The Pool's agony aunt Viv Groskop is on hand


Dear Viv: how do I face down my ex and his new partner?

In this week's episode of Waving, Not Drowning, Viv discusses encountering exes at weddings, whether it's appropriate to joke about a serious illness, listening to a moany boyfriend, and how to survive office cut-backs.

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By Viv Groskop on

Dear Viv,

I've been invited to a wedding, but I'm pretty sure my ex-boyfriend (who's better friends with the couple than I am) is attending with the woman he cheated on me with – and their new baby! How can I politely decline, without seeming petty? I'm in a very happy relationship now, and would rather do something with my boyfriend that doesn't involve my ex, his girlfriend and their baby. 

Blimey, your ex-boyfriend has been busy since you split up with him. A baby already? Or this is a grievance you’ve been harbouring for a while? Hmm. I’m not sure how to take this question, as I’m not sure that what you’re representing on the surface is really what’s going on. If you were really “in a very happy relationship now”, you probably wouldn’t care about any of this, and would just let your ex-boyfriend get on with his life and forget about him.

So, what is really going on? I don’t think you’re over this boyfriend. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some relationships take ages to get over. I have been married for over 15 years and I don’t think I’ve ever quite got over the boyfriend I had before I met my husband, who, after we had gone out together for a year, split up with me and said, “You have been living a lie – I never liked you.” Actually, I’m lying, I got over that in about 24 hours, because he was a total idiot. But my point is: be honest with yourself. It’s OK to be hung up on your boyfriend as long as you admit it to yourself. (Don’t talk to your new boyfriend about it, by the way.)

The question is, though: do you attend the wedding? I say no. Who cares whether you seem petty or not? You don’t have to tell anyone why you’re not going to the wedding. Just say you’re already busy. In fact, why don’t you make this the reason why you definitely can’t go to the wedding? The answer is already in your question: book yourself something to do with your new boyfriend.

The wedding is a red herring here, though. The real question is about how you feel about your ex and you need to deal with those feelings honestly, otherwise they are going to haunt you. You mention the baby twice. Is that what this is really about? This question reminds me of situations where a couple is in a long relationship, the man says, “I’m just not ready for commitment”, leaves the girl and then two seconds later gets married to someone else, having a massive wedding, and then he’s going to be a father, and you’re thinking, “Ah, you are the person who did not like commitment.” It’s like in When Harry Met Sally, when she says, “It wasn’t that he didn’t want to get married. It was just that he didn’t want me.” That is a horrible thing to get over and I wish people would not do this – ie say they don’t want commitment and then walk down the road and into a church to marry someone else. But you will get over this and I hope your new boyfriend is a hot distraction. Please, please, though, be honest with yourself and let yourself feel confused, annoyed, jealous and irritated by your ex boyfriend’s new life. It’s not until you process all those feelings that you’ll be able to move on. Definitely don’t go to the wedding, though. There is nothing petty about not going to a wedding for any reason.

Dear Viv, 

My brother-in-law has just been diagnosed with lung cancer and I really just don’t know what to say to him or my sister. I made a joke about Breaking Bad at a family dinner the other day and it went down like sour milk. Clearly, I can’t make light of the situation without seeming insensitive, but I don’t want to be doing the head-tilt "Can I bring you a stew?" face every time we see each other. 

Oh dear. Well, this is easy to answer. Dear Breaking Bad fan, it’s not about you. I am guessing you know this, though, and that is why you’ve written in. I sense a heart beating beneath the bravado and jokes in your letter and I do sympathise with you. I am also a person who believes in making inappropriate jokes and cracking out the dark humour around death, illness and uncertainty. But, the problem is, not everyone feels this way and when you don’t own the situation, because it’s not your life, you kind of have to take your cue from the people who do own it. Even if they are completely humourless.

I wonder if there’s something deeper at work here. You say your problem is that you don’t want to do ungenuine head-tilting and false compassion every time you see your sister and her husband. I think what you’re really scared about is that your relationship with your sister will change. I’m guessing that you used to make jokes with each other all the time, which is why you’re upset that the Breaking Bad comment ended up being offensive instead of funny. My heart really goes out to you here, because I would have done exactly the same thing, and I would have been gutted if I had upset everyone instead of lightening the situation. And it sounds as if that is what has happened here.

If your relationship with your sister has been based on having a laugh, it’s possible that is going to have to change around a serious illness. It may not be forever. It’s up to you to decide how to behave in the meantime and it’s really between you and your conscience. You can carry on pretending as if nothing has changed and see if that helps things. Or, you can be more cautious and take your behaviour cues from your sister and her husband. It’s impossible to know what to do in these situations and sometimes you can only hit on the right answer by getting it wrong first.

Do remember, though, this isn’t about you. There are times in life when we have to let things revolve around other people, however helpful we think it might be for the focus to be taken off them – and I do agree with you that, in the face of something terrible, it’s good to laugh. But not everyone will be up to speed with you on this. Give them some time to catch up. Meanwhile, I’m sorry to say but you are actually going to have to make some stew. Stereotypes and clichés exist for a reason and there is a good reason that people do the head-tilt and bring stews: it’s because, on some level, it helps. So, swallow your cynicism and your natural wisecracking instincts and channel your inner Mary Berry for a bit to see if that helps. Much love to you and to your family, and wishing you all the best.

You can hear the answers to these and the following questions on Viv’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, above.

Dear Viv,

Is it bad that I zone out when my boyfriend vents to me about his work? I feel guilty for not properly listening, but it’s so boring.

Dear Viv,

I work in the digital-marketing department of a company which has been making serious cutbacks over the past year. None of my colleagues who have recently left or been fired have been replaced and, instead, their work has been passed on to me, which senior management have been telling me is "temporary" for the past six months. I love my job (but not their jobs, too!) and want to stay, but the stress is getting really crazy – I keep getting ratty at my housemates and find myself cancelling weekend plans, so that I can just have a long bath and try to chill out a bit. Should I hold out or is it a lost cause?

Got a question for Viv? Email her at The Dear Viv podcast airs on The Pool at 5pm on Tuesdays. All letters will be edited for length. Unfortunately Viv cannot reply to your emails personally. 

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The Pool's agony aunt Viv Groskop is on hand
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