Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Is It OK To Be Friends With My Wife’s Ex?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m writing to you in hopes of receiving your impartial insight into a particularly tricky personal situation. My wife (Alpha) and I just celebrated our 5th anniversary, although prior to getting married we’d already been in a long-term committed relationship that had culminated in living together. There’s one troublesome long-standing issue that’s been present in our relationship since the beginning, though: her ex. Let’s call him Beta.

The three of us have known each other since we were teenagers. At that time, we were all part of an online mailing list, and a few particular folks had formed a smaller, more tightly-knit offshoot. Beta was the one who invited me to join their group of about 8 others, one of whom was Alpha. At the point that I became friends with them, the two of them were already in a long-distance relationship and had already met up in person a few times. I got along better with Beta than Alpha at that that time, likely since he and I shared more interests during those years.

Fast forward several more years to the point where we are all ostensibly young adults. After graduating college, Beta happened to get a job in my neck of the woods. I still chatted with Alpha occasionally and I knew she and Beta were still seeing each other. What I didn’t know was that their relationship was already falling apart at this point. He had been cheating on her with some other online relationship that she found out about and confronted him about. They argued, had a break from each other, and then she tentatively forgave him and tried to get back together with him. That had only been one transgression out of a list of others she’d tried to overlook in an attempt to keep their relationship together though, and eventually the two of them broke up again. There was a period after that where I lost touch with Alpha as she was trying to juggle both picking up the pieces and studying abroad. When I graduated college myself, Beta offered to let me move in with him for a while.

Some years later, Alpha and I began talking more frequently. Eventually, she said she was interested in me. I was interested in her too, but felt torn at the time since I was still rooming with Beta. Before proceeding into a potential relationship, I wanted to talk to him and make sure that he was OK with me seeing his ex-girlfriend and that it wouldn’t be too awkward. He told me he wasn’t bothered by it, so I told her I wanted to give it a shot. We didn’t always click at first, but we eventually said ‘I love you’ to each other and began a serious relationship. I still didn’t know the details about her time with Beta and his cheating on her. She was vocal about her negative feelings toward him, but I stubbornly thought it was something that would ‘work out’ where she would eventually be friends with him again. When she came to visit, it seemed like they were trying to be cordial with each other, at least.

Now that we’ve been together for quite some time and had some long discussions about it, I understand that he cheated on her, and that rather than admitting to her that his feelings for her had diminished, he’d just let their relationship wither away because he wanted to avoid confrontation. I was greatly disappointed in him when I learned how he’d treated her. Beta doesn’t live around here any more, but my other local friends and I have continued to maintain an online friendship with him. That doesn’t make things easier for my wife, but she’s also said that she couldn’t bear to see me cast aside essentially my oldest friend. I keep wondering if things might be easier for her if I did. She’s seen a therapist who has validated the feelings she has about Beta and their relationship, but she’s not ‘free’ from those feelings and can’t fall back on the comfort of ‘well at least I never have to see or hear from him again’. She dreams of him frequently and wakes up feeling exhausted, angry, and depressed simply from having to think about him. I worry that even if he were truly out of her life completely, would any of that really just ‘stop’? I’m not expecting her to either forget or forgive him, but I want to help her not have to feel the pain of that past relationship constantly. Is there something more I should be doing for my wife? Am I being selfish in maintaining my friendship with Beta? I feel like he’s striving to be a better, more honest person. I think, “I’m sure I’ve hurt people when I was younger, too,” but I don’t know if I’m only looking at it through my ‘this guy was my best friend’ lens and I’m actually completely out of line.

Thanks very much for both your time and for any feedback you have to offer, Doc.


Exes & Oh No’s

DEAR EXES & OH NO’S: First things first, Exes & Oh No’s: you have the right to have friends completely outside of your relationship with your wife. In fact, having friends who are just “yours” is a key component when it comes to making your relationship work; not only does this keep your partner from feeling like they’re your sole source of emotional support and intimacy, but it gives you a life outside of your relationship. This can be important; even people in the most intimate, loving relationships need their space. Having friends outside of your relationship give you a place to go for companionship and community as well as some much-needed time to let your relationship breathe and decompress.

Now where this gets tricky is when those friendships conflict directly with your relationship. While our partners don’t get an automatic veto on who we can or can’t be friends with, there can be times when our relationships with other people cause strife within our romantic relationships. If your wife, for example, were friends with someone who was enabling harmful behavior, you would be well within your rights to tell her that you don’t like them and that you’d rather she stopped seeing them. Similarly, if she had a friend who was constantly hitting on her or trying to get her to leave you or cheat on you with them, then I don’t think anyone would think twice about your telling her that you aren’t comfortable with her continuing to see them.

However, there’s a difference between “the presence of this person in your life is directly affecting our relationship” and “I don’t like them.” While we want to be considerate and thoughtful of our partners’ feelings, we’re not responsible for monitoring and managing their emotions for them. There comes a point where our partners have to be willing to deal with their own baggage without expecting others to be part of that management.

And honestly, your wife is doing just that. She recognizes that her (understandable) hard feelings for her ex are entirely separate from your relationship with him. While she’s got a lot of complicated and unpleasant feelings about their history together, she hasn’t made her feelings your problem. In fact, she’s gone out of her way to tell you that she doesn’t want you to give up a friendship that clearly has a lot of meaning and importance for you, just because of her.

That’s all to the good. It says a lot about your wife’s respect for you and your ability to manage your affairs.

What’s also good is that you two have been talking about this. Keeping your lines of communication open, especially about tricky emotional issues is crucial for a relationship’s continued success. The fact that she knows you understand her feelings about Beta is important; at the absolute minimum, she knows that you’re not going to do something absurd like surprise her by bringing him around in hopes of helping her “get over it” (something I’ve seen folks do… and yes, it went about as well as you might think) or otherwise try to coerce her into accepting him in your life.

Now all that having been said: no, I don’t think that you need to end your friendship with Beta, and I don’t think it’s going to help your wife. To be honest, the fact that he’s still your friend isn’t what’s stressing her out, it’s the the fact that he still exists, period. I’ve known many people who have exes that they abhor — for very legitimate reasons — and still have stress nightmares about them, despite having not had contact with them for decades. Your breaking up with him isn’t going to be what makes the difference between your wife having a blissful, stress-free life and not. Frankly, unless the dude gets Thanos-snapped out of existence, the only real answer is going to be for your wife to make her own peace and find her own closure. And that’s something only she can do for herself.

Right now, he’s not part of her life. She doesn’t have to see him or talk to him and, considering that he lives in an entirely different town, she’s not at risk of ever accidentally running into him. While you may still be friends with him, she still has enough of a metaphorical firewall between her and him that you are pretty much in the clear.

If you want to ease things for your wife, then one of the best things you can do is help her maintain that firewall. Ensure that you keep your online social circles separate with filters and groups, so that your wife doesn’t have to worry about seeing him pop up in the comments on Facebook or Instagram. If you know he’s going to be in town, make sure that you give your wife a heads up so she can make appropriate arrangements to be elsewhere or to avoid his likely hangouts. If you’re going to see him in person, make sure that you keep them separated so that there’s no chance of even an accidental encounter.

But at the end of the day: he’s part of your life, not hers. As long as there’s no overlap and you’re not dragging him into her life, then ultimately your wife is the only person who’s responsible for her emotions.

Like the wise man said: you gotta keep ’em separated.

Good luck.

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