Moral Dilemma #2: The Best Friend and the Bridesmaid
Thank you for the great response to Busted Halo’s second moral dilemma, “The Best Friend and the Bridesmaid.” Judging by the number of people who have read and responded to our first two dilemmas, it appears that our revitalized feature has clearly struck a chord with readers.
Our Expert Weighs In
Beth and Michelle have been best friends for a long time. Beth has fallen in love and plans to marry Thomas. Largely from what Michelle has heard (but not necessarily seen), she has determined that Thomas is an abuser, that the marriage is a mistake, and that her only moral recourse is to decline to be the maid of honor in her best friend’s wedding. This is a real-life soap opera of sorts, straight out of “Desperate Housewives.” And yet, as the introduction to this Moral Dilemma states up front, a lot of our ethical quandaries are in the personal realm, like this one — not necessarily earth-shattering or life-threatening. These are real, everyday, personal and relational issues. Here’s my two cents of moral reflection on this one:
In the initial survey, as well as in the (post-discovery-of-the-wrinkle-factor) second one, I think I would opt for the final response: “None of these sound right to me.” My primary focus here is the well-being of my best friend Beth. Upon hearing the wedding news, two questions would concern me first: whether she is reading Thomas accurately, and whether he should become her spouse. Whether to be at her wedding ceremony — as maid of honor, bridesmaid, or simply in attendance — is secondary, I think, and largely incidental.
If I were Michelle I think I’d ask myself, “Do I really know enough about Thomas to make such a broad, bold and definitive judgment that he is an abuser?” That’s a pretty damning judgment to make based on hearsay and secondhand tales. I owed it to my friend Beth to have gotten to know her beau better along the way, or, at least, I owe it to her to try to get to know him better now, before making definitive decisions about the wedding itself.
Benefit of the doubt
Did I actually witness the comments about Beth’s weight, the incident with the refrigerator, and especially the “push” at the theater, or did I merely hear them from Beth? If the latter, I think I may owe Thomas an initial benefit of the doubt. However, if I witnessed any of these firsthand, then I am on firmer ground in my critical concerns.
It seems to me that only the “pushing incident” bears the marks of a real, potential abuser. I’m not sure one isolated incident is enough to make such a definitive and harsh judgment. The other incidents, if true, bespeak rudeness, insensitivity and a lack of social graces. While these are surely sad in a love relationship, they are correctable issues for Beth and Thomas to work on between themselves.
When we turn to Michelle’s role in the wedding ceremony, I believe that Michelle’s presence there would say “I love you” to Beth, not that she approves of every decision made vis-à-vis Beth’s marriage. So, I would be tempted not to say “yea” or “nay” to the wedding invitation at this point. I would rather try to meet with my friend face to face, to share her engagement joy as well as to have a heart-to-heart talk about my concerns and suspicions about her choice of life partner.
I would tiptoe into this critique gently, using what I sometimes call the “Jimmy Stewart” method of being a prophet. The late, great actor Jimmy Stewart had a habit of stuttering and stammering a bit whenever he had to present a touchy subject. His hesitation and self-deprecating manner helped him to critique someone caringly, gently, somewhat tentatively. A few “maybes,” an “it seems to me sometimes…” and an “I’m just wondering
if…” might help this to be a more fruitful friend-to-friend inquiry.
Doing so might have caused the wrinkle — Beth’s admission that she may have overstated Thomas’ bluntness for dramatic effect — to emerge sooner. Michelle could then try to discern if this is really true or if Beth is now backpedalling and covering up: potential signs of her being a genuine “victim.”
It’s worth noting that a number of Busted Halo responders are people who themselves have experienced abuse, by spouses, fiancés or parents. Their tendency is to advocate for Michelle to sound the trumpet, to persistently raise more questions and alarm bells, not fewer. Some even suggest that she go directly to Thomas or to Michelle’s wider family and circle of friends. I want to listen to this as the witness of those “who have been there.” Still, I think that logic from without (i.e., Michelle’s insights), however sound, will only go so far. “Love,” as they say, “is often blind.”
A significant number of responders noted that Beth really needs her close friend now more than ever. This would not be the time to sever ties with Beth, to refuse to attend her wedding, even if she stubbornly ignores or rejects Michelle’s well-intentioned advice. Being there for her, now and into the future, come what may, is what genuine friendship and fidelity are all about.
Who, what, how?
So, who is Thomas really? What is Beth and Thomas’s relational quality and depth? How can I help? As a longstanding friend, these would be my central concerns. Too quick a judgment against them or too abrupt a departure from the scene seems not to be warranted at this point.
Finally, in terms of the wedding and the maid of honor invitation, I personally don’t see the role of a maid of honor as “a matter of “good conscience.” The two official lay witnesses at a wedding merely attest that they saw it happen, that the couple really did exchange the rings and the “I do” vows. It is not a personal or in-depth seal of approval on the couple’s chances for a happy life together. If it were so, priests, ministers and rabbis would have to bow out of a lot of weddings.
Catholic couples have a right to the sacrament. Citizen couples have a right to the government’s sanction and legal protection. While a good pastor, judge or court official helps to prepare a couple for marriage, it is not their role to raise or lower their thumb to doing the wedding, like some emperor in the coliseum. A minister, like the bridal party and guests, is a witness, not judge and jury.
My mother the amateur moral theologian
Years ago my mother (recently deceased at 94) made a pastoral decision about whether to attend the weddings of her friends’ children, who opted to marry outside-the-Church or to enter second marriages after civil divorce. She decided it this way: “My friends can’t and shouldn’t disown their children. And I should be there to support my friends. My presence says “I love you,” not that I approve of every decision made about this wedding and marriage.”
Way to go, Mom! Have a little chat with this young lady named Michelle.
Friend-to-friend advice, not an ultimatum, seems called for in this case, as in most personal moral dilemmas. The moral solutions are often messy; rarely clear-cut.