Gentlemanly Advice: You’re in the wedding party! So is your ex.

Gentlemanly Advice: You’re in the wedding party! So is your ex.
How to keep it together and come out a hero, just in time for peak wedding season.

Have a big question or situation you’re wrestling with? Send us your question in the form at the bottom of this piece.

Q: Two of my good friends are getting married this summer. I’m really excited for them and was excited to go to the wedding but my ex is going to be there. I’m doing well (working out, seeing friends, swiping) but I know it will be hard to see her, brutal if she shows up with a date. There’s NO chance I won’t see her. We’re both close with the bride and groom, share a lot of friends, and before we broke up she was asked to be a bridesmaid and I’m supposed to give a toast.

I really want to be there for my friends but I’m afraid seeing her will ruin it for me and set back all the work I’ve done. What is the best course of action? How much does it cost to fake your own kidnapping?  -Scott, Denver CO

A: If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s happened to someone you know: you and your beloved get a save-the-date card in the mail for a wedding six months hence, but before you can book flights and pick out a wedding gift your relationship has broken up like a low-earth satellite that hit its re-entry angle wrong.

There’s a dozen variations on the scenario: maybe, like Scott, you’re both close to the bride and groom-to-be. Maybe you’re not. Perhaps you broke up before the invite ever arrived; maybe it’s in two weeks and you don’t know what to do because you just broke up. Maybe she’s your high school sweetheart and the wound still stings.

The reality is, you’re invited to a wedding. So is your ex. And you’ve both been asked to be involved in the ceremony. It’s a thicket of tricky questions on etiquette, communication, and conduct.

What do you do now? If you go – and if your ex goes – how do you conduct yourself at the wedding? And how do you minimize the emotional impact on your life, and theirs?

Step 0: Know Your Role

Before we begin it’s worth stating the guiding principle of this article: Your goal should be to conduct yourself with tact, discretion, and maturity at any stage of the process.

To be blunt: nothing regarding this wedding is about you, your ex, or your former relationship. It’s not an opportunity to re-hash, re-adjudicate, or re-examine what went wrong, who wronged who, or how wrong your ex is.

Know your role, which is to support your friends and keep your personal drama to a minimum. It’s guaranteed the bride and groom don’t have the bandwidth to get in the middle, and you don’t want to put others in a position to take sides or feel uncomfortable.

Trust me: follow this one principle and you will come out looking like a hero (unless, of course, you cheated on her, but that doesn’t seem like Scott’s situation).

Step 1: Find Out if They’re Going

You can save yourself a lot of angst by answering this question. Just because you believe or, like Scott, feel certain your ex has been invited to the wedding doesn’t mean they’ll actually show. If your ex isn’t going, you’re in the clear!

The question is, how do you find out? There are two approaches: direct and oblique. Whichever you choose, be sure to reference Rule 0.

Direct is hardest, but could offer valuable opportunities for you and your ex to set some ground rules. Reach out via email. Send them a thoughtful message acknowledging how tricky this is and that you genuinely want to have a dialogue about it to ensure you can both support your friends or family members and each have a good time.

Ask if they’re planning to attend and, if so, if there are to be any ground rules you can establish up front to make it go smoothly. These could include: making a polite effort to avoid one another, dividing up small group shared events pre-ceremony, or even just knowing you’ll both do your best to be considerate.  

If feelings are still too hot for the Direct option to be productive the Oblique path may be best. Check in with friends or family – do they think your ex will attend? Be discreet, but you may want to intentionally speak with people you know will speak to their friends so word reaches your ex you’re making inquiries (and nudge them to make up their mind if need be).

Now, you might consider asking a mutual friend (or pair of friends) to act as a go-between. It’s a bit like choosing a second in a duel: someone who can communicate without emotion and get information across the smoking ruins of your onetime romance. This is not, perhaps, the most courageous path but could be the most tactful.

Finally, you may not be able to find out if they’re going or not. In this case, you have to journey deep into your soul and move on to Step 2.

Step 2: Decide if You’re Going

Let’s assume your ex is going. Now it’s time to clarify your own intention. Thankfully, you can systematize this process to make it less ambiguous and fraught.

