I’ve been in a relationship for over a year with a man who has a very close relationship with his ex-wife. She remarried and has a one-year-old child. My partner is godfather and guardian to this child, a role he is very proud of. He was also best man at the wedding. He has had several holidays/weekends away with this couple (often as part of a group) and regularly has dinner at their home. His ex-wife has a number of “ex-boyfriends” who she tries to maintain as friends. I have seen private glances that she gives my partner when she is annoyed with her own husband and he comes to her defence if she comments on her own relationship.
Mutual friends of both my partner and his ex-wife have advised him to stop spending as much time with them as he now needs to focus on his relationship with me. They also said that, before he met me, he expressed a wish to them that he had done things differently to maintain his relationship with his ex-wife.
We have had several arguments about this. Initially, I did not object to his relationship with her as they married young and were together for 10 years. I do not object in principle to my partner having a relationship with his ex, but I need to be sure that it is healthy.
At times I feel that he does not like being left out of events they organise or when they are seeing other friends. She has unusual hobbies and interests that he finds exciting. This makes me feel unsure of where I stand. It also makes me feel that I will always play second fiddle.
We are making plans to move forward with our relationship, but I have doubts and do not feel that he always considers my feelings. His ex-wife and her husband have been always been very friendly to me, and my partner has tried to reassure me that he will always put my needs first.
I do not want to come between them but cannot continue with these doubts.
S, via email
There are three things that need to be aligned: your perception of the situation; the reality of the situation; and what you’re happy with. The latter is key. People getting on with their exes, just like people having platonic friends of the opposite sex, is regarded with suspicion by those with no experience of it.
It is perfectly possible to not get on in a relationship but get on really well as friends. It doesn’t happen often but I can’t help thinking that if things are genuine, it says something good about your partner. Some would say it’s a mark of maturity.
However, sometimes people kid themselves and are more emotionally involved than they let on.
I talked at length about your situation to Lorraine Davies-Smith, a family psychotherapist (aft.org.uk). There are some things she wants you to think about. She wonders if “the new husband is also perturbed with the way his wife and her ex-husband relate to one another. If so, this may help the problem to not become just your problem. It is important to remember that this is about four adults and one child, not three adults only.”
She also wants you to think about which parts specifically of the relationship you find upsetting and which parts you are not troubled by.
In this kind of scenario, says Davies-Smith, everyone in the situation will bring to the table their own beliefs and experiences about how breakups should be conducted, who should stay friends, etc. This can colour how we judge new, unrelated situations.
What neither Davies-Smith nor I want is for your feelings to be “simply dismissed as that of a jealous person”. You shouldn’t put up with this just because you fear not looking “cool” about your partner’s friendship with his ex-wife. But it would also be a shame to walk away from a good relationship that is perfectly healthy just because your boyfriend is friendly with his former wife. Few relationships are simple these days.
Ultimately, Davies-Smith says: “When the balance shifts so that you spend more time ruminating about this, and there is more pain in it than pleasure, this would be the time to move on.
First published in the Guardian Family section on 5 April 2013.