Dear Carolyn: In the car, my girlfriend and I were listening to an advice show. She paused it to discuss the topic, and I talked about my friend "Jen," who had had a struggle with her husband similar to the one on the show (her zero-tolerance policy on porn and his continued use). I was very disoriented by my girlfriend's visceral reaction.
It bothered her that I allowed a married woman to speak to me about something she considers a private matter between the couple. Unless I am a professional counselor, I am an interloper, usurping trust and intimacy that belongs inside the couple.
Stupidly, I got very defensive and tried to reassure her. It was one conversation. It took place years before I met my girlfriend. I had only met her husband once, briefly, and the chances of my interacting with him or anyone he knew were virtually zero. Jen and I communicate once every year or two, and several factors -- geography, family obligations, value systems -- make it hard to imagine Jen or me being something other than distant friends.
Now my girlfriend says she cannot trust me until I find myself in a similar situation -- receiving a tearful phone call from a desperate, distant friend who is contemplating divorce -- and acquit myself accordingly. I have no idea how to restore the trust. No amount of time, transparency or otherwise trustworthy conduct will begin to repair this rift. Where do I start?
Carolyn says: If you think that conversation was a box o' giggles, wait till she sees this in print.
I agree, getting defensive was a mistake. But that's often what happens when people catch us off-balance -- and when we're afraid to say the wrong thing, which is your real problem here.
You've presumably collected yourself by now, so it's time to tell your girlfriend exactly where you stand on this issue.
If you believe it was fine to help Jen, then say so. Assure her -- since integrity demands it -- that she can talk to her friends about you, if she needs fresh eyes on something. Explain your reasoning, too.
Here's mine: It's important to be able to confide in others about a marriage, as long as people choose their topics and their confidants judiciously. Third parties help keep a marriage in perspective, and insisting that spouses get that perspective only in counseling needlessly obstructs the emotional checks and balances that trusted friends and/or family members provide.
In fact, imposing limits on outside contact is a classic abuse tactic. It's so much easier to manipulate someone if there's no one to witness the manipulation, to watch the victim's back.
After you spell out why you helped Jen, say exactly what you'll do if you get a tearful call like hers again. Meaning: Crumple up your girlfriend's infantile test, and lob it into the trash. Which brings us to fear of saying the wrong thing: Your defensiveness is a precursor to walking on eggshells. You know your girlfriend's long on opinions and short on flexibility, yes? So you spin your stories around her sensitivities, knowing "trustworthy conduct" alone doesn't impress her -- i.e., knowing her trust meter is broken.
Even if it weren't, make no mistake: Either she embraces the un-spun you, or she's not for you.