handling new information without flying off the handle
April 3, 2012 12:34 AM   Subscribe

When you learn something about someone you care about that negatively changes the way you think and view that person, how do you reconcile your new view with the one you had previously?

I just had a very unexpected and unwanted conversation with someone I am very emotionally/physically close to that I wish I could strike from my mind. I feel like my sexual attraction to them is now in conflict with the side of them they just revealed. (They have some unexpectedly bigoted views about the GLBTQ community. I am leaving out the specifics because the specifics will derail this conversation in many ways.)

A part of me is going, "You gotta live and let live!" and the rest of me is going, "Aww man no!". I didn't realize what a big deal this is for me until tonight. It's probably a bigger deal because I'm intimate with this person, but I am pretty sure that if I discovered that a non-sexual friend shared these thoughts, I'd be really turned off to them too.

Regardless of the revelation (for lack of a better word) yielded by this particular conversation, what can I do to strike a balance so that I'm looking at this person (and other people) as holistically as possible without discounting my own opinions and convictions? Is it okay that my perception of this person has changed?
posted by These Birds of a Feather to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: FWIW, a part of me is sort of flattered that this person felt comfortable enough to discuss this topic with me as they specifically sought me out because they felt that I would be the safest place to air out their thoughts on the issue, but now I feel like a bad friend because I really, really wasn't expecting them to tell me what they told me. I don't feel like I'm practicing tolerance because I feel the way I do.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:45 AM on April 3, 2012

I'm going to buck the trend out of the gate before it even gets started in this thread - it's OK to be all "Hell NO!" with your friend!

I have two examples here. One will apply.

- I have a friend I made professionally, who it turned out, had a LOT of homophobic attitudes and beliefs going on underneath his jovial and appealing exterior. Joke was on him when he started working in my 'hood (West Hollywood.) He's a generally nice guy. Did I have to pull back from him emotionally and speak up every flipping time he expressed something uncool? Why yes, I did.

Did it work?

Why yes, IT DID.

He's grown a lot. Still not on a trajectory to being my best buddy like he was before, but I am happy he's not such an under-cover-frat-boy-douche any longer.

- I had friends living an alternative lifestyle, with lots of social connections. The longer I knew them, the more shit came out. Having to keep their secrets from other mutual friends at various levels of intimacy was very very very fucking tiring. And after 2+ years, the "secrets" kept coming.

Fuck them and their shit. I finally bowed out at this big social event they planned. I will never regret that, even though I still feel fondly towards them now that I 86'd the from my life. Too. Much. Drama. There were plenty of revelations that ceased feeling like, "Ooo we're getting closer as friends!" and felt more like, "HOLY SHIT. Don't place the burden of that knowledge on me!!"

Take your pick, or somewhere in between.

Remain true to yourself and your beliefs.
posted by jbenben at 12:46 AM on April 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Sometimes, it takes someone you know and trust to make you example your own prejudices. It may not even occur to your friend that their views are homophobic, or that you might find them offensive.

It doesn't necessarily make them a bad person. But I don't think you can let it stand, either. It's OK for you to call them on it.

If you call them on it, maybe they'll change their mind. If they don't, well, you may have to reassess your relationship with this person.

If I found out that one of my friends held, for example, racist beliefs, I would give them the benefit of the doubt. But if they couldn't see reason, well, I don't think I could be friends with that person anymore, because it would go against my core own principles - we would be incompatible.

The strategies this oft-cited Jay Smooth video should translate to your situation.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 1:01 AM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Is it okay that my perception of this person has changed?

It is totally okay. People reveal major things that we don't know about them all the time. I found out a couple of months ago just how racist someone I've known my whole life is. You bet it changes my perception of them. I don't want it to, but it does - I absolutely can't be that close to them anymore.

