The Guilty Pleasure of Gossip

divorced moms and stepmoms gossiping about each otherGossip always comes back to bite you in the ass. And with stepmothers and ex-wives in particular, there seems to be plenty of it to go around. Think about it. The set-up is perfect.

You're probably privy to the odd personal detail about each other, and yet, if you're like most women in this situation, you've also got plenty of safe, isolating distance between you as you give each other a w-i-d-e berth out of dislike and distaste.

The other woman may have quirky social phobias, compulsively spend large amounts of money that she can't afford on _____ (fill in the blank); have outlandish and wildly ambitious dreams about someday doing/being/seeing _____ (fill in the blank again with something ridiculous).

Whatever her dirty little secrets or outrageous acts of stupidity and incompetence, if you two aren't getting along, those factoids are the perfect fodder for that most human of pastimes — clucking away about the most inane prattle; dabbling in defamation; basking in belittlement.

You know what I'm talking about, don't you? Even though I've never done it before, I've read up on it, so that's why I'm now going to graciously share what I've learned.

Despite the thrill of spite, gossiping is a potentially dangerous prospect — akin to lying — with a lot at stake. Of course, this is usually only obvious in hindsight, when you're kicking yourself, so maybe it's a good thing to think about beforehand. There's secrecy, ill-will, a sprinkling of deceit.

And then there are the logistics of keeping versions of reality straight. This usually takes some deliberate effort and forethought, creating a nice little undercurrent and fear and anxiety so everything stays covered up and properly secure. But if your earful ever makes it to HER ears, watch out! This can easily become the stuff of war. You may be up shit creek for a good, long while.

Then… you're even worse off.

Although it's no fun, ask yourself — what damage might result from your gossip being discovered? What trust do you stand to lose (and not just hers either)? What credibility will you now have to work to regain? What consequences might you now have to face?

I once gossiped about a woman who worked at the same organization and was also a member of my writers group. I can still vividly recall the feeling of every last drop of blood draining from my face in a cold wave as I accidentally pressed "send all" to the group, when I had meant to simply continue my catty conversation about said co-worker with another writer.

Not only did I now look like (and was!) a two-faced backstabber, I still had to face her at work the next day. She handled the situation with poise, tossing aside my mumbled, incoherent apology with a somewhat confused and uninterested shrug. To this day, I still don't know if she was just magnanimously allowing me to save face with a calculated show of ignorance, or if she actually hadn't read my words. Still, I can't remember the event without feeling slightly sick to my stomach.

Yep, gossiping usually creates guilt and shame. You know it's wrong (and yet… ahhh, the temptation). How do you know this?

While you may still feel "justified" if the other person's actions suck, there's still a part of you that holds basic standards for the way you should treat people in the back of your mind. And the ultimate litmus test: would you want someone else to be talking this way about YOU? Probably not.

But the lure is so strong because of the payoffs.

We gossip to feel superior to others; to vent frustration and a feeling of powerlessness; to generate sympathy from listeners while we regale with tales of victimization or audacious nerve — even to indulge that dark part of ourselves that is really and truly delighting in the misery and struggles of another.

But just like a drinking spree that feels momentarily freeing and crazy, you'll pay for it afterwards when your natural sense of human decency kicks back in. (Hopefully. Maybe we shouldn't assume.)

Maybe the worst consequence is actually external.

When you gossip, you're saying things about someone that you would never say to their face. Not that you should always say everything you think to someone directly, but in this case, there's probably a huge gap between your thoughts and actions. Do you say a bright, tight hello and shoot her visual darts dipped in poison? Do you pretend to be cooperative on the phone, but look for reasons why her plans or requests "just won't work for us?" Do you roll your eyes in her presence when her back is turned? Act nice, but then bitch about her to the kids?

Since you're hiding something when you hang someone's dirty laundry out to dry in your own backyard, you've got to keep on eye on what's out there in the public domain of interaction, just like a lie.

This creates a certain kind of brittleness and superficiality in your behavior. It feels gross and uncomfortable to you, and it probably feels weird to the other person too, whether you think so or not.

Plus, feeling guilty just makes you want to get the hell away from them (aside from whatever problems you're ALSO having with them) and that's not going to help either.

The worst part about all of that is that it definitely makes it harder to connect and have something new happen between you. The guilt, the awkwardness, the avoidance - the whole dynamic keeps you frozen in conflict. Not only does it feel awful, it's sad too, if you think about the opportunities lost.

Next time you find yourself tempted to join the hens on the fence, bite your tongue. Sure, you'll lose the buzz of scandal-mongering, but you'll feel better and cleaner in the long run, and you just might create the space for something positive and important to change between the two of you.


© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved