It’s been a long day. You’ve had a stressful day at work. Your gym was so packed with people doing post-work workouts that it frustrated you more than it relaxed you. Once you’d changed and got out of there, you were so hungry it felt like your stomach was eating itself.
You got lost on the ride between the gym and the new bar, and ended up cycling round in circles. When you arrive, your friends, who are all sitting around enjoying a post-prandial beer, look up at you awkwardly, willing you to vanish from whence you came: sitting at the table, among your friends, is your partner’s ex. You are expected by your social circle to leave. You will have to find somewhere else to eat. You maintain your frozen smile as you walk out, head held high despite the humiliation of the situation. Anger doesn’t cover it. You are left fuming.
Giving in to anger is the path of least resistance.
Instead of engaging with the real emotion – embarrassment, jealousy, insecurity, envy, loneliness, inadequacy, curiosity, sexual attraction or WHATEVER it is – we get defensive, we get angry and we get upset.
Exploding with fury as tears roll down your cheeks and steam pours from your ears is easier than actually dealing with the feelings themselves because people expect you, maybe even want you, to be upset by having to face up to the fact that your partner had other partners before you.
The mention, vestiges, or presence of an ex can feel like a personal attack. It seems unfathomable that this isn’t aimed to hurt you because it feels like the ex’s presence is being shoved in your face.
It can feel like these people whom you have not, and may never, meet have this unbearable weight on your life. Many social expectations surrounding relationships practically require us (both women and men alike) to harbour feelings of resentment, jealousy, and envy, towards a partner’s exes. (And if not, do you really care about your partner?) It’s hard not to cave under such public pressure about something so intimate.
THEN there are those people – often other women, it seems to me – who like to feed you ‘useful’ bits of information. Off-hand comments like: ‘I heard he’s still friends with her’, or ‘did you hear about him and so-and-so’s ex?’
That kind of comment is not intended to help you, despite being framed as a vital tidbit of social circle gossip.
That comment is a probe, someone’s game to test the waters of the social scene, or to test you. Perhaps, more diabolically, it is to taunt you, and for some, even to injure you in your most blatantly emotionally vulnerable spot.
You don’t have to take the bait. Not just while you’re in public; it’s not about hiding your true reaction and then crying into a tub of ice cream as soon as you get home to a safe space.
You simply do not have to get upset about what other people are doing with their lives.
Social norms surrounding relationships often press us to publicly demonstrate our feelings about a current partner. This conditioning can feel like instinct – full of adrenaline, we square up and defend our territory. By displaying extreme negative emotions towards a partner’s ex, we enact possession over the current partner. These social expectations put us into boxes. Unnatural, ill fitting, manufactured boxes.
We do not have to conform.
Anger is not turned off at the flip of a switch. The feelings triggered by running into any kind of emotional conflict cannot simply be ignored, but your energy can be redirected through heightened self-awareness and situational awareness. It takes time, energy, and – something I don’t naturally have in vast supply – control.
Two things I’ve discovered in an ongoing process of self- and social-reflection are:
1. People never really leave our lives.
You can leave them behind, put space between the two of you in both the mental and corporeal sense, but short of having your memory erased, that person is with you for good. So whether or not you run the risk of physically bumping into an ex (yours or his/hers), you still interact with the stories, memories and lessons learned. As best you can, learn to embrace the past along with the future.
2. It’s not just you.
Almost everyone has at least one ex with a tangle of connections stretching into your relationship. Each partner’s tangle could hurt the other partner. If I’m upset about seeing his ex, why shouldn’t he be upset when I talk about my ex? You could be hurting those closest to you without meaning to, and you could be hurting yourself without noticing.
So in dealing with your partner’s ex, start from a point of awareness. Try to consider your (re)actions and assess whether you’re helping or hindering yourself and those closest to you.
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out ‘Can We Ever Stay Friends With Our Ex?‘?