Surprise! Happy birthday! I'm leaving you!

She knows he's leaving, but not that he's throwing her a surprise party. Should I tell?

Published March 23, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Every now and then two advice columnists will answer the same question. It's happened to Prudence and me, Dan Savage and me, Carolyn Hax and me, and most recently to New York Times Social Q's columnist Philip Galanes and me.

Salon's associate managing editor, Ruth Henrich, alerted us to the possible duplication before publication, which not only saved us from yet another awkward moment but created a unique opportunity. Usually we don't find out that another advice columnist has answered the same question until a reader lets us know. (The letter and my response, exactly as I wrote it before seeing Mr. Galanes' piece, appear below.)

When I read what Mr. Galanes had to say I was struck by how different his advice was from mine. Mr. Galanes begins with a quip about John Galliano, the recently dismissed design director of Christian Dior, and then notes that he himself does not like surprise parties because "Half the fun of a shindig is anticipating what to wear and who might turn up, and the stealth element eliminates all that." He goes on to say, "The only thing worse than a surprise party is one where the guest of honor spends the whole night faking that she had no idea a party was afoot."

I took a darker turn. For me, the only thing worse is a surprise party in which the guest of honor spends the whole night repressing her humiliation, shame and anger, and then lives with an abiding sense of betrayal for a long time afterward.

Mr. Galanes and I have very different audiences. The Social Q's column runs in the Fashion & Style section of the New York Times. People in that world must give careful thought to how their social actions are perceived. There is a social cost to showing weakness or sowing discord. So for his core readers his advice may be exactly correct: Do what excites the least concern, lest you be the object of damaging rumor and speculation.

For better or worse, I tend to focus on interior costs and invisible damage.

What really interests me here is what I take to be an East Coast-West Coast difference. Not to over-generalize, but out here in San Francisco, we're all about the wife and how she feels. I can imagine a New Yorker saying, Grow up, your husband is a jerk, you're better off without him, stuff happens, move on with your life.

There is much to admire in this attitude. I sometimes feel like telling myself to get over it and move on. But I cannot escape my own observed experience, in which individuals "soldier on" after humiliation and betrayal, still filled with resentment that warps their perceptions and causes them to seek revenge and compensation in unconscious, destructive and perverse ways. We say we are "over it" and yet we make life choices that bring misery and enslavement.

I also think this is about the power of a man over a woman.

Get over it, her New York friends might tell her. Don't make a fuss. So he threw you a surprise party. He meant well.

I do not assume he means well. In my view, the surprise is not a gift intended to evince delight, but a stratagem intended to wield power, to plant his forces within her sphere without her knowledge. It is a Trojan horse.

Surely, if he consulted her, she would not want a surprise party. The surprise element deprives her of choice. It is malicious deception. The unwitting hostess of this perverse surprise party might stretch her taut, angry mouth into a smile for the evening, but she will be left with a grinding sense of humiliation and powerlessness. And that will be, indeed, as the headline on the Social Q's column put it, "the icing on the cake."

Mr. Galanes says go on with it, let everyone have a ball, don't rock the boat. I say rock the boat. Don't have a ball. I say her friend should tell her about the plan.

I wonder what Gawker would think. That august publication is already on record as regarding me as clinically insane, so it would be interesting to hear its scholarly and deeply considered viewpoint.

p.s.: I have not altered my answer since reading Mr. Galanes' response, nor has the letter been altered.

Dear Cary,

My best friend's husband is leaving her after 23 years of marriage. She's furious with him and feels humiliated. Nevertheless, he is planning a surprise 50th birthday party for her. I'm afraid that she will be miserable, forced to put on a good show all night. Should I tell my friend what's going on?

Somehow Not Surprised

Dear Somehow Not Surprised,

I think definitely she deserves to know, so she can avoid the humiliation if she so chooses. But just knowing about it may not be enough. Maybe she should throw him a surprise party before the surprise party.

Surprise! Your stuff is on the lawn!

Surprise! Your key doesn't work!


I mean, really, imagine it's you, and your husband has already told you he's leaving you, but he wants to take you out to dinner for your 50th birthday, so you go through it, gritting your teeth, spending your 50th birthday with your husband who is leaving you, and you eat and try to be polite, just hoping the evening will end soon. And then you think the evening is over, and you walk into the house, and it's Surprise! and then you have to act so grateful to your husband, who is leaving you, for getting all your friends together to celebrate your 50th birthday.


What is this guy thinking?

Did he talk this idea over with anybody? I doubt it.


But you know what? I love clueless husbands! I can almost identify with this guy. I can almost understand what he's thinking. He feels terrible about what he's doing. He doesn't want his wife to feel bad. He wants her to know he still loves her even though he's leaving her after 23 years. And, the nice man, he wants her to be able to celebrate.

Wow. It's just too awful to be true. Yet I'm sure it is true.

So organize a little pre-surprise surprise party for him.

Wouldn't that be good on Tosh.O?

Or, OK, now, maybe we're not in Jerry Springer Show territory yet. So maybe you tell her and she just politely tells her husband that she knows about the plan and she wants no part of it. Either way. It's up to her.

Throwing his stuff on the lawn is pretty juvenile, I know, but I'm pretty juvenile myself. And you just kinda feel like the guy deserves it.

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By Cary Tennis

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