love drama. But interestingly, like this letter writer, I tend to think of myself as someone who eschews drama. I think most people are like this. We want to immerse ourselves in other people’s problems, because they are the best distraction from our own. Feel free to discuss this pattern, or offer your own drama, in the comments section below. And please do send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.
Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.