Thursday, March 8, 2012

This Relationship Corner: Talking About the Ex

Nothing can take a perfectly pleasant date from zero to uncomfortable silence quite like bringing up an ex. If you want to completely kill the mood, and perhaps your chances of ever going out again, talk nonstop about your ex. To make sure you destroy any hope of another date, ask about all your date's exes and demand details.

And yet, talking about your exes is necessary for a healthy relationship. The key, of course, if how you talk about them. This might not be something you bring up on a first date, or when you're just starting to get to know each other. This is one of those more serious conversations you have a little bit later, when you've built up some trust, started to establish a bond, and can handle bringing up potentially rough subjects.

Talking about the ex can be rough. There's really only three stories you tell: 1.)Your ex is the bad guy. 2.) You both decided to end things, and even then, one of you was probably more in favor of the split than the other. Or, rarely, 3.) You were the bad guy. It's tough to talk about old wounds.

However, you need to talk about your ex for several reasons, and you need to bring it up if you don't know the story about your partner's exes. While it's doubtful you'll have to do battle with them Scott Pilgrim style, a person's exes will tell you a lot about his/her history. To get to know your current partner better, you need to know their about formers.

The first thing the ex conversation will reveal is what might be in store for you. If your girlfriend or boyfriend talks about their ex nonstop, and rarely if ever has anything bad to say, then it's a sure sign that she or he isn't over this relationship. That might be a sign that you're a rebound relationship. It also might be a sign that you'll be dumped if this ex comes calling.

An even more troubling sign, though, is when your partner has nothing but mean, nasty things to say about his/her ex. While you might be relieved that he/she won't be going back to the ex, what you may miss is that your current squeeze is taking zero responsibility for that breakup, or possibly any breakup. If he portrays himself as a victim, if she is always dating horrible people, then the odds are good that before you know it, your name will be added to that list of "crazy" exes.

If you happen to the be the one who can't stop talking about the ex, you need to ask yourself if you're truly over the relationship. It's not fair for your new boyfriend/girlfriend if all you can think about is your ex. If the breakup was very recent, then there may be things you haven't dealt with. The end of a relationship is similar to losing a loved one. You need to go through a grieving process, and that's going to take some time. Getting through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) doesn't happen over a long weekend. Whether you miss them terribly or want them to burn in Hell for eternity, you need time to heal so you don't bring this into your new relationship. This is why it's best to take time for yourself and not date right away after a breakup.

If you are dating and find almost all your conversations drifting towards your ex, it's only going to cause pain in this relationship. Plus, you need to ask yourself whether this is a real relationship or just a rebound, and I'm pretty sure the person you're with will want to know that as well.

As you decide whether to invest in this new person, it helps to know how their last relationships ended. Why did they end it? How did they end it? Was it over cheating? Mutually incompatible goals? There are many healthy reasons to break up, and you can gauge your partner's maturity by the reason he/she gives for breaking up. If she wanted to get married and her last boyfriend didn't want to settle down, that tells you a lot, especially if you are also looking to settle down. If he broke it off because he wanted kids and his last girlfriend didn't, you now know that children matter a lot to him, and if you don't share that desire for kids, your relationship isn't going the distance.

Another way to judge maturity is how your partner gets along with the ex if they still see each other. Sometimes that's unavoidable, due to being in the same social circles, working in the same field, or raising children together. How partners interact with their exes says a lot about who they are and whether you want to continue a relationship with them.

If they are constantly sniping at each other, if they can't spend five minutes without fighting, that's not a good sign as far as I'm concerned. Yes, they may really not like each other, and for good reason, but the ability to at least behave yourself in public, in front of your kids or at work, is a sign that he/she can see beyond pettiness in favor of the big picture. Being willing to sacrifice a good barb in favor of civility is a good sign for a relationship.

Of course, it's possible they get along too well, and that, too is a problem. Civility and politeness is one thing, but if these two exes are still as full of couple culture as they were when they were together, that might be a red flag that there's something more going on, even if just emotionally. Your partner needs to be able to commit to you completely, including emotionally, and that can't happen if they still have too close a relationship with an ex.

This is why you can't ignore the issue of an ex. Not only does it tell you a lot about the person you're dating, it can be a good indicator of where your relationship is going. We are defined by our relationships and experiences, but that doesn't mean we have to live in the past. Dealing with your ex issues helps you get out of the past and head into a healthier future.

 What are relationships like in a fantasy universe? Find out in the book I wrote.

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