Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, we heard from readers about how exploring ethical non-monogamy changed their lives. Today, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helps someone whose partner won't stop hanging out with his exes.
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My boyfriend and I have been together for over a year and we're running into a major issue. He remains in contact with a majority of his exes and will hang out with them one on one if they suggest it and he’s free. To me, this is inappropriate — and it's the root cause of all our latest arguments. My biggest issue is that he does not consider my feelings when deciding if he should see these old flames. Instead, he argues that I don’t trust him due to some insecurity (neither one of us has ever cheated or been cheated on). Or, he says it's because I want to control him — he fears that I’ll start restricting him from seeing other friends as well. How do I convey to my partner that his being friends with his exes makes me uncomfortable without making it seem like I'm undermining his freedom? It feels like he is choosing them over me and is willing to lose me over this.
Thanks for your help,
Not Crazy For Ex-Girlfriends
Not Crazy For Ex-Girlfriends
It's an age-old debate: can you be friends with an ex? I'll give you an answer right up top. People can absolutely have healthy relationships with past partners — and some find it inevitable, depending on how small their community is. But the way your partner is going about these friendships is clearly creating insecurity in the relationship because he is being dismissive of your emotions.
What concerns me about your situation is not so much if he should or shouldn’t be talking to an ex, but rather that you are sharing your hurt and he’s not hearing you. Your discomfort is valid mostly because you are sensing the lack of responsiveness from your partner. "Responsive relationship partners convey understanding, validation, and caring," an article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology notes. "They are warm, sensitive to their partner’s feelings, and want to make their partners feel comfortable, valued, listened to, and understood." Responsiveness is key to healthy relationships. Your partner should be hearing you, believing you, and making you feel safe. Right now, he's waving you off. A lack of responsiveness can make you feel a lack of trust and put you through the emotional ringer. That’s what is feeling blocked for me here — your person does not sound curious about why this is causing you pain. He's ultimately leaving you questioning: Where do I belong among these ghosts of girlfriends past?
We all crave belonging — it lets us know that we have found people who just ‘get’ us, in both romantic and platonic situations. Without responsiveness, you may feel alone, adrift, or reactive. Meanwhile, you're yearning for a change in your partner’s behavior. Certainly, something needs to change, and I'm here to help you catalyze just that.
As you work to have more responsiveness in your relationship while dealing with a flock of ex-flames, I want to support your conversations as a couple, allowing for more opportunities for understanding. But to do this, I recommend starting a conversation with yourself first. Journal about the following: What are you two actually fighting about? Is it about the exes themselves, or is it about feeling hurt that your partner is minimizing your feelings and values? Your partner’s lack of responsiveness has clearly had you questioning if it is even okay to have feelings about their behavior.
Delve deeper into your background: Do you have any models of mistrust based on a parent or a close friend who cheated? Sit with all this for a bit, and say to yourself: “If I choose to trust my partner with his exes, what else is bothering me about this situation?” These other things that you write down are important to acknowledge and sit with.
After this reflection, ask yourself the toughest question of all: Do I want to be vulnerable and share what I've just learned? Is the relationship worth it?
Assuming you decide to pursue a conversation to strengthen the relationship versus making the hard decision to end it, here's what I recommend. When you next approach your partner about hanging out with an ex, shift the focus of your conversation from his behaviors to your deeper needs that you journaled about. When you start the conversation, focus less on “don’t do this anymore” and more on “I realize what’s coming up for me when I find out you spent time with an ex, so I would like to share more with you — are you open to hearing about me?”
Telling him he ‘can’t’ do something or act a certain way may not be the move. Obviously, he thinks he can continue their behaviors — and, at this point, it is clear he is not doing so naively. So move from blame to vulnerability by sharing what is hurting for you. Tell him what an honest and trusting relationship looks like in your mind. Let him in on your deeper worries— or even on the sadness you feel about him not responding to your concerns.
I can imagine he has acted this way in relationships in the past, and perhaps it's a part of why those relationships ended. Ask him if he can share more about what he gets from his relationships with his exes. With you approaching it from a place of curiosity, empathy, and craving a deeper knowledge of him, he might feel comfortable to look deeper and explain. Try to remember that, for whatever reason, for him, this was his normal before you two met. Why does he feel this need to be available when an ex calls? Perhaps he was once the one left alone — this could stem from abandonment by a primary attachment figure as a kid, a major death of a loved one, or even being ghosted by an ex. Then, consciously or unconsciously, he vowed not to cause that pain to anyone else. Although he could believe he's just being loving, it could also mean he struggles with having healthy boundaries. It also could be about him feeling uniquely qualified to help his exes… Or, he's just unable to say no because he doesn't want to disappoint. Whatever the reason, you need to glean a better idea of why he's doing this. Especially because you've said you believe he's effectively choosing them over you. After some digging, you may find that, instead, he's prioritizing his driving emotional need over you, not a particular ex.
If the two of you get stuck, it's worth asking him if he even understands what is driving his choices. Maybe you both can sit with the confusion a little if needed. But ultimately, come back to the question: how do you create a secure and safe relationship for all parties involved? It sounds like the fight is focused heavily on your boyfriend being told what to do, with him hearing, "Don’t see this person." Makes me think that the message your partner is that he's a person who can’t be trusted, causing him to shut down the conversation. Depending on how he moves in the world, feeling labeled as untrustworthy could be triggering in itself. So he's decamping further behind an emotional wall because he feels misunderstood. That means, as you sit in genuine hurt with a craving to be heard, he is even further from you. I challenge you to bring down that proverbial wall.
But, if this open communication does not work — if he still doesn’t want to trust you in your discomfort — you'll have to decide what you want to do going forward. You two need a change one way or another because staying here means either continuous fighting or burying those feelings of mistrust until they grow into something deep and painful.
Ester Perel says, “From the moment we are born, we straddle two sets of contradicting needs: the need for security and the need for freedom. They spring from different sources and pull us in different directions.” These profound conversations with your partner can help you both discover what you truly need. They can also illuminate if you both want different things from your relationships. In expressing your needs, you're building safety that will lead to deeper intimacy. But take notice: does he seem willing to do this work with you?
After having this talk, don't focus on your partner's future behaviors but on how they respond to you wanting to share something vulnerable. This is the responsiveness in the relationship. Although they might feel like they are about to get scolded, it’s important to speak with you about what’s going on. As you share, are they moving closer to providing reassurance by showing understanding and validation? Are they open to continuing the conversation and checking in as time goes on?
The two of you may decide after talking to set some boundaries. Those could look like him checking in before seeing an ex, so you don’t have to hear about it later. Or if he is struggling with a fear of abandoning people (just a hypothetical), is he open to therapy to work on any past trauma connected to that? As your relationship becomes more secure, a healthy friendship with an ex shouldn't feel so threatening.
Having these conversations should supply the two of you with new data that can help you navigate these difficult waters. You shared your feelings and either he's leaning in to reassure you… or he doesn't want to sit in that discomfort with you. If the behaviors continue — both him seeing his exes and dismissing your emotions — I would think hard about if this relationship can meet your needs. Sometimes we have to choose to love ourselves more. You deserve a relationship in which the other person not only responds to your pain but helps you heal.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specializes in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.