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SocietyDecember 29, 2023

Help Me Hera: My girlfriend is trying to befriend my ex

John Tucker from the movie John Tucker must die, in blue on a lime green background
The smug smile of a softboi (Image: Archi Banal)

Summer reissue: I professed feelings for my ex before her wedding and now she works with my current girlfriend. Am I the victim… or am I the problem?

First published on May 11. 2023.

Help me Hera

For the last few years I’ve been dating an incredible woman. We’re highly compatible in terms of goals and lifestyles, although like all couples we’ve had our ups and downs.

A year ago I was invited to my ex’s wedding. We were together for five years, and went through a LOT together. After our breakup, she moved cities and we both started seeing other people. We’ve messaged occasionally. But the news of her wedding really threw me. 

I decided to tell my ex I wouldn’t be attending. She wanted to know why. Whatever our faults, our relationship was always based on honesty and transparency. I confessed I wasn’t comfortable attending as there were some lingering feelings for her on my end, and I thought it would be healthiest for my current relationship if I stayed away. This opened the door to a deeper conversation, where we were both able to reflect on the way things ended, and forgive each other for some past mistakes. It was a profoundly healing experience and gave me a lot of closure. I was able to wish her and her fiance well, and truly mean it. 

My ex recently moved back to town and got a job with the same organisation my girlfriend works at. My girlfriend came home upset, saying she’d struck up a conversation with my ex and had gotten a “hostile” vibe. My girlfriend knows we dated, but nothing substantial beyond that. 

The problem is my girlfriend can’t stand it when someone is “mean”, and doubles down on trying to befriend them. Knowing my ex, this won’t play well. They both work in quite a niche area (a specific type of conservation) so it’s unlikely either will leave the job. I haven’t talked to my ex since the wedding invitation, but I just want to put the whole situation behind me. I haven’t been able to sleep for the past few nights due to stress. Can I ask my girlfriend to mind her business? Should I give my ex a heads up? Is there anything I can do, or am I destined to be haunted by my romantic past forever? 

a line of dice with blue dots

Hello 

One of the most insufferable personal traits is doing brazenly selfish things and pretending they’re for the moral benefit of those around you. Like privatising healthcare. Or buying your wife the model helicopter kit you always wanted for your wedding anniversary.  

Nobody likes being kicked in the teeth and told it’s for their own good. Which is presumably why you haven’t told your girlfriend anything about this “profoundly healing experience”. I don’t know if you’re so emotionally obtuse you genuinely believe you confessed your feelings out of some enlightened impulse, or whether you can freely admit you’re a cretinous and ignoble worm who deserves to eat mud and writhe. But you better get to grips with reality quickly, because your situation is reaching Seinfeld levels of ironic coincidence. 

You say you believe in transparency. But as far as I can tell, there’s nothing remotely transparent about your behaviour. To labour a glass-based metaphor, what you actually have is tinted windows. All the benefits of transparency without the inconvenience of actually being seen. If you’re able to be radically honest with the person you’re flirting with, but not the person you’re disappointing, that doesn’t strike me as very radical or very honest. 

Telling your ex you can’t attend their wedding because you still have feelings for them isn’t a way of protecting your relationship with your girlfriend. It’s an emotionally tortured way of confessing your love while attempting to maintain some sort of plausible deniability. Professing your love to create emotional distance is like calling a military truce by staking the enemy’s messenger through the heart with a white surrender flag. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t go around emotionally devastating people if that’s where your true happiness lies. There’s nothing better than a tortured romantic confession, even if it disrupts a wedding. Especially if it disrupts a wedding. Let’s not be so puritanical we throw the Brontes out with the bathwater. What’s not romantic is keeping your current girlfriend on ice, in case your big declaration doesn’t land. 

The correct way to behave when someone you have romantic feelings for invites you to their wedding is either politely decline (no explanation required) OR leap into the saddle, ride for miles across uncertain and hostile terrain and fling open the doors of their wedding chapel, just in time to shout “I object”. That’s romance. But your behaviour is the opposite of romantic because you risked nothing, not even your girlfriend’s unfounded good opinion. 

I’m almost done with the berating portion of the letter, but the first step towards recovery is by admitting you’re a shit. Not a tragic Keatsian victim of your own eloquence. A regular, run-of-the-mill shit, who’s made themself a bed of marbles and rakes, and now is facing the unhappy prospect of having to lie in it. 

You seem annoyed that your girlfriend approached your ex. But it was only polite! Still, I’m not exactly surprised your ex wasn’t overly enthusiastic. What’s she going to do? Start a meaningful friendship based on a foundational deceit? Although to be honest, this is exactly what you should be worried about. Forget a hostile confrontation. The worst case scenario for you is they get to know and like each other in the course of identifying a rare subspecies of seaweed, or rehabilitating a sick turtle. Once they’re friends, it’s all over for you. 

Old sins have long shadows, and as long as your girlfriend and ex remain in daily proximity, you’re stuck in a holding pattern of anticipatory dread. Sure, you may get away with it. But at what cost? Is it really “getting away” with something if you spend every night sleeplessly fretting about the legitimate prospect of your romantic crimes being discovered and broadcast?  

I can’t help thinking the most narratively satisfying solution to this problem is for both your girlfriend and ex to start some kind of wildlife sanctuary together, in which case your betrayal could have a net environmental benefit. But sadly that’s out of your control. 

So what can you do? As I see it, you have three options:

One: tell your girlfriend the truth and probably get dumped. Maybe she’ll forgive you. It’s certainly true that people have forgiven worse. 

Two: say nothing and spend the rest of your relationship in a cold sweat, waiting for the whole thing to blow up in your face.

Three: change your name, withdraw all your savings, buy a one way ticket to a small town in the American midwest and never look back. 

I don’t think there’s much chance of this going well for you. But in a way, that’s a freeing prospect. If you can’t make things better, you may as well make them easier, and face the music now instead of waiting for a stress-based gastric ulcer to permanently warp your stomach lining and make the consumption of citrus fruits impossible.  

Think of this as a lesson for the future. Five years from now, when you’re living on a Des Moines pumpkin farm with your handsome wife Kathleen, and your girlfriend invites you to her wedding, at least you’ll know what not to say. 

Want Hera’s help? Email your problem to helpme@thespinoff.co.nz

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