Suzanne Lachmann Psy.D.

Me Before We

How to Deal with Your Partner’s Ex

Supporting communication with your partner's ex is best for your relationship.

Posted Jul 31, 2017

c/o freestocks
Source: c/o freestocks

When you come into a relationship in which your new partner had a family before you, particularly when there are kids involved, it is profoundly important to recognize how jarring it is to bring a new person into this system. Even though it was a dysfunctional system, there are so many emotions swirling around your partner’s previous relationship that it can be a confusing process for your partner and their ex to discover their new roles.

When your partner has responsibilities that preceded you, what is best for you as a couple is to try to put as little pressure or expectation as you can on how your partner handles communication and connection with their ex. It can be uncomfortable and can even feel like you’re being a sucker – especially if your partner spends what feels like long periods of time communicating with their ex – but the best thing you can do for your relationship is to support your partner in however they need to work through their process of separating from this system. By adopting a supportive role, you decrease the tension between your new partner and their ex, and that in turn will create a more comfortable, harmonious environment for you as a couple moving forward.

I know you’re probably afraid to leave your partner alone or encourage communication between them and their ex. But here’s the thing: If you lose your partner in this process, it was going to happen anyway. As hard as it is to remember this, trust that for them to have reached the point at which they broke up, contributing to more positive communication will not increase the likelihood of romance again – they have a history before you came along, before you were supervising anything or had any control of any aspect, and that history led to a breakup.

Of course, there are times when you may have been a big part of your partner’s reasons for the breakup. In this delicate situation, in which you are the person your partner left the relationship for, it’s important to make room for their ex to be angry at you, to feel spiteful of you, to even (if they can’t control themselves) badmouth you to the kids. If the kids are old enough, when you have the opportunity, you might say, “I totally understand why you don’t like me, why you’re unhappy with me. Whatever you’re comfortable with, I’ll honor. Please tell your parent that also.”

There are so many factors that determine how a child of any age will respond to their parent being in a new relationship. It’s important to try not to make judgments about their process. Again, in this situation, try to be as flexible and empathetic as you can towards your partner’s ex and any kids, even when they seem monstrous to you. Getting preoccupied about the fairness of communication will likely lead to adversarial communication between all of you, which does no one any good.

On the other hand, the relationship may have ended because your partner’s ex acted irresponsibly. As easy as it might be to feel angry at the ex on behalf of your partner, giving in to those feelings doesn’t actually end up helping anyone. Instead, to the best of your ability, operate under the assumption that no matter how ugly the end of that relationship got, the likelihood, especially when kids are involved, that their ex intended to cause that kind of pain is very low.

Try to validate your partner’s feelings. Whether the breakup was as horrific as catching their ex in bed with someone else or as small as getting sick of how often their partner lost their keys, try to keep your own personal feelings from spilling over. You can, of course, be empathic to your partner’s feelings, especially when the cause of their breakup was extreme, but there are always pieces that you won’t know. Things that were going on for your partner’s ex can make the situation feel very different for them.

By supporting your partner however they need to work through their previous relationship, you make things more relaxed within your new system. As difficult as it may be, any way that you can allow yourself to encourage positive communication between your partner and their ex brings peace to your new home and creates a system that has significantly less hostility than would otherwise be the case.