I love my sister “Melissa,” but she has always been really bad at keeping secrets. Last week my boyfriend “Teddy” and I finally got officially engaged. We had been leading up to it for months and months, and there was a fair amount of drama along the way. During it all Melissa was my closest confidante and a great help to me and my fiancé, so I decided to tell her first, but I also told her in no uncertain terms that she was not to tell anyone, by which I meant anyone.
She must have told her husband “Brad” within minutes after I left her house, and he must have called his parents two minutes later, and they must have called my parents about a nanosecond after that, because Mom called my mobile phone twice before I’d even made it across town to my own place. I called back the minute I parked, and Mom and Dad were both thrilled, although I could tell Mom was hurt that my mother-in-law found out before she did. I told Mom that Melissa wasn’t supposed to tell anybody, even Brad, and that I had been hurrying to my place to Skype both sets of parents and make the announcement over a bottle of champagne, with Teddy by my side, when Melissa set the whole phone chain in motion. I reminded Mom that I’d promised never to call her while I was driving, and promised that if I ever got pregnant I would certainly let her know before I told my loose-lipped big sister. She seemed pretty much fine after that, but my big announcement was hardly the Hallmark moment I’d been looking forward to.
When I called Melissa to chew her out, she actually got angry with me, saying, among other things, that I had put her in a terrible position by trying to force her to keep secrets from her husband. She also said that if I really wanted to blame anybody other than myself, the fault was Brad’s, and maybe his parents,’ because everybody knows people tell their spouses everything but he had no reason to go blabbing to his parents, and they certainly had no reason to call ours, although they probably thought ours knew already, because why wouldn’t I have told them?
I let the matter drop at that point, mostly because she was giving me a headache. Teddy and I called a few of our friends and ended up drinking our champagne with them in what turned out to be a memorable evening. But I am still mad at Melissa, partly for being a blabbermouth but mostly for acting like I was an idiot to think I could confide in her and for not taking any responsibility herself. Do you agree with me that Melissa is the bad guy here?
—Teed Off in Teaneck
“Bad guy” is a bit strong. But I understand why her behavior annoyed and disappointed you. I agree with you that it was wrong of your sister to run and tell her husband. Unlike Melissa, I don’t believe that spouses do or should “tell each other everything”—everything relevant and important to the marriage, perhaps, but not someone else’s temporary secret about a happy event. I suppose one could argue that, given how close your family seems to be, your becoming engaged is relevant and important to your brother-in-law; but, even if so, the news is hardly urgent. Melissa might have waited a few days so you and Teddy could have the joy of telling the news yourselves.
I can also certainly see why you would be angry at Melissa’s response when you called her. Few things are more infuriating than when somebody discounts or even resents you for not anticipating their bad behavior. It was also less than heroic for her to pass the buck to her husband and in-laws.
But it sounds as if no real harm was done: your mother has been mollified, and you and your fiancé had an evening that sounds like at least as much fun as Skyping the folks. As long as Melissa stops actually accusing you of wrongdoing, I would let the matter drop and do what you can to cool down—not because Melissa behaved reasonably, but because I do not think staying mad at her would do anybody any good. It sounds as if Melissa was acting totally in character when she blabbed; I doubt whether your anger would make her any more likely to keep future secrets. As for the present: You have just entered what I hope will be a very happy time in your life. It will also very probably be a hectic one, as you plan your wedding. Staying on good terms with your sister is especially important now. So is keeping a sense of humor.
Don’t mention this to Melissa—concede nothing!—but I do have to wonder why you told your sister and relied on her discretion when you knew she “has always been really bad at keeping secrets.” (I also wonder whether you gave her the option not to hear your news, as in “If I tell you something, will you promise to keep it secret?” as opposed to “We’re engaged! Keep it secret.” But perhaps this is too fine a point to raise in a familial and, frankly, low-stakes situation like his one.) I assume that joy and sisterly affection overcame your own discretion, which is actually rather sweet. Try, if you can, to see the sweet and excited-for-you, as opposed to the gossipy and meddling, side of Melissa’s spilling the beans.
This is not to say you should ever trust her to keep a secret. Be careful what you tell Melissa, and be careful not to tell her you are being careful. Sometimes we just have to live with our loved ones’ limitations.