I agree that you have to remain true to yourself and your beliefs and that yes you can call them on it.
posted by mleigh at 1:04 AM on April 3, 2012

Regardless of the revelation (for lack of a better word) yielded by this particular conversation, what can I do to strike a balance so that I'm looking at this person (and other people) as holistically as possible without discounting my own opinions and convictions? Is it okay that my perception of this person has changed?

What matters is not so much the views this person holds (perhaps that's what they were taught as a child and they've never had enough of a horse in that race to have needed to forcefully examine what they were taught), but what they do when those views are challenged.

A more meaningful measure of their character is whether they are willing to entertain your dissent, consider it, and allow their views to shift.

Realistically, they can't turn 180 overnight, but small steps at a time away from a cherished pillar of their understanding of the world - that takes a big person, and maybe you can see them for that if they can do that.

I don't know the specifics, but an example might be considering and eventually accepting that a lot of gay people don't want to be gay, would give anything not to be, but are gay nonetheless - it wasn't a choice, and they don't get to choose.

The confiding aspect makes it sound like they know their views are considered unacceptable by many (in their new crowd?), and so keep quiet, and so nothing gets addressed or changed. In your shoes, I'd keep a lid on how horrified I was, find something that clearly will fold under examination, and which that folding isn't very threatening, then explain why people think its wrong, and that what they say makes sense to you.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:22 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

At the same time, you can't fix the world single-handedly, but it sounds like you're invested in this person, so maybe exploratory salvage is warranted.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:25 AM on April 3, 2012

Best answer: I feel like my sexual attraction to them is now in conflict with the side of them they just revealed.

Cognitive dissonance – a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions ( e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously.

Funnily enough…

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In your situation, we can look at what happened versus what you are taking it to mean.

What happened: They have some unexpectedly bigoted views about the GLBTQ community

What you are taking it to mean: what can I do to strike a balance so that I'm looking at this person (and other people) as holistically as possible without discounting my own opinions and convictions?

Reading into the situation, there's a few levels that appear to be going on here:
1) Someone close to you made a statement that surprised you.
2) That statement both did not conform to your view of the person, and is in conflict with your own values.
3) You are wondering how you can accept their values whilst retaining your own values.

Legendary Psychological researcher John Gottman wrote a book called The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Not only is this book a useful guide for people already married, it's a generally useful guide for navigating intimate relationships. Two of the key concepts that apply to your present situation are:

• Permanent differences
• Repair attempts

In the first permanent differences has to do with deal breakers. In any relationship, friendships, intimate, partnerships, etc., there are going to be points of agreement and points of disagreement. The key to navigating those points is to realise 1) what are the permament differences?, and 2) are you willing to accept them?

In your example, you now have a fuller view of the person than you did before -- and they of you, probably. Now, it's time for you to assign meaning to that. You can do this via a short process of elucidating your values:

A) How important is it to me to continue holding my interpretation of this value?
B) How important is it to them to continue holding their interpretation of this value?
C) Can we reconcile our differing viewpoints?
D) Is this a deal-breaker for me?

And this can be posited in somewhat of a decision matrix:
Each person is willing to put the value aside for the sake of the relationship.
You are not willing to put the value aside for the sake of the relationship; they are.
You are willing to put the value aside for the sake of the relationship, they are not.
Neither person is willing to put the value aside for the sake of the relationship.

In the first three cases, you accept the difference in values as present, however it's not worth discontinuing the relationship. Most successful relationships have a fair degree of this compromise built in. In fact, if we can't see these compromises in our relationships, that means the relationship is more important than our values.

For example, I have two friends, one of which is always early and one of which is always late. The one that is early is an introvert, the one that is late is an extrovert. They will chide each other gently --"you're so rude mate…" versus "I just have too much stuff to do…" yet they get along in so many other ways, it's not a deal-breaker.

In the last case, the difference in values is too great to continue the relationship, and becomes a deal-breaker.

In a counterexample, there used to be a chap in the social circle that was very aggressive with new people. He was a bit insecure and thus constantly pushed his opinion on people. Over time, most individuals decided that his friendship was not worth the costs incurred -- mainly the constant emotional management that went along with his aggression. That was a deal-breaker.

