A woman in her late 30s fears that something she said has caused the breakup of a couple in their 20s. She feels guilty and wants to know if there's something she can do to help rectify the situation..
My husband and I are in our late thirties, and we recently went out for drinks with a couple in their early twenties who we know from work. The woman in the couple made an ignorant and unprofessional comment, and I called her out on it. I said that her comment reflected poorly on her and that comments like that would hold her back professionally. Her boyfriend stayed silent through the discussion, and the evening ended on a very awkward note for everyone involved. The next week, I found out that they broke up. I feel partially responsible for their break-up, and I'd really like to do or say something to help. What should I do?
If the younger couple did break up as a result of that night, while you may have sparked the discussion that illuminated their incompatibility, you didn't cause the underlying problem. If a couple can't survive one night of awkward drinks, miscommunication and hurt feelings, they can't survive. Period.
You can take responsibility for embarassing the young woman and not thinking about her feelings before you spoke. It sounds like you were pretty harsh at a time when she probably felt comfortable letting her guard down because you were out socially rather than specifically in a work environment. She may have learned a valuable lesson about the blurry boundaries when socializing with co-workers, which may even be more useful to her in the long run than whatever lesson you were trying to communicate about professionalism. You could get in touch with her and say that you're sorry for being overly critical and that you think she's doing a great job in the early stages of her career (or something that's true and kind without rehashing whatever her original comment was).
If you feel compelled to get in touch with the guy in the couple, you could say, "I'm sorry things got awkward that evening," or, "I'm sorry to hear you broke up." You can also acknowledge, but only to yourself, that things may have gone differently for the couple if the young man had spoken up to defend his girlfriend, but telling him that will probably not really help anyone. He was in a difficult situation, where to defend her may have come across as defending her comments, which he likely recognized as inappropriate. If he defended her, perhaps he feared ramifications at work from you or other more established professionals. You can say something nice to him and move on, or you could invite him out again and try to be on your best behavior or you could just leave the poor guy alone.
If either or both of these newly single individuals do blame you, even if you try to smooth things over, both members of the couple will probably want to say something to the effect of, "Thanks but no thanks. You've said enough already." But, probably neither of them will say that, because they'll be afraid of how you'll respond. In this whole mess, your takeaway can be that your comments can have a real impact on people, for better or for worse. It's hard to say what the exes' takeaways will be, but I'm sure they'll both think twice before dating someone from work and also before more seemingly innocuous socializing with co-workers. This is one of those cases where a lot of unfortunate circumstances converged to make one totally convoluted scenario, and I hope you'll decide to leave it alone and leave these twenty-somethings to move on, too.