Make a list of the factors involved, broken down by those in favor of attending and those against.

In Favor

Are you closer to the wedding party?

Are you in the wedding party? Are you the best man?

Is your family going to be there?

Have you been broken up a year or longer?

Was the relationship not terribly serious?

Did they break up with you?

Are you dating someone?

Not in Favor

Are they closer to the wedding party?

Are they in the wedding party?

Is their family going to be there?

Have you been broken up less than a year?

Is this the lost love of your life?

Did you break up with them?

Are they dating someone?

Did he/she break up with you for the guy/gal they’re bringing to the wedding?

Assign a point value to each question answered in the affirmative. The values should be 0-3 depending on the severity of the response, with 0 being “no” and 3 being “hell yes.” Then look at your score For and Against going to the wedding.

Hopefully, this will help you decide a) if this is a wedding you want to go to, and b) if this is a wedding you should go to. If your ex is closer to the wedding party, in the wedding, will have tons of family there, and you broke up with them, you might want to consider sending a nice gift and a note to the bride and groom you can’t attend due to a routine but essential surgery you simply cannot re-schedule.

Step 3: How To Tell the Bride & Groom You’re Not Going

Joking aside, if you make the determination this wedding is a no-go, how do you tell the bride and groom you won’t be at their special day? Depending on the circumstances (how bruising the rupture with your ex, how close you are to the wedding party, etc.) this could be no biggie or a real challenge.

Psychologist Vijayeta Sinh, PhD, owner of NYC Family Therapy, has dealt with a lot of individuals in this situation and offers a sound approach. “Just be honest and tell the host what your concerns are,” she says, giving a sample script: “‘I'd love to have shared your special day with you but Joyce and I ended on a bad note and the break up was pretty hard on us both, I think it's best if we both had some time away from each other before we run into one another again’”.

If the bride and groom are really your friends, they’ll get it.

Step 4: Can You Ask Them Not to Go?

It’s a question we’ve pondered, and Scott has no doubt considered: is it ever appropriate to directly ask your ex not to attend? The answer is simple: No.

Your ex’s movements and social activity are simply none of your business any longer (if they ever were). It’s a breach of protocol that may backfire.

Let’s look at Scott’s predicament: both him and his ex are close to the bride and groom, share friends, and – crucially – both have a role in the wedding itself. Both have a strong claim to be there and if Scott were to ask her not to go it would be a true violation of etiquette, ungenerous and inappropriate.

Now let’s imagine another scenario: the breakup was bad. Communication is non-existent or sniping. Your ex is clearly in the wrong, having committed some serious breach of trust, like cheating, stealing, or worse. Friends and family are decisively on your side. Basically, if you have nothing to lose why not ask them to bail?

Here’s why: even though your ex is a total deadbeat, the bride or groom has invited them to their wedding. Ultimately, the bride and groom have the final say over who is and isn’t at their wedding. You would, in a sense, be trying to take some control over the guest list if you were to pointedly ask your ex not to attend.

One hopes, of course, if your ex is criminally awful the bride and groom might dis-invite them. But not necessarily, and it’s not your place to interfere. If attending is too upsetting – or potentially hazardous to you – you can politely register your protest by not attending; reference Step 3 for notifying the bride and groom of your decision.

Step 5: You’re Going. So is Your Ex. How Do You Handle Yourself?

This is perhaps the most difficult of all the outcomes. You have to see this person in an emotionally charged atmosphere and (possibly) perform some ceremonial duty, all while conducting yourself with confidence and grace.

It will be a challenge no matter what. Accept it and look to things you can do to look, feel, and act your best.

Tip #1: Look freakin’ great.

Wear a suit. One that fits you well and makes you feel like a million-and-a-half bucks. Need to upgrade or add some polish to your current suiting situation? We can help you do it for less.

Tip #2: Prepare

Scott’s worry that seeing his ex will erase his hard-won personal growth gains hit me hard. I’ve been in his shoes. It’s awful. You can’t avoid that, but with some mental preparation you can blunt the emotional impact.