Once you have established if this value is a deal-breaker at the moment or not (it's an iterative process), if it is not, you then look at repair attempts

What Gottman found that is truly fascinating is that it's not how people argue with each other -- everyone argues and disagrees. What matters in relationships is how people repair the relationship after a disagreement.

He also posits there are three primary forms of communication: attack, withdraw, and confide

Attack looks like: "You viewpoint on GLBTQ individuals is shit. You are an emotional baby and I can't believe you act like that, considering you're so cool in so many other ways". This moves the conversation from being about the different values into a personal attack.

Withdraw looks like: You don't talk about it with them. You tell your friends what has happened and silently worry. It's an elephant in the room. It affects other things. But for the sake of harmony or out of fear, you do not address the problem.

Confide looks like: "Hey, when you made that statement about GLBTQ individuals the other day, it really confused me. I'd like to talk a bit more about how that made me feel, and what your thoughts and considerations are…" This puts the topic in a neutral place, where each side can discuss their interpretation of the previous conversation, and come to an understanding about how the other feels.

As mentioned, permanent difference is an interative process. Thus, the real topic of conversation is not their view on GLBTQ individuals, but rather how you and this person handle a conflict in values. If it's simply not worth it to you to have that conversation, there's one answer. If it is worth it to you to engage in a conversation from a point of confiding, now you have a jumping off point for a repair attempt. You admit that there was a conflict in values, the conversation threw you for a loop, and what are we going to do about it now

You may find that this person's views were shaped by a certain experience. You may find that your own feelings come from a problem with conflict or maintaining your values in an intimate relationship. There's a whole world of possibilities underlying this interaction. Regardless of what the answers are, it's a big opportunity for you to grow and understand your own relationship to your values.
posted by nickrussell at 1:27 AM on April 3, 2012 [18 favorites]

Of course it's okay you don't view them the same way. They just revealed what you're describing as a moral failing in your eyes.
posted by spunweb at 1:29 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe this will help some: How to restore my former opinion of you?

It does suck when this happens. If it's the sort of thing shared that's workable, and they're the sort of person who's worthwhile sticking with to work it out, then I try to think of them on a journey. They're at the beginning of it, despicable and all. If they have noble character and any sense of introspection, you'll get to witness the story arc. If you're patient and trusting, you may see the other side of it. And perhaps one day it'll be one of those things..."Remember when I used to say/think/do..."
posted by iamkimiam at 1:32 AM on April 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was raised in a small town and I'm ashamed of my earlier prejudices. I learned a lot through traveling, studying, getting to know more people with broader experiences of life, and by getting involved with GLBTQ people. Maybe this person has ignorance springing from immaturity that you could nudge in the right direction? [Not that it's your job, but if you otherwise see potential.]

Why not say directly that you find his/her homophobia a turn off, and that life has taught you different things about people expressing their sexuality in all kinds of ways. Open a conversation, acknowledge your feelings of distaste and frustration, establish your views without starting an argument. If you like this person, maybe try to start from a position of good faith. If it goes badly, well. Hmmm. I guess you'll have a confirmed new opinion of the person to consider. Intellectual and social compatibility are damn important elements, so you'll have more information to see if you want to persist in hanging out together.

e.g. My first boyfriend was also a real turn off in this area. He used homosexuality as an excuse for humour and character assassination when I first met him. But I noticed him quickly dropping the homophobic crap as soon as he developed friendships with gay men and hung out more with people who challenged his juvenile ideas. Recently he and his girlfriend had a gay friend attend the birth of their first child [!] and he would defend gay rights to fisticuffs if he had to. He was just, when I met him, unschooled by life, immature and yet to engage meaningfully with a range of people different from himself. I knew he was lovable, kind and charitable and I guess I have good faith now that he didn't mean to be homophobic.
posted by honey-barbara at 1:48 AM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

honey-barbara just said what I wanted to say better than I could have.

