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posted: 1/19/2014 6:00 AM

Friends at odds over expected privacy level

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Q. Recently I was diagnosed with breast cancer at an early stage (but will still require surgery and other treatment). I have told only a very few people. One was a friend of over 20 years, who then told an acquaintance, someone I never would have told.

There is so little I can control about this process but this is the one thing I should be able to control, especially given that I am a very private person.

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I was very angry that my alleged friend told someone else. No, I didn't tell her not to share, but no one should need to be told that, should they?! I do not believe her telling was malicious, but still ... why would she think she had the right?! She said she just didn't think about it.

When I told her that after 20 years of being friends, she should know how private I am, she said she didn't realize. In some ways that is even more hurtful. How can you be friends that long and not know that most essential part of me?

I am feeling confused about whether I should try to make amends, wait for her to take the next step (she has already apologized) or leave it. I have so much to deal with right now it is hard to know what to do.

A. That's understandable -- with everything you have to think about, you want to take friendships for granted a bit, not add them to the fret list.

At the same time, it's also common for people with big problems to dwell disproportionately on smaller ones. Stress rarely respects its assigned place, and your mind might prefer to pin much of your stress on an indiscreet friend, because that's something it thinks it can manage.

Either way, you'll want to put this incident to rest, and when in doubt I suggest turnabout: Shouldn't you, after 20 years of friendship, also know your friend well enough to recognize that she doesn't share your sense of privacy?

I offer this not to shift any blame to you; if anyone's to blame here, it's your friend for overstepping, though I think friendship and decency are best served by not assigning any blame here at all. Instead I advise recognition: that you and your friend are very different on this count; that you both lost sight of this, despite your long history; and that friends can overcome such a difference as long as there's respect -- even if it comes after the fact in the form of a sincere apology.

I think a more general realization is in order, too: You can control how you share your information, but you cannot control it once shared. To believe otherwise is to have a false sense of security. Those are always shocks just waiting to happen.

Likewise, for your own peace of mind, please keep careful watch for the word "should," whether you think it, write it or speak it -- as in, "but no one should need to be told that, should they!?" Every use of "should" represents an assumption on your part that people share your beliefs, priorities and values -- something that even good people who are good friends don't ever do, not 100 percent.

Good luck with your treatments -- I hope they're effective and quick.

Q. It's been a year since my divorce, and I feel like I'm supposed to want to date now. Some co-workers have even been encouraging me to sign up for a dating website. But I've spent this last year doing things by myself, rediscovering what makes me happy, making new friends, and keeping my home the way I want it, without having to compromise with anybody else. It's been great! I just can't imagine wanting to have some other person hanging around all the time, getting in my way, and forcing me to consider them in my plans. Is dating one of those things I need to make myself do as part of my recovery from the divorce?

A. Possibly. But it's also possible that standing up to outside pressure to date is the thing you need to make yourself do as part of your recovery.

The way to tell which is correct, for you, is to pay careful attention to the way you feel and then honor that. That's the whole point of your (admirable) recovery, after all -- to stop marching to someone else's idea of what you're "supposed to" do, and learn to listen to your own wants and needs.

That's not always easy, even when you're a veteran at it. However, we all tend to have our own thought and behavior patterns that serve as a bread-crumb trail to our true beliefs, and your current "rediscovering" path is perfect for learning yours. "I just can't imagine wanting ..." sure looks like one to me.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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