La Wally’s response:
I think that Melissa is reacting that way because she knows she was wrong. How can Melissa be mad at T.O. for trusting her?
It’s over now. But, moving on, if T.O. ever tells Melissa a secret she should be even clearer before she tells it that it cannot be repeated. This probably will not work.
P.S. If T.O. wanted to have some fun, she could tell Melissa some secrets that aren’t true and see where they go.
I am a reserved and, I am afraid, timid woman. Despite having grown up in an enlightened family and then gone to a college where people would have been very supportive, I did not come out to anybody as bisexual until I was 23, when I had my first experience, with the woman who is now my girlfriend. My finally coming out hasn’t created any real problems with anybody I’m close to, with one exception—who, unfortunately, is (or was) my best friend “Gaby.” She’s straight, so I never thought this could possibly be an issue, but it really seems to bother her that I’ve never had any romantic or sexual interest in her!
I thought it was weird that she brought the matter up. In fact, it never occurred to me that she would. But one of the first things she asked me after I came out to her was whether I had ever wanted to open up about my “feelings” for her. If I had had any time to think, I would probably have figured out some way to wriggle out of answering her, but she took me by surprise and I just blurted out: “Good Lord, no! I never thought of you that way.” I am afraid I actually laughed. She said: “Thank God for that!” and laughed along with me. But after that her manner seemed kind of cool off and on for weeks, until one day she asked me what was wrong with her that I had no interest in her, even though we knew each other so well and had been through so much together.
Maybe I should have been more careful about bruising her ego. I could have told her that I was lucky never to be attracted to straight women. Probably some defense mechanism built into my sexuality, I could have said. Or I could have told her that she was like a sister to me, which triggered an incest taboo. But I was exasperated. So I told her the truth, which is that I had no idea why, but that for some reason she did not turn me on, and that for the life of me I could not see why this was not a good thing.
Since then—it has been about a month —we have done all the kinds of things we usually do together, like calling each other every day or so and having coffee twice a week and pizza most Wednesday nights. But she seems to have some sort of chip on her shoulder, as if I broke up with her or rejected her or something. This seems crazy to me, and I have no clue what to do about it. Any advice?
—Surprised in Southbury
I’m surprised, too. I do understand, sort of, that Gaby might have some idle curiosity about whether your attraction to women might have included her somewhere along the way. We all have our vain and narcissistic moments. What I find surprising is that she would simply assume that you had “feelings” for her: either she thinks bi people are less selective than straight people, and desire almost anyone they are otherwise close to, which strikes me as seriously insulting, or she thinks (or thought, until you shot her down) that she, in particular, would be hard to resist, which is not the sort of thing you mention even if you are conceited enough to believe it. What I find downright astonishing is that she would not only think you were bound to have these feelings, but would also expect you to talk to her about them on demand, during what I assume was already a complicated time in your life.
And what on earth were you supposed to say if you were attracted to Gaby? If she is indeed straight, it seems both unkind and breathtakingly self-centered of her to ask you to open up to her about desires she will never reciprocate. Given that she seems to have taken offense at your not being attracted to her, the questions she asked you had no acceptable answer —except, perhaps, for one of those explanations (defense mechanism, incest taboo) you wish you’d had time to consider.
Of course, you have no duty to explain anything in this situation. Gaby put you on the spot, twice, and you gave her two truthful answers —which, in terms of strict morality and entitlements, was already more than you needed to do: you had every right not to answer her intrusive questions at all. But, as I keep saying in these columns (the process has actually been a learning experience for me), strict ethics is often the easy part of the answer to life’s questions. In your case and many others, the hard parts are deciding what you want and then trying to figure out how to achieve it with minimal drama and without compromising your dignity or principles.
It sounds to me that what you want is to maintain your close friendship with Gaby, but to have her stop skulking around like a woman scorned.
She may stop on her own if the two of you just stick to your reassuring routines. As a self-described reserved and timid person, you might want to keep doing what you’re doing for another month or two, eating pizza and drinking coffee and chatting on the phone without alluding to the curious incident of the nonexistent rejection. Her hurt, or whatever it is, may run its natural course. She may even read something, or talk to some third person, and start to see reason.
