She Said, He Said: Husband visiting with ex needs to come with open communication
January 22, 2018
Dear Jeff and Lori,
My husband continues to see an old girlfriend from time to time. I've told him it bothers me, but he says it's my insecurities and I have nothing to worry about. I don't understand why he keeps in contact with her. He thinks I'm being unreasonable. Who's right?
Lori and Jeff: The simple answer is both and neither. Both of you are right in wanting your wishes met, and neither of you is free from the responsibility of finding a solution that honors your partner and relationship. Marriage is a continual negotiation of boundaries based on ever-evolving desires and needs.
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At the core of a sustainable and fulfilling bond is trust, and the nature of your question highlights fissures in your foundation. The ongoing presence of an ex (no matter how intermittent) can trigger irrational vulnerability or pose a real threat to the bond of your relationship. Discovering whether your concern is warranted is your mission, should you accept it.
We encourage you to dive deep and explore what's at the root of your discomfort. What specific feeling are you having, and what story is the emotion anchored to? Is your narrative colored by your personal insecurities ("She's smarter, wittier, prettier…")? Do you create fantasies in which their relationship was more fun, passionate or rich than yours? If any of this resonates, it's time to do a little a work on owning your "stuff." Some people are able to maintain healthy friendships with exes while holding their current relationship in a light of priority and respect.
However, if encounters between your husband and his ex are tethered to secrecy or dishonesty, or if she hasn't been respectful of your marriage, you have valid reason for concern.
Lori: One non-negotiable I embrace is any ex has to have a positive rapport with the new significant other and honor the new relationship. Otherwise, that door needs to be closed. If she doesn't respect your relationship, or her new position as a friend, she and your husband may keep looking to each other to meet emotional needs. At some point your needs and her's will come into direct competition, creating a painful situation for everyone.
Jeff: Often we're not fully aware of what we're getting by maintaining relationships with our exes and some deeper self-reflection for your husband is highly recommended. He may need to own up to getting some aspect of his emotional needs met by her, in which case he will have to make some tough choices about the costs and benefits of the status quo — or you will. I've had to face this uncomfortable truth and, although it was a humbling and painful experience, it definitely led to a stronger connection with my partner.
Lori and Jeff: If you sense your husband has been forthcoming about his interactions with her, and she's been respectful of you, consider having coffee to get to know her better. If everyone's game, it could be a powerful opportunity for you to see her in all of her humanness. Resistance to the idea from any party should be met with cautious curiosity.
Even more important than the ex issue you presented is the need to get a pulse on trust and communication in your marriage. Is this a rare and isolated arrhythmia, or indication of a pervasive weakening? You've shared your needs with us, but it doesn't seem you and your husband have been able to hear each other. Don't wait for your connection to flatline. Have an open, respectful conversation with your husband about the bigger picture and be willing to see his side.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists offering relationship counseling and coaching at Aspen Relationship Coaching. Submit your questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.