Honey, Meet The Ex

When loves from the past and the present collide, do they have to crash into your romantic future? Here's how to handle the introductions gracefully — especially when kids are involved.

By Julie H. Case

orget the quandary of first-date attire. When it comes to choosing an outfit for a meeting with my boyfriend’s ex-wife, I’m at a complete loss. This is serene acreage littered with potential land mines. Not only is there the very real possibility I’ll arrive with my shirt on inside out, but there’s also the possibility she could loathe me for just being with him — or for the smart-aleck retorts that are certain to fall from my lips.

For many of us who are dating a single parent, there may come a time when the new love must meet the ex-love. Especially if the kids are involved. In my
Why meet the ex-spouse at all?
case, a bright, charismatic 10-year-old — whose father I have become very attached to — provoked this interview. Please, let me behave.

What if I don’t pass?

I ask my boyfriend this en route to the meeting, right after I admitted being nervous. “You’ll pass,” he says. “And it doesn’t matter, anyhow. She doesn’t have a vote.” This is a good sign: He doesn’t have unfinished business with his ex; I’m not a pawn in the relationship. From everything I’ve heard, she has also moved on. This is a good start.

So, when it comes to meeting your new love’s ex-spouse, how do you know the time is right, what to expect and how to behave?

Experts have differing opinions on when, in a relationship, it’s right to meet the ex. Some say earlier than three months is too early; others say not before six. Fair enough. It wouldn’t be appropriate for a single parent to introduce the ex and kids to someone new three times a year.

Regardless of timing, experts agree that no meeting should be arranged until the couple has some level of commitment, be that “thinking about marriage” or something else, such as commingling vacations, households or finances.

“In my practice, I’ve seen disastrous results when people meet the ex-partner or even the single parent’s children too soon in the relationship,” says counseling psychologist Dr. Linda Young. “When people do this prematurely, they can be triangulated too easily.”

Meaning if there’s unfinished business between exes, the new love can easily be ensnared in an awkward situation. If, for example, one ex is bitter and wants to interfere with a new relationship or have a vote in who the other parent is dating, meeting the new love face-to-face can give the old love a golden opportunity.

Which begs the question: Why meet the ex-spouse at all? For my part, it was because there is a child involved. My boyfriend’s ex-wife wanted to know with whom her daughter was spending so much time.

That, says Young, is as it should be. The meeting should be child-centered and designed to ensure that everyone has the child’s best interest at heart. Meeting for any other reason is sketchy.

Knowing why your new love wants a meeting is important. Red flags should go up if she wants to run you past her ex for approval. And while living well may be the best revenge, warning bells should be ringing if he wants to flaunt you in front of the ex. That’s a sign they are still connected—in a way that’s not about the welfare of the child but about competition.

To that point, any new love who wants to broker a meeting best check his own motivation.

“From the new love’s perspective, I sometimes find they are curious and think they can further evaluate the demise of the last relationship based on what they get out of meeting the ex face-to-face,” says Young. It’s no way for anyone to make up his or her mind about a romantic partner’s dating history.

To ensure both parties know why the new love is meeting the ex, Young suggests asking why your
"It’s OK to have questions that are off-limits..."
partner wants a get-together, what he or she hopes will happen as a result of it and what good will come of meeting. If the answer is something to the effect of “we are both focused on what’s best for child; my ex is concerned that my choice is best for our child,” that’s a good enough, says Young.

Once you’ve decided to meet, conducting the rendezvous is equally important. Not only should it occur in a neutral territory, it should be a planned encounter, not something that happens at a special event. That puts the child in the middle and can have disastrous consequences.

As for the topics of conversation: Set some parameters.

“It’s OK to have questions that are off-limits, such as the ex asking all about the new partner’s family background or dating history,” says Young. “Have boundaries around what is too private and be willing to say [what] you’re not going to talk about.”

And while Young believes the conversation should be child-centric and child-themed, Dr. Lana Staheli, relationship expert and author of “Affair-Proof” Your Marriage, argues that the conversation should be brief and relatively superficial, like meeting a friend of a friend.

“When you’re with a friend of a friend, you’re polite, you’re courteous, you’re friendly, but it’s not an intimate relationship,” says Staheli. “We’re not new best friends. We’re not enemies, either.”

A friendly acquaintanceship is also where the relationship should end. Attempt to develop a friendship with the ex and the number of relationships you’re involved in explodes exponentially. Now, instead of having one relationship, you have multiples—with the person you’re dating, the kids and the ex-spouse—and that rarely works.

“Your relationship is not with kids and not with the ex-partner,” says Staheli. “It’s simply with the person you’re dating. Stay within those boundaries and you’ve saved yourself a whole lot of problems.” The ex may not be a friend, nor is she an enemy—a trap Staheli says women often fall into. “When you don’t make the relationship work with the other woman, then it actually undermines your relationship with your partner.”

What to expect after the meeting depends on the level of trust and security each party has in their own relationships and themselves. While it may be natural for some feelings of jealousy to arise, Young warns that if those feelings are strong, irrepressible or lead to intrusive, negative or manipulative behaviors on anyone’s part, it’s a red flag about the future stability of the relationship.

As for other warning signs, Staheli says that the occasional snipe is one thing, but hostility is another. “If there is acrimony between the parents, tell your partner you don’t like it: They have a family together, they have a responsibility to get along. Then, if it continues, run, don’t walk.”

For my part, despite the errors of our ways—we met at their old home, less than two months into the relationship and talked about personal matters—everything has turned out well so far. While I credit this primarily to the nature of my boyfriend’s divorce and his relationship with his ex-wife, I’m also glad that, for the most part, I behaved. And that I didn’t show up with my shirt on backward.

Julie H. Case is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Sunset, Alaska Airlines Magazine and Wired.
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