If that doesn’t work, or if you just decide at any point that it is time to clear the air, by all means talk to her —but, before you do, take some time to think about why she has been so clueless (at best) and how you can smooth things over without actually lying to her or saying anything that implies an apology or excuse.
Here are some questions worth considering. Is Gaby (rightly or wrongly) concerned about her attractiveness in general? Has her romantic and sexual life been unsatisfying? If so, perhaps her behavior toward you is part of this larger insecurity—as in: “I’m so unappealing that I am unattractive even to even my best friend, who I now know is drawn to at least some people of our gender.”
Gaby’s assuming that you would have “feelings” for her, and especially her being hurt and offended when you turned out not to, may also stem, at least in part, from her attachment for you. At some level, maybe conscious or maybe more visceral, she may have felt that, since you two are bffs and all, and you are so pretty and smart and charming, she would of course be attracted to you if she were gay or bisexual, and that she would expect you to feel the same way. Or might she even feel some non-hypothetical attraction to you? Her odd behavior hints only weakly at this possibility —which, in any event, would be treacherous and probably cruel to mention given your lack of attraction to her. But it would explain some of her hurt.
And even if Gaby has never felt the slightest frisson of sensuality in your presence, never had even the subtlest crush on you, she may still feel rejected or displaced by your new sexuality—and your girlfriend. Until now she has never had to compete with another woman in quite the same way for your time, attention, and intimacy. This may be part of the reason for that chip on Gaby’s shoulder, and your dismissing and, at one point, laughing at the idea that Gaby might have what it takes to fill your new lover’s role may have felt like adding insult to injury.
Not that there has been any insult on your part —except for a completely excusable lack of superhuman tact. No injury, either: it sounds as if you and Gaby are doing the same sorts of things and communicating just as often as before your new love interest came along. No matter how we try to explain it, Gaby’s response was self-centered and tone-deaf. But it almost never hurts to try to understand our loved ones’ motives when they behave badly. Doing so can lessen our own hurt and free us from corrosive anger, along with helping us figure out how to deal with the bad actor in question —which latter, you will recall, is the quest I set out on a few paragraphs back.
If you decide it is time to talk, I would bear in mind that Gaby may have been a seriously second-rate friend—self-absorbed, insulting, ignorant, and an annoying mixture of conceited and neurotically insecure—when dealing with your coming out, but that she may also be terrified of losing her special closeness with you to someone who can be both your woman friend and your girlfriend. I would tell (or write) her something like: “I’ve been thinking about that time you asked me whether there was anything wrong with you because I don’t think about you sexually. You know how interesting and smart and fun and beautiful I think you are. I am not sure why, maybe because you have been my close friend for so long, but even though you are such a lovely person I am somehow insulated from those feelings where you’re concerned. I am really grateful for that because I know that I can tell you anything, and that we can be friends forever without any awkwardness or one-sidedness. It has been hard for me to come out as bi, and I know we’ve had one or two difficult moments. I will feel so much comfortable if we declare this subject closed and move on. [Optional: Love you.]”
If I do say so myself, that sounds like an eminently reasonable response to Gaby’s weirdness. Firm, yet kind, almost saintly. Indeed, I would understand if you wanted to dial the goodness down a notch. But saintliness can be quite effective against resentment and passive aggression.
I hope that you and Gaby work things out. I also hope that she broadens her perspectives on friendship and sexuality. Do you remember when the dashing Henry Crawford proposed to the timid and reserved Fanny Price in Mansfield Park? Of course you do. But let me explain to those poor unfortunates whose Jane Austen never went beyond Pride and Prejudice that Fanny refused Crawford and that nobody understood why she could not love him. When told that she would have to convince her aunts that she had not lost her senses, Fanny said: “I should have thought…that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex, at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.” The principle is the same here: nobody, however agreeable, must be acceptable as a love interest to every friend who happens to come out as bi.
Well, essentially the same. Good luck, and congratulations on overcoming your reserve and timidity.
La Wally’s response:
If they are such close friends, I would have SiS talk to Gaby one more time and explain two things. One: that this is not all about her. Two: that being bisexual does not mean you are attracted to everybody of your own gender. Maybe Gaby is acting so weird because she is attracted to SiS. But even if she is, don’t go there!
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.