ADVICE 03: Should I Contact My Ex? Mourning Etiquette


Photo Credit: Brent Stoller

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I'm easily influenced. At my day job, where I write for three print publications, whenever I get an assignment, I refuse to look at past articles on similar subjects. If I do, their words get lodged in my brain, which prevents me from accessing new ideas. It's as if the best way to address the topic has already been written.

That's why I've avoided other advice columns. I'm afraid reading them will alter how I write this one.

And truthfully, it's also defeating to see how successful they are. This one gets upwards of 4,000 comments every time it's posted. Incredible. I get that it's well done and has an established tradition, but still, it's daunting to see.

I suppose this is where I should take my own advice from last week's entry about comparisons: Use them as inspiration, not as discouragement.

The bottom line is that, for better or worse, ADVICE is going to be what you and I make of it. So let's make it something good.

Onto the questions...

(Questions have been modified for space and clarity.)

I'd been dating this girl for the past year, and things ended between us. We haven't spoken in two months. Should I at least reach out to try to clear the air?
-- Bob; Baton Rouge, LA

When it comes to relationships current and past, I believe in boundaries. I also believe in bending those boundaries when necessary. Both beliefs have validity, so let's explore the arguments for each.


You and your girlfriend broke up for a reason. Maybe that reason was as innocent as incompatibility or as sinister as infidelity. Considering you dated for a year and then cut your communication cold turkey, I'm going to lean toward the latter. Not that someone necessarily cheated, but that the relationship ended abruptly and on poor terms. That's a total guess, though.

Regardless, there was a line drawn between the two of you, a boundary. You were together; now you're not. Too often that boundary gets blurred, as people continue communicating after a breakup, then wonder why they can't move on. As Jerry Seinfeld explains, "Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine: You can't do it in one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over."

But you've defied the odds by respecting that boundary. While those two months might've afforded you perspective on what was a negative situation, it might've also dulled what made the situation negative. Again, you broke up for a reason. Open those lines of communication, and you could end up back where you started.


Seinfeld was right: Relationships are like Coke machines. They're complicated mechanisms, with moving parts and filled with different experiences, some bitter, some sweet. Sometimes you have to finesse them; other times you have to bang their glass to make them work. And no matter how much you press their Return button, they're never giving your money back.

That's why ending them can be so messy. And judging by your use of the phrase, "Clear the air," it sounds like you still have some cleaning up to do. Maybe you need to apologize, or hear her apologize, or get further insight into what went wrong. Whatever it is, there's something that needs to be resolved.

Yes, it's important to respect boundaries. But it's more important to respect yourself. If you've got something to say, you have to say it. It's the only way you can fully move on -- with or without her.

I was recently widowed. My estranged husband and I had been living apart for three years. I live in a very small place. People expect me to be sorrowful and in mourning, but they don't have full knowledge of my husband's behavior toward me and others. I rather feel like the Merry Widow. Is it all right not to wear black and mourn "out loud"?
-- IslandGurl; A small island in the Aegean Sea

6,338 miles. That's the distance between the Aegean Sea and Houston, TX, where I live -- giving IslandGurl the clubhouse lead for Most Distant Questioner.

Is it OK to mourn how you want to? Of course it is. We all deal with loss in our own way. Some people cry, some people shut down, some people go home with Will Ferrell. It's not something we can plan or even predict; there's no way to know how we'll handle death until we encounter it.

You were estranged from your husband for three years because he mistreated you and others, so it's understandable that his passing would provide you relief. And you have every right to make the most of this newfound freedom.

But it's not surprising that you feel hesitant to do so given where you live. Small communities are synonymous with gossip. Everyone knows everyone's business, and everyone has an opinion. Even about how you should mourn.

I'm tempted to spout platitudes like, "Be true to yourself," and "Don't worry about what other people think," because that is the best advice. It's always the best advice. But those cliches should always be tagged with another: Easier said than done.

If you can be true to yourself and be the "Merry Widow," go for it. If you struggle, keep the following in mind: 1) Most people don't spend much time thinking about you... they've got their own problems to consider; and 2) Those who talk are going to talk no matter what, so why worry about it?

What I would avoid is defending your mourning style to others by chastising your husband's memory. If you want people to start talking about you negatively, that's a surefire way to strike the match. It's what gossips live for. No matter how awful your husband was, and no matter how justified your lack of sadness is, be careful of letting those feelings be broadcast to the public. The high road has no regret.

That said, it's still critical that you process any leftover anger or resentment toward your husband. Confide in your confidant(e), write in a journal, crop him out of your pictures -- whatever you have to do to move on. There's no need to stay stuck in the past when the future's so bright.

NEXT WEEK: Casual sex; how to confront someone...

To send in a question, please complete this short Google form. All submissions are anonymous, even to the author.