Dear Carolyn: I am getting ready to propose to my girlfriend of three years. "Mary" is just great — beautiful, funny, successful — but she has major forgiveness issues. Not about little things; she never holds a grudge if I stay out late with the guys and she has to pick me up from a bar, or if I'm cranky from a bad day at work or something. In fact, none of this behavior has ever been directed at me but it's so extreme that I have to wonder about it.
For example, her dad cheated on her mom and married the other woman many years ago. Mary has never forgiven him and never sees him — never even met his new wife or her half-sister. Even her mom says Mary needs to get over it! Another example: A longtime friend of hers was going through a crisis and was taking it out on Mary, who was trying very hard to help her. Mary was really patient for months until, boom, one day she'd had enough and cut her off completely.
I admit back then I said Mary shouldn't put up with her awful behavior, but since then the friend has tried so hard to earn forgiveness that I'd give her a second chance. Mary won't consider it and at a recent party refused to even acknowledge her existence.
Mary admits she can never forgive people who "seriously wrong" her but says it's the way she is and she can't change that. Is she right? Is this a red flag?
Carolyn says: She's right, this is the way she is — because she has no interest in being otherwise. Whether that means she "can't" change or "won't" change is a hair you don't need to split.
The thornier issue is whether it's a red flag, and to that my answer is a definitive yes. And no.
You know the "yes" as well as I do. When someone is that punitive, that immovable by the remorse of others, that capable of seeing black-and-white in the roiling gray of human experience, then you must heed the alarm. On this Mary's mom is persuasive; Mary's more upset than the discarded spouse herself? Wow.
The threat that, boom, one day Mary will be done with you is bound to hover between you. It hints at a fragility in Mary, too, where she reaches a point of suffering beyond which she won't risk further harm.
But it also hints at a reason not to treat her "major forgiveness issues" as a deal-breaker (speaking of gray): Her breaking point is actually quite reasonable.
When you cheat, divorce, then marry your paramour, you can reasonably expect to alienate your children, maybe for good.
When you use your close, helpful friend as a punching bag during a crisis, you can reasonably expect to alienate that friend, maybe for good.
We all have and reach breaking points. Most just handle future encounters with a tight-smiley "hello" to the people who are emotionally dead to them — mustering a superficial connection while leaving the rift intact.
Mary doesn't. She lives and wears the rift, and that's the real difference. Do I recommend this? No. But at least people know where they stand. So if you marry Mary, be nice.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com.