The Pool's agony aunt Viv Groskop

Waving, Not Drowning

Dear Viv: When should I tell my daughter about sex?

On this week's podcast, Viv discusses dealing with a family fallout, drifting apart from a best friend, handling parents with offensive views, and when to have The Big Chat with your child

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By Viv Groskop on

Dear Viv,

My two brothers (aged 37/42) had a falling out and are no longer speaking. The younger one believes he is the victim and refuses to speak to the other until he gets a sufficient apology. The older brother believes he has apologised and doesn't want to engage in further discussion.

It's extremely difficult now for the rest of our family, as the younger brother is avoiding family gatherings and resents us for speaking to the brother who 'wronged' him. Personally I think life is too short to be estranged and they should just put their problems in the past. Any advice?

Dear sister with warring brothers. What a mess. Of course I have some advice because I am Dear Viv and Dear Viv always has to have advice. But I can’t promise it’s going to solve everything as in my experience these cases are a bit like that line in Tolstoy: “All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are each unhappy in their own special way.” So there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Your brothers might make up out of the blue. Or they might be estranged for decades. I have known cases where both of these things have happened and it’s not often easy to tell them apart. 

Frequently where these cases resolve themselves there is a catalyst: a baby is born, someone in the family dies, a parent gets ill, there’s a crisis of some kind. These are the things that make warring siblings realise that the earth does not revolve around them and life is bigger than their little feud. But sometimes even those things don’t cut through. I think the most productive and useful thing to do is to stop focusing on them because you can’t control or influence their behaviour. Focus instead on yourself. Build a relationship with each of them separately. If they ask your opinion about what has happened, you can be honest about how you feel about it but don’t expect anything to change.

So the younger brother is avoiding family gatherings? Too bad. Get over it. So he resents you for speaking to the older brother? Again, too bad. He’s going to have to get used to it. Don’t get drawn into it. Make this a thing that is between the two of them that you don’t get dragged into. Make as little of it as you can and behave as if it is entirely their problem. Which, of course, it is.

I’m sure your feelings amongst all this are horrible and you are deeply annoyed and upset with the two of them. But I think you are just going to have to swallow all that a bit and get on with your life, however frustrating that may be. There comes a point where we have to realise that sometimes other people are going to be silly and there is nothing we can do about it except shrug and say, “Oh dear, they are still being silly.” Your only hope is that by doing this the two of them might look up one day and say, “How could we be so silly?” I have seen it happen. But I have also seen people be silly until one of them dies and it’s too late. In both cases, it is not your problem so make it clear to them -- and, more importantly, to yourself -- that you are not going to live with this as your problem. This is the new situation, unfortunately, that you have to build a relationship with two more or less “new” brothers who won’t talk to each other. It’s not what you’d choose but it’s what you’ve got. Accept it and get on with your life without trying to interfere in theirs. It’s the only way to stay sane and not become as silly as they are.

Dear Viv,

My best friend of 20 years might not be my bff after all, and maybe it’s only history keeping us together. So we met when we were 17 and have shared a life-time of parties, clubs and friendship together. There was even a time when I had a Diana and Camilla moment where she was so close that she became the Camilla in the relationship with my boyfriend. Fast forward 20 years, and our lives have taken different paths  – I have house and child and she still lives in the same flat. We still see each other but only once every 2 months and even then I keep wondering, why are we holding on?

Dear Diana, I am going to call you that as you seem to have identified your friend as Camilla. I couldn’t quite get my head round all this as I wasn’t sure if you, the Diana figure, are still with the same Prince Charles or you are already with someone else. Anyway. Let me say this: from the outside, this seems a much more complicated friendship that you painted with the initial lines of your letter. It’s not just a history that you have together of partying and clubbing. There is some other messier stuff there too, isn’t there? That stuff can get swept under the carpet but it never quite goes away. I’ll link it to Diana and Camilla seeing as you’re the one who brought the two of them up. Do you think those two were friends or that they could even be in the same room together? It’s telling that you mention that connection because you couldn’t hope to meet two people who were less likely to have been friends.

What’s tying you to this friend now? Habit? History? Co-dependence? Have you clung on to her in some strange way to prove that you didn’t mind her coming after your boyfriend when deep down you really did mind a lot? Maybe she has clung to you so that she doesn’t have to feel so bad about it. We all do these dysfunctional things to try and make the best of bad situations.

But what has happened in the past doesn’t really matter now. It’s great to have shared memories in a friendship. But you can’t build a present friendship on memories. So does your friendship have a place in the here and now? It doesn’t matter all whether she has children and you don’t and whether she lives in the same flat but you’ve moved house. What matters is how you make each other feel. Do you make each other laugh? Do you feel supported and warm in her company? Do you feel like she’s got your back and is on your side no matter what? Does she celebrate when things go well for you? And does she empathise when things are tough? These are the questions to answer. The answers to these questions are the definition of a good friend. Someone who doesn’t do these things for you is not a good friend. They’re maybe an acquaintance or a colleague or someone you used to know well. But they are the ultimate test.

There’s no point in getting upset if this friendship has outstayed its welcome in your life. Just say goodbye to it secretly in your heart and move on. You don’t even need to tell your friend. Just make some excuses and see her less. Who knows, there might come a time when something pulls you back together again. So leave it open and don’t have any awkward final moments. You already know the answer to this in your own heart: either she makes you feel good about yourself and your life or she doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how many party nights you had in the past. What matters is how she makes you feel now.

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

Dear Viv,

My parents have frankly offensive views. How do I explain it to my children?

Dear Viv,

I had the periods chat with my seven-year-old daughter a couple of years ago, along with the bare bones of sex education – she knows a baby is made from an egg from the woman and sperm from the man but, crucially, hasn't yet asked how one gets to the other. I'm sure the playground whispers are starting and I'm torn between wanting to tell her before she hears about it from her friends, yet not wanting to burst the bubble of innocence. I feel like on the one hand I'm trying to keep the magic of Father Christmas alive, and then on the other I'm trying to prematurely give her adult information she maybe doesn't yet want! What's best? To wait until she asks, even if it means she doesn't hear it from me first, or just have The Big Chat?

These questions have been edited for length. 

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

You can subscribe to The Pool's podcasts on iTunes.

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