Virginia Ironside: Dilemmas


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A friend told me about a rare illness she suffers from, but swore me to secrecy. A couple of weeks later, I met a mutual friend with the same illness and I couldn't resist telling her about the first friend, swearing her to secrecy, too. I thought she might be able, by confessing her illness to the first friend, to offer support and get her to open up about it. Now it's got out that I betrayed my friend's trust, and she's furious. I feel so dreadful I could crawl into a hole and die. I should never have done it. Is there anything I can do to make amends? Yours sincerely, Veronica


Virginia says... What a very good friend you are! I say this because you're so busy beating yourself up that you've completely forgotten your motives for spilling the beans. It wasn't to spread malicious gossip. It wasn't to advertise that you're the one everyone confides in. No, it was because you thought that it might help.

There are three aspects to this dilemma. First, if your friend really wanted her illness to be a secret, why did she tell you? Clearly she found comfort in confiding in someone, so it's natural you should imagine it to be helpful to encourage her to share her anxieties with someone who'd understand.

It's not as if you discovered her illness by reading through her private correspondence and then passing the information on – in which case you could really be blamed, as she might well be one of those many people who find that keeping problems such as hers totally private is an excellent way of dealing with them. Not everyone finds that a problem shared is a problem halved. Some find a problem shared is a problem doubled. That's not my way, but such people exist and their methods should be respected.

Second, why did your second friend, who presumably you told in confidence, tell your first friend that you'd told her? Or was she just ham-fisted in covering her tracks? Or hadn't you impressed upon her the importance of utter secrecy? This kind of underground diplomacy works only if everyone involved is as sensitive and careful as you – and this wasn't the case. I've done wonders with cunning and subterfuge that would make John le Carré's George Smiley faint with admiration – and ended up with everyone far happier than before I'd got to work with my underhand plots. But if one link in the chain cracks, and it can, then it's certain failure.

And finally, you divulged a secret. No, you shouldn't have, but is there anyone among us who can put their hand up and say we've never done it? We're all human. Try to dwell on your kinder motives and forgive yourself.

As far as making amends goes, a contrite letter wouldn't go amiss, but don't over-egg the pudding by sending flowers. What you've done isn't that bad. Your friend may be angry with you, but she's probably angrier with herself for telling anyone in the first place. And who knows, as the months go by and the disease progresses, she may be rather relieved to find there's another sufferer she can confide in. It's not impossible.

Readers say...

She's also to blame


You both made a mistake. There is only one way to keep a secret: don't tell anyone. So the first person to let the cat out of the bag was your friend, in telling you. Once you've told someone a secret, you have to accept that you lose control; swearings to secrecy are often hot air. Your friend may come around, but give it time. Apologise, but don't grovel. That's all you can do. Your friend may conclude there's nothing to lose now, and confide in the friend with the same illness. In the long run, your good intentions may bear fruit.

Mary Nolze By email


Ask for forgiveness

Oh Veronica, I'd advise you to talk to your friend again explaining how concerned you were, and that you only broke her confidence with her best interests at heart. Surely she knows you'd never knowingly do anything to hurt her, and yes you were wrong, and please could she forgive you. Hopefully, given some time, your friend will understand your reasons and do just that.

Denice Copland By email

Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia, I had been married for only three years, when my husband died suddenly. We were just about to start a family – and now it's all over. It's been a year now and I'm still feeling desperately lonely. I've joined all kinds of clubs, had counselling, done voluntary work – all with a full-time job – but every time I'm on my own at home I feel not only so bereaved but also so alone. Everyone says I'll find another man, but first, there's no sign and second, I'm not sure I want one at the moment. Yours sincerely, Deidre

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