Our friend eloped!

She ran off with a guy we don't really like, and told her family but not her friends!

Published December 28, 2004 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've always thought of myself as a good friend -- someone who cares for the people in my life and wants the best for them. However, a situation has just come up that is testing that vision of myself.

I just learned that a friend of mine eloped over the weekend with her boyfriend of a little over a year. Sounds like happy news, right? So why do I feel so sick to my stomach? Perhaps because I've never really liked my friend's boyfriend -- er, husband. He is a good-hearted person, but extremely overbearing and dull. I've always thought she was with him partly out of desperation or a fear of being alone, and I questioned their real compatibility.

Or maybe it's because she planned an elopement for over a month without telling any of her friends -- even though she probably kept it to herself because she knew we wouldn't approve. I feel lied to and betrayed that she kept a secret from us while she was busy scheming and inviting her family to the wedding. Maybe it's that I wonder if part of her motivation was to prove wrong all of us who aren't big fans of her husband -- otherwise, why the foolhardy rush into marriage after only a year of dating? Or perhaps I just feel jealous that she has gotten married while my much-longer relationship is stuck in the "we want to get married but aren't 100 percent positive yet" phase.

What's going on here? How do I put aside my own feelings and tell her congratulations when I'm really thinking that she made a hasty bad decision?

Bad Friend

Dear Bad Friend,

I don't know why I had so much trouble answering this one, but I did. I had to keep rewriting it. I knew what I wanted to say, but it wasn't coming out right. I think I was trying to be cute and amusing. It's hard to be cute and amusing and serious and subtle too.

Sometimes it's a matter of where to begin. I was trying to approach it from the standpoint of your own feelings. I wanted to say that your feelings are telling you something and rather than put them aside, you need to listen to them. But what your feelings were telling you required some sociological underpinning. There's more I'd like to say about the fascinating interstices between social judgment and personal emotion. But heck, it's the holidays! So let's just give it another shot, this time starting with the sociological underpinning and working backward toward your own conflicted feelings.

Elopement is an act of social transgression. It divides the bride's total society into two smaller groups -- the group that was in on it, and the group that wasn't. It grants special status to those who knew, and disses those who didn't. As opposed to a carefully planned wedding and marriage, which attempts to bring family and friends of both parties together and cement bonds, elopement gives primacy to the private emotions of the couple to the exclusion of social consensus, and only admits a few of the inner circle -- presumably those who approve of the private emotional bond. So your view of it differs depending on whether you're the justice of the peace or the bartender at the roadhouse where they decided to do it, or the bride's father or the groom's best friend or the minister who always thought she'd have a church wedding -- right here is this very chapel where she was baptized, by golly! -- or her best friend from high school or just one of many cheerful acquaintances all waiting their turn at matrimony like children lined up for the roller coaster -- Hey! She butted in line! She didn't follow the rules!

So, not to put too fine a point on it, but you and your friends have been dissed. I would not be surprised if you weren't just flat-out angry about it. My guess is that you are angry at her because she broke the rules and dissed the group, but at the same time you feel guilty about being angry at her because the rules of your group do not permit you to be angry -- because you view yourselves as decent, caring people who want the best for members of your group no matter what.

So you have a conflict. You do not like conflict. You want to do the right thing but you also want to throttle her. You want to protect her, too -- from her own bad decisions. These are somewhat incompatible feelings. But they coexist in the same person. So what to do? I think what you do is you tell her that frankly you felt a little hurt by her decision to elope, because it left you out of one of the biggest decisions of her life, and since you considered her a friend you wanted to be in on such a big decision, but at the same time you know she's got a private life and she can make up her own mind about how to live it, so you just want to wish her the best. Tell her you hope that you can continue to be friends and that this wasn't her way of saying she no longer wanted to be part of your group. Be frank with her -- but not too frank. There's no need to shame her; she's done nothing wrong; she's simply defied one of the unwritten rules of a voluntary and rather fluid social group.

But enough about her: Good luck with your own life!

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