I’ve felt the jealousy that you’re feeling. I’ve been taken hostage by the endless stream of worst-case scenarios that your mind cooks up when your boyfriend/girlfriend hangs with their ex. I’ve played it cool when my girlfriend got home after an evening out with another guy, all the while covertly collecting as many details as I could without triggering alarm bells. It’s the playing-it-cool that gives away the fact that, on some level, we know we shouldn’t feel like this. We feel guilty for feeling jealous.
We should be able to trust our partner completely, but we can’t because there’s something wrong with us, right? We feel jealous because we think we’re inadequate in some way. That’s why we’re going to keep this to ourselves — because we don’t want our partner to see our inadequacy. That’s why we’re going to ask Google what to do instead.
But what if you are good enough exactly as you are? What if your jealousy is just a popup-message (beep-beep-beep) from a healthy need that you haven’t voiced yet? The need for reassurance.
Even though you trust your partner, sometimes you need a verbal check-in. Time has passed since the last time they verbalized it, so maybe something has changed… especially if their ex is involved. So how do you get that reassurance from your boyfriend or girlfriend without offending him or her? Let me tell you.
And you know what… nothing’s stopping us from strengthening this relationship of yours while we’re at it.
You need to have a conversation with your boyfriend/girlfriend about his/her ex
First of all, it’s perfectly fair to ask your partner for reassurance. You’re not making demands, you’re just saying, “Hey, I need a cuddle” — with your best baby voice and pouty lips — “but can you use your words instead?”
In healthy relationships (yes, they exist), partners say, “Yeah, absolutely, here’s some reassurance. Ain’t no thang.” But since you’re reading this, I’d bet this crisp 20 in my wallet that you can’t imagine your boyfriend or girlfriend saying that.
If you think they’re going to tell you that you’re delusional, that you have trust issues, or that you’re being possessive, what they probably mean is that they don’t want to feel bad every time they innocently talk to their ex. Because knowing that they’re hurting you hurts them. They just don’t know how to say that.
And if you think they’re going to say, “This is bullshit, I’m not doing anything wrong!” that’s them trying (and failing) to say that they don’t know how to help you. So tell them how to help you. If you do it right, they’ll come through with the reassurance and extinguish your jealousy. Plus, they’ll draw closer to you if you demonstrate a genuine effort to understand their feelings.
How to make your boyfriend/girlfriend comfortable enough to talk to you about their ex
If they tell you, “You’re being crazy!” and you respond with, “Babe, I want you to feel good about hanging out with your ex,” that’s a mammoth demonstration of your trust right there. By refusing to be triggered by their hurtful comment, you’re giving them hard proof that you believe they love you, despite their poorly-chosen words.
You’re showing them that you won’t automatically assume malice when they panic and say something they don’t mean. And that makes it safe for them to explore this topic with you.
When you say, “I know you’re not doing anything wrong,” your partner’s ears perk up. And when you add “I know you just want to spend time with him/her as a friend without me getting upset,” they’re like, “Woah, you read my mind.”
Then, when you say, “This isn’t about you or him/her, it’s about me. I don’t want you to stop seeing him/her. I just want a little bit of reassurance when you do. That’s all. Can you help me with that now and then?” now your partner is going to be more open to answering your questions because they know you’re both on the same side.
But, what if you DO want your boyfriend/girlfriend to stop seeing his/her ex?
If you want your trustworthy partner to stop seeing their ex, this is what you’re really saying:
“I want you to fix my problem for me. I want to go back to ignoring this inadequacy that I’m feeling, so you deal with it for me. You take away this crippling fear and rewind our relationship back to when it was easy.”
You know how psych literature talks about codependent relationships? Where one or both partners excessively rely on the other to help them bury their “trauma”? Well, that’s what you’d be doing in this situation.
But, what if this particular episode of “my boyfriend/girlfriend is still friends with their ex” is the perfect opportunity for you to deal with your feelings of inadequacy once and for all? What if it’s the only opportunity you’ll get in years? Are you really going to let it slip by without truly exploring why you feel jealous in the first place?
What if I trust my boyfriend/girlfriend but I don’t trust his/her ex? Can I make them stop seeing each other then?
If you force your partner to stop seeing his/her ex, you’re taking away something that he/she values just to make yourself feel a little better. You’re still not fixing the problem, you’re avoiding it. I have a better option for you.
Think about why you feel jealous instead. I mean really think about it, and ask yourself if there’s another way you could resolve that feeling without forcing them to stop seeing each other.
Sit with it until you reach a new realization (writing out your thoughts helps). Fight the distractions that will inevitably hit you again and again. The goal is to come up with a potential solution that you’ve never tried before. It might take an hour or a few hours, but this deep thinking is how you learn to live better. To have better relationships.
When people say “work on yourself,” that’s what they mean. Spend quality time on it. Don’t give up after a few minutes of not coming up with anything good.
If you’re truly stuck (having spent a few hours on it without distraction), ask someone for help. Tell them the best solution you’ve come up with, and tell them the bits that you still haven’t figured out. Another person’s perspective will likely help, but don’t ask someone who still suffers from these feelings of inadequacy themselves. Ask someone who has been through this and overcome it.
As an example, this article about compersion might give you a nice paradigm shift. Or you might completely disagree with it, but it certainly shows you a different perspective.
What if my boyfriend/girlfriend cheats on me with his ex?
All of the above assumes that you have a healthy relationship with your boyfriend/girlfriend. If you don’t, well, this is where it gets juicy.
