Dear Dr. Fred:
My partner and I have been socializing a lot lately with another gay couple we met while on vacation last year. I’ll refer to them here as “Tom and Larry. ” These guys are what some of us like to call members of the “A-Gay List,” a real class act, if you know what I mean — handsome, highly educated, intelligent, great conversationalists, well-read and well-travelled. I could go on, but you get my drift. We meet them for dinner or brunch at a local restaurant or exchange dinner parties at our houses several times a month. We’ve also made plans to vacation with them next year and have already booked some pretty pricey airfare and a cruise.
Here’s our problem. Recently over cocktails at our house, Tom said they’d wanted to share something deeply personal and private about themselves with us for a long time. They went on to confide that they were in a group that practiced witchcraft, or “Wicca,” to be exact. They described Wiccan beliefs and philosophies in great detail and even what went on at the group’s gatherings. They seemed relieved to be able to talk openly about all of this and admitted how unusual and nice it was for them to be able to share this with us, because none of their other friends seemed open enough to handle it. I reassured them that we’d heard about such things, and that we have a very’ “live and let live”philosophy, so we would never judge them negatively.
After a while the conversation turned to other matters, and eventually the evening came to an amicable close, although on leaving, they did express that they felt uneasy about having possibly freaked us out” with their disclosure. But again, we reassured them to the contrary, and all ended well, or so we thought.
The problem is that ever since that night, this couple has been avoiding us. Whenever we call or text them about getting together, they always have other plans. When we ran into them at a coffee house the other night, they looked like they couldn’t wait to get away from us. They made some lame excuse about having theatre tickets, though it was way too late in the evening for plays to be going on.
So here’s our dilemma. We really like this couple, and want to continue being friends with them. But it appears that their disclosure has somehow changed the friendship — in their eyes, anyway. As for us, after the initial surprise, we thought we’d shown our acceptance of them very well. But could we have somehow made them feel uncomfortable despite what we said? And if so, how do we push the reset button and get things back to a better place with them? Finally, what are we going to do about these expensive plane and cruise tickets if we can’t patch things up?
Sid and Andy
Dear Sid and Andy:
As a former professor who taught communication, one of the first things I always covered was the importance of non-verbal communication. Most communications experts agree that up to 83 percent of what we convey when talking with others is through “meta-communication,” i.e. the message within a message.
Meta-communication is transmitted by our body language, posture, facial expression, eye contact, voice inflection, breathing, pacing and spatial relationships (how near or far we are from the person with whom we’re interacting). So, yes, it’s entirely possible that despite your best efforts to appear accepting, your meta-communication may have conveyed some discomfort with your friends’ disclosure.
I’m reminded of an interaction I had with a client many years ago. I was interviewing the man in a first session, when he volunteered that he had AIDS. I turned to my desk to pick up a legal pad to start taking notes. However, his perception was that when I turned away from him I was “rejecting him because he had AIDS.” Fortunately, we were able to work this wrinkle out. But it was a priceless lesson for me about the power of meta-messages.
Similarly, your friends are sensitive about this aspect of their lives and yearning to share it with others who can affirm it. Whatever your intentions, it appeal’s they perceived some judgment in your response, just as my client did.
So, how to salvage things now? To remove the potential for further non-verbal miscommunications, try sending them a friendship card. In it, enclose a heartfelt message about how much you value this relationship and how much you’re looking forward to vacationing together. Invite the couple over for dinner and share something you two have done that might be considered a bit of a “walk on the wild side.” (I don’t know many gay men who haven’t got a story or two in that department.).
If none of the above works, I’d still go on the cruise together. Who knows what opportunities for sorting things out might come up when you’re all stuck together on a boat somewhere on the ocean?
Author’s Post-script: While many people do see Wicca as “white witchcraft,” more liberal theologians recognize it as a legitimate religion, and it is practiced widely across the world, with many gay followers.
Fred Schloemer, Ed.D., LCSW is a gay therapist. Send him your questions at FredSchloemeir@aol.com