Something that worked for me was visualization. A couple weeks before the big day, I started mentally running through the whole ceremony and reception, focusing on friends I wanted to see and moments where I knew I’d look and feel great. I imagined, over and over, seeing her and her new boyfriend (ALREADY? REALLY??), looking them both in the eye, smiling, giving her a weak-ass hug (with the Friend Pat), giving him a strong handshake, and then walking away knowing I had done the right thing.

And you know what? That’s exactly how it went. Which brings me to tip the third…

Tip #3: Kill With Kindness

Whether you had your heart broken or did the heart breaking, kindness and courtesy are your armor. Put ‘em on and don’t let ‘em slip. They will serve you well and true.

As Dr. Sinh points out, kindness doesn’t mean overly-friendly. “Keep the conversation brief and make a clean exit,” she says. Stick with “’It was nice to see you and I'm glad that you're well’”.

Tip #4: Don’t get Shwasty

Would you get in a performance car with a manual transmission and attempt to set a lap time at Laguna Seca while solving a crossword puzzle… while drunk?

Of course not. You’re attempting a complicated and emotionally tricky feat. Drink in moderation and, if you’re concerned you’ll lose control, leverage the buddy system with a friend who can cut you off – or kick you out – if you get close.

drunk at a wedding

Tip #5: Don’t Try to Have A Talk

Don’t try to re-open things. If your ex tries to emotionally hijack the evening, respectfully but firmly remind them you’re both there to have fun. If – if – feelings happen and things need to be re-appraised or talked out, it can happen later.

The heart broken (be it you or them) are especially vulnerable at times like these. You have a responsibility to your heart-broken ex not to take advantage of that.

If you’re the wounded deer, you have a responsibility to yourself not to get taken advantage of.

Tip #6: Remember Your Ex is a Person Too

Unless their brain is partially broken, your ex is probably feeling some variation of what you are. Maybe they have a shoulder to lean on and you don’t – good for them. They’re still nervous, anxious, keyed up about seeing you.

Take some time to imagine things from their perspective and it may give you that bit of empathy you need to really rock the night and make them sweat with jealousy at how great you are.

Tip #7: Do Your Duty and Slip Away, Ninja-like, into the Inky Night

Being at a wedding with your ex – especially if you’re still grieving and they’ve brought a new beau – can be crushing, and while most of our advice is about toughing it out with style and grace you simply may not be able to handle a whole night it. That’s OK.

If Scott were to attend the ceremony, hang tough for the cocktail hour, and then fulfill his duty by giving a crackerjack toast, it’s entirely acceptable for him to quietly excuse himself as the reception heats up.

Simply put, once you’ve discharged your responsibilities to the bride and groom, you don’t have to subject yourself to four hours of repeatedly seeing your ex and their new person. It’s not giving up, it’s managing the damage.

Now, if you decide to ghost, consider doing two things: first, make a point of congratulating the bride and groom face-to-face as soon as you politely can during the reception. That way they won’t feel personally disappointed or feel like they didn’t get a chance to see you.

Second, confide in a friend about why you’re leaving and ask them to cover for you. Simply tell them, “Hey, it’s hard for me to be here with Happy McExpants, I think I’m going to take off. If anyone asks, will you tell them I’m not feeling well?”

Stay in touch with your confidant; maybe you can rejoin your friends and close out the night at the afterparty if your ex isn’t there.

Step 6: Keep Your Perspective

Remember: it's just one night.

Seeing your ex at a wedding is a drag. But weddings are rich with opportunity – perhaps it’s the night you bring a date and you two discover how much fun you have together. Perhaps you handle it like a boss and rise in your friends’ estimation. Maybe you see how you and your ex weren’t right for one another. Or, perhaps, it brings you back together.

Whatever happens, approach it knowing you have the tools to show real leadership, to yourself and everyone there.

If you’re still on the fence, remember: kidnappings can get expensive.

Have you ever ever been to a wedding with your ex? Tell us the story in the comments below!

Stillman Brown

Stillman Brown is a writer and TV producer who has created prime time content for National Geographic, Discovery, Travel Channel and many others. His interests span science & the natural world, personal growth, and food. He lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.