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Speak plainly in situation

Dear Carolyn: A friend came to me telling me that something I said two weeks ago was very hurtful to her. She said if I can't remember what it was, that was even worse.

I do not remember what I said and I'm racking my brain trying to remember! I apologized, telling her I did not intend to hurt her and was very sorry if I did. But, Carolyn, I'm not sure what I should do. I'm too embarrassed to admit to her that I don't recall what I said.

-- I'm stupid and I need your help

A: You're not being stupid, she is. There's an excellent reason (besides being a bad friend) that you wouldn't remember the allegedly hurtful thing you said: Whatever you said was never intended to be hurtful. Duh. If in your mind you were just making conversation, how are you supposed to remember every word you uttered two weeks after the fact? "Let's see, I asked, 'How's work going' and she said "

Now, if you asked her a banal question like that without knowing it was a sore spot -- or worse, knowing -- then it's easy to see how there'd be hurt feelings.

But dealing with those would be immeasurably more effective if she threw petulant hints to the wind and just formed the words, "I'm upset because you said X, knowing it was a sore spot for me." Or whatever. Then you could either explain the misunderstanding, apologize for your cruelty or -- and I include this for purposes of illustration only -- say something mean again. Any of these would serve her purpose in confronting you: revealing the truth of what happened, and allowing her to make an informed decision on your friendship.

Since your friend has either an overactive drama center or an underactive communication one (or, tragically, both), you're the one who's going to have to speak plainly. "I've racked my brain and still have no idea what I said -- and I'm hoping that's because I didn't mean to be cruel. Please remind me what I said so I can try to make things right."

At worst she'll be just as angry and oblique as she was to begin with, and at best she'll get what may be a badly needed example of what healthy expression sounds like.

The worst case for you, I think, is that you see her implied tantrum threat, and raise her a total capitulation to it.


Jump right in

Dear Carolyn: How do I break up with my live-in boyfriend, with whom I share pets, belongings and years of history?

-- Philadelphia

A: Trust the momentum of the words "We need to talk." Find the courage to jump, and let gravity take over. It'll be hellish, but less so if you remain firm and kind.

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