Also to think about: do you have close LGBT friends? I have a gay cousin, trans brother, and too many lesbian and gay friends to count, some of whom I've had the great joy of seeing married. A few are very close; I wouldn't put my friendship with them in danger for anyone.

I mention it because one of my litmus tests while getting to know someone has been "would I trust this person to behave respectfully with my LGBT friends?"

I grew up like honey-barbara, and yet I can remember shopping the men's clothing sections with my gay cousin when I was 16 and with a fresh driver's license so I could drive him to the mall. He'd never been able to shop as openly gay before, since his parents were awful about it. I asked him what size boxers he wanted, kind of teasing him, and a clerk remarked on how cute a couple we were. My cousin shouted "OH MY GOD I'M GAAAAY can't you TELL?!" and I laughed. The poor clerk blushed, and that was the extent of it. That was the last straw for the prejudices I'd grown up with; realizing that I'd always accepted him as normal and never questioned his identity helped me see just how misguided the prejudices I'd been inculcated with were.

You can kind of get a feel for people who are more compassionate than power-motivated; this is one reason the whole "do they treat wait staff respectfully?" has such traction as a question to ask yourself while dating. It and other interactions give you insight into how someone behaves with people that society implies are "beneath" them, as is unfortunately still the case with marginalized/unprivileged groups.

Talking with your friend like nickrussell and others suggest would be great too. Do also ask yourself what you know about their respect for others in general as well, as shown in their actions (not just words).
posted by fraula at 2:34 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a trick for coping with this in the short-term, I find it helps to remind myself that everyone is complex and multi-faceted, and all of us, including me, hold some kind of contradictory ideas or traits. Our inclination as observers/friends/partners is to try and mentally boil them down to something simpler to make things easier to cope with day to day, ("Bill is a good guy") but that's rarely a complete assessment.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
posted by penguin pie at 4:32 AM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I have to agree with -harlequin-. Were these comments your run-of-the-mill "I'm saying sexist things because I don't know any better and think you'll agree with me" things that a calm and reasoned conversation would fix? Or more hardcore "I've thought about this and derive my identity from being homophobic" things?

So, sit down and have a conversation when you both are feeling comfortable. See how it goes.
posted by gjc at 6:00 AM on April 3, 2012

Some years ago, I had a work friend I really admired. He was a brilliant marketer, and for a while we'd end up talking (sometimes for hours) at the end of the day whenever I had something to drop by his office. Then while on a conference trip, I shared a cab back from an evening reception with him and one of his colleagues. The reception had sort of been crashed by an international delegation that took over the dance floor in a slightly obnoxious but harmless way. In the cab, this led him and his colleague to say terrible things about people of that race. The cab driver was obviously of that race. Horrified, I called them on it, they took offense, and we rode the rest of the way in silence.

We never talked about it again, and it colored my view of him forever more. But what I eventually decided was that whatever prejudices he might hold, they didn't generally affect his marketing ability or most of the other things I admired about him, and it wasn't likely I was going to discuss that matter with him again, and even less likely I was going to change his mind. So I sort of compartmentalized it and set it aside, figuring it was not something that affected the work we did together. It was a rude awakening based on how awesome I thought he was, though.

So I think it's perfectly okay that your perception of them has changed. However, as above, their retrograde view doesn't change the things you like about them. This is admittedly more difficult to deal with in terms of someone you're quite intimate with than someone you work with, though, and I think that intimacy would make possible a measured discussion about how you feel when you hear him/her say things like that. If that discussion goes poorly, I think then is the time to evaluate whether you feel like you can stay in the same sort of contact with the person. Until then, try to set it aside and think through what you want to say about it, so you don't act in haste.
posted by jocelmeow at 8:43 AM on April 3, 2012

Is this person your boyfriend from this AskMe?
posted by alphanerd at 3:02 PM on April 3, 2012

Response by poster: No. It's someone else. Someone I've known a long time.

