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August 13, 2014

Help Me, Rhonda

Advice for Life's Persistent Questions

Wedding Bells

My ex-boyfriend and I have remained fairly good friends since we broke up a year and a half ago. For a while after we broke up, we saw each other pretty often, although not romantically, and we continued to talk on the phone, sometimes. About a year ago, he started dating someone, and they are now engaged. Since he’s been with her, we’ve remained friends but don’t spend much time together and rarely talk on the phone.  

I sometimes run into them together, and his fiancée has always been very nice to me. There have even been a couple of times when just the three of us have hung out together, because we were expecting a larger group, but other people didn’t show. The fiancée is always friendly to me (and I am to her), but we’re definitely not friends. 

I’ve been invited to their wedding, and I’m not sure if I should attend. Like I said, he’s a friend, and a couple times he’s even said, “You’re coming to the wedding, right?” I don’t want to let him down, and I don’t really have a reason not to go, but it doesn’t feel totally right. His fiancée has been very easygoing about our friendship, but I kind of think coming to her wedding might test her understanding. He and I broke up very amicably, and I sometimes think he talks a little too positively about me. I don’t think he wants to be back together, but if I were dating someone, I wouldn’t be interested in hearing about how great his ex is. What do you think, Rhonda? What’s your best… 

Wedding Guess?

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Friendship with exes is tricky. In fact, “friendship” isn’t quite the right word for it. I have several exes that I’d call friends, but in truth, those friendships are different from the friendships I have with people I’ve never dated. What I have with most of those exes is a kind of lingering affection for someone who was once an important part of my life, whom I know well, and with whom I have a history of intimacy. I suspect that’s what most people mean when they describe friendship with an ex. Or some variation on that, the most pernicious being the one where they occasionally still sleep with their ex.

So, let’s dispense with the myth that what you have with your ex is friendship. Or, at least, let’s come up with some other word for it—a word that acknowledges that it’s different from the friendship he has with his drinking buddies. This “exship” you have (please, someone, send me a better word for it) is built on, and continues to draw from, your shared history of emotional and physical intimacy.

All that having been said, I suggest you skip the wedding. It sounds like his fiancée has been patient and understanding about your relationship with her soon-to-be husband. Sometimes being a good friend means getting out of the way when that’s what’s warranted. If he still talks so highly of you (frequently enough) that you think it might bother his gf, you help him by being the one to back off. This naturally provides their relationship with a little space and it prevents her from having to be the girlfriend or wife who demands he give up his friends.

I suggest you create an unavoidable conflict for the wedding date. Maybe a trip out of town. That way you’re not a bad friend who just doesn’t want to come, and you’re not a bitter ex who can’t bear to attend. RSVP no, send a card or gift, and lay low for a little while. You can continue to be friends with both of them after they’re married. 


Take My Advice

I work in a pretty large office, so I don’t know all of my co-workers. Of those that I know and talk to, there’s one guy I have a question about. He often talks to me about his life and his problems—his sick parent, his sick friend, his leaking roof or whatever his current crisis is. I don’t think they’re manufactured crises, and it’s not like he always has some terrible problem, but when he does, he seems to confide in me. It’s not really a problem, and I generally don’t mind listening, but I’ve noticed something. One particular issue has come up for him again and again. The first time he talked about it, I tried to be sympathetic and made a few suggestions about what he could do. Two weeks later, he was talking to me about the same thing, but he hadn’t done anything about it (as far as I could tell). So, I kind of repeated what I had said previously. Then, just a few days ago, he starts talking to me about the same problem. I don’t know how many times I can listen to him talk about the same thing, when he hasn’t taken any steps to fix this problem himself. How can I help him/make him see that this is a solvable problem?

Problem Solver

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You should get an advice column, P.S. The anonymity of the advice-seekers lets you believe, with no evidence to the contrary, that everyone follows every bit of your advice to the letter. Right now, I’m happily envisioning all who ever wrote me living happy, fulfilled lives, free of whatever problems they asked me about. And, they’re probably saying to a friend something like, “Rhonda’s advice was spot-on and so easy to follow. I put it into practice as soon as I read it, and my problem was immediately solved.” 

But, I have two advantages over you. First, the people I respond to are self-selected. They want advice. Second, I don’t know what they do with my advice. They may very well laugh at it, or take their time enacting it, or want to follow it but struggle to, or use part of it and come up with their own solutions. And, really, any of those is okay.

Here’s the key to listening to someone tell you about their problem in person: Realize that you are there only to listen. You are not important as an individual. (You are a unique and special unicorn, of course, and the world couldn’t spin without you, but in this capacity there’s nothing special about you.) What’s important is that you are a human, with ears, who is there to be on the receiving end of what your friend/coworker is saying. He’s getting what he needs just by speaking about his problem. Thinking about and articulating what’s going on in his life is helping him as much or more than your advice (which I don’t doubt is excellent) can. 

So the next time he tells you the same tale, try to listen without offering suggestions. It’s pretty difficult to do, and it takes practice, but if you want to be truly helpful, it’s a good skill to have. The amount of time you go without speaking might feel a little strange for normal conversation, but remember that in this instance the conversation will be a somewhat unbalanced. As a bonus to you, if you don’t give advice, you may feel a little less frustrated when it’s not taken.


Confidential to Readers 

Readers, if you can come up with a word that better evokes the type of friendship that tends to happen with an ex, please send it in via email to advice@flagpole.com or through the completely anonymous advice form on flagpole.com. I have frequent need of such a term, and I’ll share suggestions in a future column.

Thanks, too, for all the letters seeking advice. I appreciate your trust in sharing your questions and enjoy getting to hear a little about your life. If you’ve never submitted a question (or if you have) consider this your invitation. I’m happy to try to help, whatever your problem, question or worry. 

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