What relationship, if any, should you have with a former partner after that relationship ends? While many people are content to cut the cord entirely and never look back, a large contingent of us prefer to navigate the uncharted waters of changing that relationship into a different type of connection. Of course, the latter option is only viable so long as the relationship was not abusive. If you do choose to stay connected, you’ll need to consider a whole host of new questions–especially when you get into a new relationship.
The pros of being friends with an ex
The best mirror: Contrary to popular belief, a friendship with an ex need not be detrimental to your new relationship. This kind of friendship can actually be a real asset because a previous partner can provide a lot of insight into your strengths and weaknesses as a partner. Of course, this requires that both you and them have let go of any leftover strong emotions from the relationship and are able to talk and reflect frankly and with humor. If this is the case, then imagine how valuable it could be to hear from an ex exactly how specific relationship behaviors of yours made them feel (Howard, n.d.). These kinds of discussions allow you to see your blind spots, empowering you to improve communication and work on difficulties in your new relationship or a future relationship.
This pro comes with a caveat: If you are in a new relationship, it’s extremely important that you know where to draw the line. Your new partner might not exactly be thrilled to hear that you were talking to an ex about the intimate details of problems in your current relationship, for example.
A true friend: If you guys dated, there’s a pretty high likelihood that you have some things in common beyond having felt attracted to one another (Howard, n.d.). This is all the more true if you were friends before you started dating. The ending of a romantic relationship does not have to mean the end of a friendship; if the two of you get on well as friends without the romantic or sexual undertones, you might think twice about severing that aspect of the connection.
Closure: Closure is sometimes lacking when a relationship ends on bad terms. Some people find that if they are able to reconnect with an ex, pacify your hurt feelings and resentment, and become friends, they are also able to gain a sense of closure. Additionally, having the experience of a previous romance becoming a friendship can help uproot limiting beliefs that can come up when relationships end badly, such as that romantic partners are not trustworthy or that relationships always end in heartache (Howard, n.d.). Such beliefs can hold us back in future relationships, and it’s important to remind ourselves that splitting up does not equal failure.
The cons of being friends with an ex
-A new partner might feel threatened. When you’re building a new relationship, you need to put your energy into that. You need to build not only a connection, but also trust. If your new partner feels that an inappropriate amount of your energy is going into maintaining a connection with your ex, you two may not be able to build a strong foundation of trust in your new relationship. The beginning of your relationship is a critical phase for foundation-building and setting the stage for how your dynamic will be, much as a baby’s first months and years will have far-reaching implications for the rest of their life. Make sure you don’t let a friendship with an ex interfere in this fragile process. Moreover, if you’ve been with your new partner for awhile before you reconnect with an ex, they may have a few questions about why you suddenly need to re-establish connection with a previous partner.
If any of this is the case in your new relationship, make sure you communicate explicitly and compassionately with your new partner in order to establish boundaries. If you are not sensitive enough to your partner’s feelings about your ex, you risk damaging your relationship. On the other hand, if you feel that your partner is too controlling of who you choose to be friends with, it may be a sign of incompatibility.
Staying stuck: If you’re still single, being close with an ex can keep you from moving on. If you’re coupled again, it may keep you from being fully involved in your new relationship or keep you energetically hung up on your ex. These things are not guaranteed to happen, but they are a risk; make sure you are honest with yourself about whether your friendship with an ex is holding you back on any level. If so, it might be time to step back. You can always reconnect later after you have truly moved on. If not, that’s great! Carry on.
How to set boundaries with exes (when you’re together with someone new)
If you do decide that continuing the connection is healthy and beneficial for both of you, it is absolutely crucial that you define, set, and stick to healthy boundaries. This becomes even more important when you’re already in a new relationship. Here are a few guidelines you can use for determining what’s right for you and your new partner.
-Your partner’s comfort is of utmost importance. Barring overly controlling behavior, you need to be sensitive to their needs. But how can you recognize controlling behavior? Everyone has to decide for themselves where exactly to draw the line, but a good rule of thumb is that if they’re violating your privacy by going through your phone, it’s too much. If they unilaterally insist that you never communicate with a previous partner ever again, that may also be too much. Outside of an unhealthy level of control, it is you who must be the sensitive one in this situation. If your partner is uncomfortable with how close you are to an ex, it would be in the best interest of your new relationship for you to take a step back from your ex.
-It’s your partner’s responsibility to be honest, forthcoming, and clear if they’re uncomfortable with anything that occurs between you and a previous partner. You can’t read their mind and should not be expected to. Similarly, passive aggression has no place in a relationship; if your partner expresses their unease in this way, you’ll need to have a talk about why they don’t feel safe being more forthcoming with their feelings.
-Discuss questions related to what frequency and type of communication is appropriate with exes. For example, what constitutes a real ex vs. an ex-fling, and are the boundaries different for each of these types of previous partners? What topics are out-of-bounds when speaking with exes? What level of emotional closeness is alright, and how will you measure it?
If you do find that your or your partner’s friendship with an ex is causing friction in your current relationship, you might make sure you restore safety and then try one of these two powerful conflict resolution frameworks. If your own efforts are not able to solve the problem in a way with which both of you feel satisfied, you might consider asking a professional for help; check out our A to Z of couple’s therapy.
Exes and Prenups
After you and your partner have established which boundaries are appropriate when it comes to previous partners, consider putting them in a lifestyle clause in your prenup when it comes time. If this has been an issue before in your relationship, it is important to include it in the contract that will help guide the dynamics of your marriage. If it has not been an issue before, it may also be helpful to include because you never know when someone old will reappear in your life. Being prepared ahead of time with a set of guidelines can help you navigate a reconnection (or lack thereof) gracefully in the future. The more intention and thoughtfulness you put into the creation of your prenup, the more you strengthen your relationship.
As you work through your prenup-writing process, you might also reflect on your previous relationships which didn’t work out in the end. Why didn’t they work out? What about your own behavior contributed to the termination of those relationships? What about your partner; what actions in previous relationships hastened those endings? Writing a prenup is an ideal time to reflect on what behaviors you want to leave in the past and what you want to bring forward into your marriage. You may even consider writing a lifestyle clause committing to doing your very best to not repeat past mistakes + making contingency plans for how you will make things right again if you accidentally slip up. Although this will not be legally enforceable, it will aid in building or maintaining a habit of accountability in your relationship.
When it comes to relationships, there is no one-size-fits-all. Within the bounds of basic respect, what is right for one couple might be all wrong for another. We hope that this article has helped you to think through what boundaries you want to draw when it comes to connections with previous partners. If you’re planning your wedding and starting to think about your prenup, check out our interactive prenup-writing software (here’s how it works). It will assist you in brainstorming and clarifying exactly what you both want with minimal friction, culminating in a legally binding prenuptial agreement for a fraction of the normal price.
Howard, K. N. D. What You Should Know About Staying Friends With Your Ex. Retrieved from: https://www.letsmend.com/posts/6-things-you-should-know-about-staying-friends-with-your-ex/