Dear Therapist: How Do I Talk to My Boyfriend About His Ex?

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Written By Pinang Driod

Dear Therapist,

I’m in a new long-distance relationship with a man I was with in our early 20s (we are now 38 and 40). I plan to move out of state to be with him in a few months. Things have gotten very intense very quickly—something we have both been aware of and are okay with.

However, he has an ex whom he broke up with about a year and a half ago. Their breakup was tumultuous. When she came up in conversation about a month ago, I asked, “If things had gone differently that night, do you think you’d still be together?” He answered with a pretty confident-sounding “Yes.” Just “yes.” He also described her as having been a “mother figure” to his 10-year-old son, and described her children as being “like siblings” to his son. They were together for three years, although during this time they did break up and get back together. She also cheated on him, but he was adamant about making things work after that.

Since that conversation, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that there’s some lingering emotion he hasn’t processed. I asked him that same night if there was anything left that I needed to be worried about, and he paused for a moment, then said, “It’s buried.” I didn’t like the sound of that. Between that and the “Yes,” I became fully obsessed. I’ve Googled her and found her social-media accounts; I also discovered that her name is on the roster of employees where he works. I don’t think she still works there, but he has never mentioned that she ever did, which I find odd given how much I’ve asked about their relationship.

I’ve never told him how much that “Yes” bothered me, until tonight. We were on the phone and I said it had stuck with me and been nagging at me since. His response was “Well, if things hadn’t ended tragically, they probably wouldn’t have ended.”

I’m thrown for a loop and told him as much. He said it was a poor choice of words, but I find these responses extremely unsettling. I see them as evidence that he still has “buried” emotions (which he insists he does not, calling this another poor choice of words) left over from that relationship.

Am I being unreasonable? I know it’s not healthy for me to be so stuck on this, but I have a very strong intuition and I can’t seem to move on. What do you think of his “Yes” and of his saying that things wouldn’t have ended if not for that one crazy night? Should I let it go, or is that as wild of a thing for him to say to me as I think it is?

Dear Reader,

I feel for both of you as you struggle with the ghost of your boyfriend’s ex—each in your own way. Your boyfriend likely has feelings about her and their relationship that he doesn’t know how to manage, either in his own heart or with you; and you feel anxious because you believe that his having feelings about his ex and their relationship threatens your relationship with him.

Answering whether you’re being “unreasonable” or should “let it go” won’t ease your anxiety. What might, though, is finding a way to communicate about his ex that allows him to talk about his past without worrying about your reaction.

Keep in mind that everyone brings their past into their current relationships, and just because you might not have a former partner on your mind doesn’t mean that you’re starting this partnership with a clean slate. All of our history in relationships—including interactions with the family members we grew up with and experiences in important friendships—shapes the way we love, whether it’s how much we’re able to trust, how vulnerable we can be, how much closeness or space we can tolerate, or how directly or indirectly we communicate what we want or need.

From what you describe, it sounds as if your boyfriend was drawn to an intense and volatile relationship, not because he consciously sought out that dizzying roller-coaster ride, but because it felt familiar to him on a level outside of his awareness. Although he suffered what must have been painful breaches in the relationship—they broke up and got back together; she cheated on him and he pushed to stay—he also gained a family, with his ex as a mother figure to his son, and her kids having a siblinglike relationship with his. Losing this kind of familial bond might have felt intolerable to him, which could explain why no matter how hurt he was, he fought so hard to stay. I have a feeling that something about this dynamic reflected a version of what he experienced growing up, and might be part of the reason the two of you are having difficulty talking about the complicated feelings he has about his ex: He worries that his honesty will threaten your bond, and because of his history, he might find the possibility of another loss so anxiety-provoking that he will do anything to prevent that from happening.

But you also bring a way of interacting to this relationship. You don’t say what your history is, but two things stood out for me in your letter. First, your reliance on your intuition, and second, the way you reacted to his initial answer about whether he would still be with his ex had the nature of the breakup been different. Instead of sharing your feelings directly with your boyfriend, you went straight into detective mode, Googling his ex and hoping to solve this yourself. I wonder if when you were younger, you felt you had to manage uncertainty or anxiety in this way: Something unspoken was in the air, the people around you were uncomfortable discussing it, and, guided by your intuition, you were left to get the information yourself.

So what does this mean for your relationship? Your boyfriend might be worrying that if he says too much about his feelings, you’ll leave him; you might be worrying that if he withholds relevant information about his feelings, he’ll leave you. Neither one of you wants to be hurt or to hurt the other person, but the strategies you’re each using aren’t helping either one of you feel secure in this relationship. I’d suggest having a different kind of conversation and slowing things down. You say that you’re both comfortable with the pace and intensity of your relationship, but intensity can get in the way of forming a deeper connection rooted in a more intentional process of getting to know and understand each other.

To broach a new conversation, you’ll need to get clear about what your concern is regarding his feelings for his ex and that relationship. Are you worried that if he misses aspects of what they had, they’ll get back together, or that he won’t have room to love you fully while still grieving his loss? Or that he will always compare your love with theirs—that he won’t love you as much? (Even though his “love” for her might have been a re-creation of a pattern from childhood that drew him to an unstable but intense attachment.) You need to understand your fear so that you can open up the conversation in a different way, one that makes space for him to share his true feelings instead of shutting down or saying what he thinks you want to hear. You could start with something like this.

Honey, I know talking about your ex has been hard for us, and I think that I haven’t made it easy because, to be honest, I feel jealous and threatened, imagining you’ll leave me and get back together with her, even though that’s not your intention. I think it’s important for us to be able to say things from a place of honesty even if they make the other person uncomfortable, because doing this will make our relationship stronger. For me, guessing what’s going on is more anxiety-provoking than hearing directly what you’re thinking, feeling, or struggling with. I think I’ve given you the impression that you shouldn’t think about your ex, or miss her, or be grieving the deep connection and blended family that you lost with the breakup. I don’t know if you’re saying “It’s buried” because thinking about the breakup will be too painful for you, or too painful for me—or both. But having complicated feelings about this is completely understandable, and I realize now that your feelings of loss don’t reflect how you feel about me—that you can miss aspects of her and still love me—so I hope we can talk about this more openly as we move forward together.

Give your boyfriend some time to process what you’re saying, and to take in your reassurance that his honesty will bring you closer. Then see how he responds to your invitation. If the two of you can begin to talk more openly about his lingering feelings about that relationship and any omissions—such as why he didn’t disclose that they worked together—or if he realizes that he still has more to process and is willing to do that with a therapist, this bodes well for your relationship. If, however, he doesn’t seem interested in understanding what went wrong in that earlier relationship, such as how one argument could end a three-year relationship that he believes would have otherwise survived, or why it was so volatile in general, then you have useful information without having to go sleuthing. It’s one thing to have unprocessed feelings and actively work on them; it’s another to decide to ignore them. At that point, you might ask yourself not whether you should let go of his comments, but whether you should let go of a relationship with someone unwilling to work through difficulties you encounter together.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.


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