Let’s not deny that cheating is a very real possibility. But, whether your boyfriend/girlfriend sleeps with their ex is not the most important question here. The most important question is: do you have a good relationship in the first place?
If you manage to prevent your boyfriend/girlfriend from sleeping with their ex by spying on them, checking their phone, fighting with them, forcing them to stop hanging out, etc… what kind of relationship is that? Do you really want that relationship?
What about having a relationship where your boyfriend/girlfriend opens up to you about absolutely everything and makes you feel secure, no matter who they’re with? Where they have every opportunity to sleep with their ex and they simply don’t because they don’t want to hurt you. They value your relationship so much that there’s just zero desire to sleep with their ex.
Those should be your #relationshipgoals. If you don’t have a relationship like that and it doesn’t feel like you’re working towards it by sharing your doubts and anxieties openly and without judgement, then move the fuck on. You’re dating a girl/boy. Find a man/woman.
If they cheat, you didn’t lose anything of value. You just never had it in the first place. So, better now than later.
But, until then, if you aren’t sure whether your boyfriend/girlfriend is doing something wrong, trusting them is your best option. If you give a good man/woman trust and make them feel safe enough to be themselves completely when they’re with you, they’ll do everything to keep you, because that’s an incredibly rare gift.
If they’re not a good man/woman then yeah, you might get hurt, but you’ll ultimately be better off without them. They’re already the kind of partner who’s likely to cheat, so why are you trying to keep them?
What if the situation is more complicated?
Maybe there are kids involved. Maybe your partner lives with their ex. Maybe your partner and their ex had an unhealthy relationship. Maybe it’s something else (feel free to leave a question in the comments below).
But ultimately, if you aren’t happy… if you feel like you’re constantly putting up with something unpleasant in your relationship and you’re not sure whether you’re okay with it, let me tell you a secret:
You’re not okay with it! If it’s not a “fuck yes” then it’s a “no.”
It’s really hard to weigh the good against the bad to decide if your relationship is worth it. So look at it this way instead: if you feel the need to weigh things up in the first place, something has to change. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to break up, but you do need to learn how to establish healthy boundaries. You need to find a way to communicate what’s bothering you, find a way to get your partner to listen and understand, and ultimately find a solution together.
No, not a band-aid compromise that makes you feel better temporarily. You need relationship surgery. You need to get to a permanent “fuck yes.” If you can’t get to that point, and if your partner isn’t actively supporting you to help you get there, it’s time to move on.
But I still don’t know how to talk to my boyfriend/girlfriend about his/her ex! What do I say?
When you talk to your partner about their ex, the goal should be to better understand both his feelings about the situation and your own feelings. What are you misunderstanding about each other’s feelings? To figure it out together, you need to create an environment where your partner feels safe enough to be vulnerable without judgement (re-read the first half of this article for help with that).
If you don’t know what to say, start with something like this:
“This is hard for me to get my head around. I know you like hanging out with your ex, and I trust you. I just have my own fears and insecurities around it that I want to work through and overcome, and it’d help if I understood it from your point of view.”
Shift the focus away from questions like “what if something happened between them?” and instead try to figure out “what’s something positive about the fact that he/she is still friends with the ex?”
Ask your partner what he/she gets out of the relationship with the ex and see if you can relate in some way. Maybe they share the same hobby/interest and your partner doesn’t have anyone else to talk about it with. Or maybe the ex is just an incredible human.
If I think about my exes, they didn’t stop being incredible when we stopped sleeping together, and they didn’t stop being incredible when I started seeing other women… so those particular feelings about them didn’t change. Perhaps they faded a little, but they’re there.
I admire them, I care that they’re happy, and I like being around them because we understand each other intimately. If I saw them in the street I would hug them, and I would mean it.
But I’d be hugging a close friend, not an ex-girlfriend. There’s love there (not the needy, attached kind of “love,” but the admiring, caring kind. Like with friends) but, if I’m in a relationship, there’s no desire to sleep with my ex or anything like that. Because my partner is my priority, and I would personally never hurt my partner like that.
So, what I’m saying is that even if your boyfriend/girlfriend still feels love for their ex in some way, it doesn’t mean he/she loves YOU any less. And it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a priority.
What if the conversation with your boyfriend/girlfriend goes badly?
If this doesn’t end up strengthening your relationship, it probably wouldn’t hurt to learn a thing or two about effective communication first. Then try talking to your partner again.
Everyone thinks communication is simple, but it’s so easy to misunderstand someone without knowing it. For instance, if your boyfriend/girlfriend is at your house and you ask “what are you doing today?” he/she might interpret that as “when are you going to leave?” when actually you meant “do you have time to do something together?” See?
They might think you’re pushing them away and they might not verbalize that. If you don’t communicate effectively, you might never know that he/she thought that. That’s just a simple day-to-day example, but when it comes to complicated topics like “why do you still want to talk to your ex?” there’s a much higher likelihood of misunderstanding.
If you’re interested in learning some communication tips that will help you talk to your boyfriend/girlfriend about anything, including his/her ex, sign up for my free 7-day email course here. You’ll get tips on how to connect on a deeper level, how to avoid miscommunication, and how to fix broken relationships. Because when you’re really good at communicating, everything gets easier.
And as for your boyfriend/girlfriend, if you’re willing to put in the work to grow as a person and they’re ultimately not, your relationship may have reached its endpoint. Because in order to have a healthy relationship, you have to BOTH be the kind of partner that each of you can say anything to openly and without judgement.
And if more people had those communication skills, maybe we’d all be nicer to each other.
By the way, perhaps the easiest way to start this conversation with your partner is to share this article with them, then talk about it afterward.
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