I recently threw a surprise birthday party for her. We all heard the garage door and took our quiet hiding places. During that delay, it started to occur to me that she was probably stripping down like usual in the laundry room, something I just didn’t think of when planning the party. I quickly ran to the door separating the laundry room from the living space, but was too late as she walked in naked except for her panties to a crowd shouting “surprise!”. She was mortified and quickly slipped back into the laundry room and cried for the next hour, refusing to come out. Wendy, our guestlist was pretty substantial, consisting of her parents, my parents, friends and co-workers. Even her managers came to the party.
She’s still so upset and is holding this grudge against me. It’s really changed our relationship. I don’t know what to do or say. I further messed things up, trying to console her by talking about how nice her body looks and how she shouldn’t be ashamed of it. That little tid-bit only further enraged her toward me. She’s totally closed off from me now. It’s been three weeks with no intimacy and just a very, very cold shoulder. I don’t want this to end us. What can I do or say? — Unhappy Surprise
Oh, wow. Yeah, you really messed up. Obviously, it should have occurred to you as you were planning the party that every day that she comes home from work your girlfriend strips down to her underwear before stepping inside, and that maybe holding the surprise part of the party in the very area where she wanders out of the mudroom, nude, wouldn’t be well-received. When that only finally occurred to you seconds before everyone she knows yelled “surprise!,” you should have yelled to her, “Don’t come out! We have company!” And when you failed to do that, you should have ushered her back into the mudroom, apologized profusely, run to get her some clothes, apologized to all the guests, and then told her that you really messed up and you would make it up to her the best you could.
Making that comment about her body and how she shouldn’t be ashamed of it was probably the worst thing you could have said, and I’m not sure you understand why. It was a terrible thing to say because it brought more attention to the thing she didn’t want to think about (being naked in front of everyone she knows) and it implies that you think she was embarrassed because she was ashamed of her body. Um, no. She was embarrassed because her parents and your parents and her co-workers and friends all caught her in a very private moment and that made her feel incredibly exposed and vulnerable. The state and shape of her body is irrelevant! And to imply that it is somehow relevant dismisses her (very valid) feelings and hints at some sexism, too (by attributing shame about her body when she never said that she felt any shame). Oy vey.
So, what do you do now? You tell her again how sorry you are, how terrible you feel for not putting more mental work into the planning of her party, and — this part is key — how you understand why she would feel the way she feels. Then ask her if there’s anything you can do to make it up to her. (It would be wise to have a few ideas you could propose: a weekend away; paying for a girls night out or weekend with a couple close friends that she can vent to; volunteering for a cause that’s important to her; doing her share of your household chores for a couple weeks). Respect whatever answer she gives, and don’t press her. She may need a few more weeks before she’s ready to move on. And, really, no sex for a month seems fair given the situation.
Hopefully, in time, this is something that you both can look back on and chuckle about. I mean, it IS kind of funny. But if it truly does ruin your relationship in a way that you as a couple never recover from, then this wasn’t a relationship that was going to last anyway. Yes, what happened was embarrassing and regretful, but it’s nowhere near the level of awful that a longterm couple faces over the course of forever together, you know? You gotta learn to roll with the punches, figure out how to communicate and support one another, and be able to recover from setbacks both big and small. This is an opportunity to do that. If you can’t — if your girlfriend decides that your being a human who makes mistakes that sometimes negatively affect her is a dealbreaker — then your relationship was doomed anyway and it was only a matter of time before something else put the nail in the coffin. At least you get a story out of this scenario, regardless what comes next.
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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com.