She Said, He Said: Set boundaries with ex’s family who may be overstepping
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
When I was in high school, I was much closer to my boyfriend’s parents than I was to my own. Even after we broke up, I maintained a close relationship with them and still visit them whenever I’m back in my hometown. They helped me buy my first car and sometimes sent me money up until I was able to support myself. They are still a part of my life and send birthday and holiday gifts to my kids. My husband has never been comfortable with my relationship with my ex’s parents, and now that my ex is single again, my husband is asking me to set some stronger boundaries with them. I know their feelings will be hurt if I do so and truthfully, I don’t really want to. They have been the only real family I’ve had in my life. How do I navigate this?
Don’t Want To Choose
Dear DWTC —
Lori and Jeff: We can empathize with how painful this predicament is. Having to make a choice may seem intolerable, but you’re going to have to put in the effort to create a shift. Ignoring the problem or expecting your husband to simply acquiesce is only going to erode the trust in your marriage.
Lori: We have an important rule in our own marriage that we also encourage our clients to adopt: Any ex, coworker or friend who wants to have a relationship with either of you, needs to accept and respect that you come as a package. They must have a genuine interest in becoming part of your joint life, not just politely saying hello to your spouse. Even though your ex and his clan are family to you, they fall into this category. It’s not emotionally safe for your marriage to have these “family” ties remain entwined if your husband is on the fringe.
At best, if your ex is truly over you and his parents are happy for you, your husband needs to be actively welcomed by everyone in that part of your life. However, if your ex is still interested, or if his parents haven’t given up the dream of the two of you creating beautiful grandbabies for them, your husband will always (rightfully so) feel unsettled, vulnerable and undermined by them. You chose to marry your husband and in doing so committed to making him and your relationship a priority. If your ex and his family really want what’s best for you, they’ll adapt to support your marriage.
Jeff: The most obvious concern that your husband may be experiencing is that your close relationship with your ex’s family will keep leaving the door open for you to wander back to your ex. Single or not, the familiarity with his family could make it easier for you to transgress. Studies show that a significant percentage of affairs happen with someone who is already known — such as a close friend, ex, neighbor, co-worker or long-term acquaintance.
What might be less obvious, but even more troubling, is the intrusion into your family system. The gifts and the possible over-involvement of your ex’s parents may be causing your partner’s role as husband, father and provider for the family to come into question. He may feel powerless without any sort of control over their interference, especially if they don’t respect his position in the family by circumventing his parental authority. Over time, he may develop a sense of insecurity and he’ll resent you for enabling the root cause. If you let this go on too long, he may be forced to set the boundaries with your ex’s parents for you, which will not end well for anyone.
Jeff and Lori: Even if you’re 1000% certain that you don’t have feelings for your ex, the vulnerabilities created by this situation for your partner can’t be minimized. It’s time to honor your husband’s requests and set some stronger boundaries. If your ex’s parents can’t respect the gravity of this situation, you may want to rethink your relationship with them.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to info@AspenRelationshipCoaching.com and your query may be selected for a future column.
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