This column was initiated by a reader who is perplexed by the conflicts in his current relationship in regard to his former partner’s role in his life. Others have also questioned what is the appropriate, kind and respectful way to deal with present mates about their former ones.
To best respond to the above question we need to explore issues of: boundaries, jealousy, intent, and benefits to perpetuating a friendship with a former lover.
Being clear about emotional and practical boundaries can assist us in determining what is kind and what may be hurtful in regard to the presence of the old flame in your life while being newly committed to a current partner. Emotional boundaries are similar to physical ones; the parameter of one’s privileged ownership beyond which another may not enter without permission. The assumption in a primary relationship is that both mates are exclusively committed to each other. The infusion of a third party with a history of prior intimacy may de-stabilize the security of the current commitment.
In relationships there are certain conduct boundaries that serve to foster comfort and security within the union and safeguard its stability. Each new partner expects to be in a relationship with a single person, not one who is still attached elsewhere. When a mate keeps contact with a former lover, the expected commitment to the present mate is threatened and jealousy may arise. Some divorced spouses feel uneasy about their partner’s connection to the former spouse, even when it is necessary due to child custody sharing.
Some people believe that since they no longer feel attached to the previous partner their ongoing relationship with this person is “only a friendship”. However, the motives for the continuation of this bond may understandably be a cause for concern for the new mate. Research about marital affairs by Dr. Glass found that if the partner, who had an affair, continues contact with the former extramarital partner, the injured spouse suffers greater and longer trauma because it interferes with the spouse’s efforts to regain a sense of safety in the marriage.
Though friendships are wonderful interpersonal connections, the non-romantic intent of both parties has to be firm. This may be difficult to ascertain since one or both people may still secretly harbor hopes for the resumption of an intimate connection. When this friendship excludes the current mate and their phone conversations are kept secret; it cannot be presented to the new partner as “only a friendship”.
Often, the partner who continues seeing and talking to the former lover may not be aware that he/she is doing so for the ongoing attention and the reassurance of personal desirability. Being wanted is a compelling pull that may jeopardize the present committed connection.
• If you are in a current relationship and still keep in touch with a former flame, question your and your ex’s intent and benefits.
• If your current mate is uncomfortable with your contact with the past girl/boyfriend, ask yourself which relationship matters to you most.
• Your current mate, most likely, is not being controlling or restrictive, but is insecure about the nature of your commitment to him/her. Discuss it and clarify his/her objections and your intent.
• A healthy friendship is not secretive and can include your new mate, if all parties agree. Unless they do, you can decide whose needs you choose to honor.
• In a healthy, committed and secure relationship the mention of former experiences with a past mate is unlikely to cause discomfort. If it does, it may be a sign of uncertainty about your current partner’s primacy to you.
• All issues that cause discomfort to one mate must be lovingly discussed between the partners with the intent of reducing fear, insecurity and hurt and acting in ways that strengthens your commitment to the current union.