Is an Ex-Partner Interfering with Your Current Relationship?

After a romantic relationship ends, sometimes ex-partners continue to be involved in our lives.  The most common reason is shared custody of children, but problems can also be caused by continued contact with the ex or relationships with shared friends or family members of the ex-partner.  If you’re in this situation, it is likely difficult for you and your partner to agree on boundaries regarding the exes and agree to how much input and/or presence they have in your relationship.

Is a partner from a previous relationship interfering or causing problems in your current relationship?  An ex-partner can be a huge external stress on your current relationship. If so, read below to identify common problems around exes and get some ideas on how to solve them.

Couples dealing with ex-partners tend to experience one of two common cycles:

Cycle 1: The Ex Drives a Wedge Between Us

Sometimes, it can be hard to balance the needs / desires of the Ex with the needs / desires of the current relationship.  When that happens, it may create fights in the current relationship.

Cycle 2: The Ex is a Source of Stress for Both of Us

When an ex-partner has a forceful personality or strong opinions – even when both of you in the current relationship are on the same page –  it can be difficult to set effective boundaries.

 

Cycle 1: The Ex Drives a Wedge Between Us

Tips for the Partner with an Ex                 

“It’s not my fault my ex is such a pain!”

You may feel caught between your current partner and your ex. Conflicting opinions or agendas may cause you stress and leave you feeling like you can’t win.

  1. Make a Plan. When an ex is causing arguments between you and your partner, the most important thing you can do is make sure you and your partner are on the same page BEFORE the ex is there. So, sit down now with your partner and make a plan for how the two of you will handle the situation. Remember to include in the plan: a) what you will both do – and won’t do – in front of the ex; b) how you both will handle it after the ex leaves.
  2. Open Up. When you talk about this with your partner, be sure to reveal any hidden emotions you have. Nothing can help repair the damage your ex has done like opening up to your partner and letting your partner know that this situation bothers you as well.
  3. Keep Your Partner in the Loop. Your partner won’t always be there when you talk with your ex. And your partner will be worried about what happens when he/she isn’t there.  So, be up front with your partner about when you’ve spoken to your ex and what you discussed so it doesn’t feel like you’re hiding something or lying.  And don’t fall in to the trap of trying to “protect” your partner by not telling her bad things that happened.  If your partner later finds out (and you didn’t tell your partner), that will seriously undermine your partner’s trust in you.
  4. Set Clear Boundaries. Be clear about where the boundaries are with your ex. Certain topics are sacred to your current relationship while others are shared with your ex (like children from the previous relationship). If you find your ex putting his/her nose where it doesn’t belong, politely ask that he/she respect your privacy and the relationship you have with your partner.

Tips for the Other Partner

“You pay more attention to what your ex wants than to what I want!”

When your partner is still in contact with his/her ex, you may feel neglected or like you don’t matter as much as your partner’s ex. It might seem that your partner is choosing his/her ex over you, which is very hurtful.

  1. Make a Plan. When an ex is causing arguments between you and your partner, the most important thing you can do is make sure you and your partner are on the same page BEFORE the ex is there. So, sit down now with your partner and make a plan for how the two of you will handle the situation.  Remember to include in the plan: a) what you will both do – and won’t do – in front of the ex; b) how you both will handle it after the ex leaves.
  2. Check In. Sometimes your partner will forget to keep you in the loop about what is happing with his/her ex. Try to find a non-blaming and non-accusatory way to check in with your partner about his/her ex. Maybe you could check in once a week about any decisions your partner made with his/her ex so you feel in the loop? (If you’re going to do this, this would be a good thing to put in the plan you two develop.)
  3. Offer Your Support. Ask your partner what it is that you can do or change to be helpful, and remember that your support is a huge help to him/her. By asking how you can be involved, your partner will be less likely to feel like you are intruding and you may end up with more input into the situation.
  4. Ask for What You Need. Try to express to your partner what you need. Maybe you need more clear communication about when he/she has seen the ex and/or has responsibility for the kids. Or maybe you need some time set aside just for the two of you to spend together. If there are specific topics that you think should be off limits with the ex (like your intimate life) or certain situations that are difficult for you (like spending time with shared friends), let your partner know how he/she can help you navigate those events.

 

Cycle 2: The Ex is a Source of Stress for Both of Us

Tips for the Partner with an Ex                 

“I hate how my ex treats me!  Why don’t you ever stand up for me?”

Sometimes, you might get really frustrated with your ex and want your partner to help.  But your partner might not step in as much as you’d like.  If that’s the case, consider the following tips.

  1. Set Boundaries. Have a conversation with your partner to decide where and how you are both comfortable with the ex being involved. Once you have a clear list, share this with your ex. Although it might be difficult at first, when expectations are clear people are better able to work together around a shared goal, like parenting the children.
  2. Be Assertive. There is a difference between being assertive and being bossy, and a big difference between being assertive and being passive (e.g. not directly stating what you want but rather dropping hints). When you are assertive about what you expect from both your partner and your ex, you tell them clearly (in a non-blaming way) how you would like each of them to act. Be willing to hear their sides and compromise, but speaking up is the first step!
  3. Rely on Your Partner. Turn to your partner when you are feeling frustrated with your ex. Opening up and sharing your hidden emotions (fear, frustration, helplessness) can start a great conversation. When you and your partner are on the same page and a team together, you will be better equipped to talk with your ex.

Tips for the Other Partner

“You should stand up for yourself (and for me) more!”

When your partner is still in contact with his/her ex, especially when dealing with shared custody, you may feel pulled into their relationship as well, even if it doesn’t feel like your place or this isn’t something you should be doing.

  1. Recognize Difficult Situations. Sometimes, particular situations are more difficult as an outside partner or as a step-parent. For example, if trading the kids with your partner’s ex is particularly uncomfortable for you, ask your partner if they can handle this without you. Sometimes, staying away from situations that will cause unnecessary fights is the best move you can make.
  2. Know Your Role. When you are a step-parent or part of a blended family, it can be difficult to navigate your relationship both with the children and with their biological parent who isn’t your partner. If you haven’t, have a conversation with your partner and his/her ex about your role in the children’s lives. Everyone’s first goal should be providing a healthy and happy home for the kids!
  3. Support Your Partner. If you are unhappy with the relationship you and/or your partner has with his/her ex, then this has likely caused fights in the past. Be as supportive of your partner as you can. Offer to help and see what they ask for, be willing to compromise, and make sure your partner knows you are there for him/her and on his/her team.

 

Additional Resources

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Relationship Self-Help. Consider reading the following book if you want more tips on how to improve your relationship.

Getting it Right This Time: How to Create a Loving and Lasting Marriage