Ultimately the conversation he and I had wasn't bad -- I defended my views on the argument and was very respectful when countering some of his misconceptions. He views himself as being very live and let live and claims to have no issues with the community he was ultimately bashing. I think I will be brave and reopen the conversation another time and try to understand his views and then go from there. Thanks for all your advice.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 3:33 PM on April 3, 2012

I was once publicly involved in a project that led just about every one of my acquaintances and friends to want to discuss racism with me. (Often in an effort to show how wonderfully non-racist they were.) This led to some uncomfortable discussions with people I liked very much telling me thoughts about their inner confusions and prejudices, which sometimes led them to defend their bigotry. What I found was that a lot of otherwise very nice people have bigotry in them that can be pretty ugly. However, I also found that gentle yet firm declarations challenging a few salient points they made in conversation would result in long-term change. Not always, but often, I would see subtle shifts. This sometimes resulted in a closer relationship, and sometimes it resulted in my distancing myself. But yeah, people change, they're complex, and sometimes it doesn't take much to shift them with an honest, relaxed conversation.

It's up to you what it means for your relationship with them. Sometimes I think it comes down to whether or not you think the person has the capacity to be self-reflective and evolve. That's like any relationship flaw. Someone can have a pretty serious flaw, but if they're willing to look at it honestly without being hideously defensive, then they shouldn't necessarily be written off.
posted by RedEmma at 4:18 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I defended my views on the argument and was very respectful when countering some of his misconceptions

It sounds like your friend was interested in hearing your views, and in the possibility of having his views changed by new information and ways of looking at things. Seems like he brought up some views they had which could have been picked up in a different time/place/environment -- and that he felt uncomfortable to even be looking at things the way he was. Having a chance to discuss these things with someone may help him look at them in a new way, especially if he was exposed to these ideas as a child.

I'm not sure what you meant by wanting to view people as holistically as possible, but I've seen a lot of examples of people who have changed their views on GLBTQ related topics over time. I spoke with an acquaintance I hadn't seen in many years who used to hold some homophobic views. I very specifically said something positive to them about a gay couple to see what they would say, and they immediately began to speak at length on how their perspective had changed from back then, and about their first reactions 15 years ago on first encountering openly GLBTQ people when they moved away from a conservative small town and their conservative relatives.

nickrussell has a wonderful comment above on some ways one might open up this topic. One thing I want to add to that, if you aren't feeling sexually attracted to this person just now I don't think that you should force yourself to do so -- give it time, and discussion, and see where things go.

Is it okay that my perception of this person has changed?

This is called "getting to know someone better." It is a process that leads to changes in what you know about someone, and if you were unable to assemble this knowledge into your current view what is before you -- well, I guess you would be like the sort of person who picks up rigid views as a child and never changes them even if they learn new things. It's quite OK to learn new things and change your views IMO, but others disagree.

I think you are practicing tolerance through being willing to have a discussion on this to understand his point of view. You are listening to him, clarifying his views, explaining how your own views are different and why, and you are willing to return to the issue later on. Some people would have a very different reaction. Your ability to practice tolerance even when it brings up unpleasant feelings is probably why he felt he could bring this up with you.
posted by yohko at 6:52 PM on April 3, 2012

Let them know gently but firmly that your perception has changed and you're pretty turned off due to the new facts. But don't disassociate entirely until you're sure it's a firm belief in them; just respect your own emotional "yuck" enough to back off from the intimacy a bit and say what's on your mind. See how they react. Sometimes people just need to meet the person who changes their mind.
posted by ead at 9:54 AM on April 4, 2012

Response by poster: FWIW, dude has now been noticeably cold to me since this incident despite waxing poetic about being able to talk to me about this kind of stuff, so it looks like this is the way the cookie crumbles. He ended up being more bothered by the conversation than I was. Oh well.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:01 PM on April 9, 2012

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