Dear Carolyn: About a week ago, my girlfriend of 18 months woke up and seemed angry at me, so I asked her what was up, and she said she had a dream I cheated on her with her best friend.
Do I really have to validate this or apologize for my dream self’s actions?
Anonymous: So she is punishing you — for days — for something you both fully agree you didn’t do.
How much respect is she showing, then, for your feelings?
A couple of disclaimers: This kind of tit-for-tat whatabouting is a bad idea in a relationship. (So let me do it for you!) It encourages defensiveness and corrodes trust.
And it’s probably not a good look for me to take your, “Do I have to apologize?” and respond with, “No, you need to get angrier! And escalate things!”
But I do advise calling BS when you see it: “I understand you’re upset. I don’t understand how that gives you license to treat me like this when we both know the bad thing I did was imaginary.”
The reasons I see this as an important point to make are both principled — mistreatment is not okay, not even when it’s absurd — and anecdotal: I’ve seen what happens when someone doesn’t feel beholden to any rational basis for feeling a certain way.
To be human is to live in a swirl of both facts and perceptions of those facts. It’s inevitable that two people who witness the same incident will notice different things and draw varying conclusions. The only way we can manage to get along with each other on these terms is to make a good-faith effort to get it right.
We won’t always, not even close, but we can always try. That is a gesture of respect to others — to be mindful always of having grounds to act, react and feel the way we do, and to check ourselves as soon as we figure out we misread something or let ourselves get carried away. To be willing to be wrong sometimes, and admit it.
If we can’t get past an irrational feeling, then the least we can do is say: “I know I’m being irrational. I’m sorry. I just need room to figure this out.”
Had your girlfriend said that, then I’d be all care and sympathy and advise you to be the same. But she didn’t.
Instead, she misread something and launched herself into orbit, at some cost to you, and … insisted it’s your fault? Yeah, no.
As I said, I’ve seen this play out before, with unpredictable lashings-out from the person in your girlfriend’s role who won’t let facts spoil a useful narrative, and constant eggshell-walking from the person in yours.
Even if this is (so far) an isolated incident, she still has given you a glimpse of a me-first side of her that I hope you take very seriously. Start by standing up for yourself, calmly but unflinchingly. See how willing she is to admit that — even if there’s somehow a kernel of reality in the distress she has been feeling — the way she handled it hasn’t been fair to you.
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