What is normal and how do I minimize any discomfort?
June 3, 2012 2:46 PM   Subscribe

Are my boundaries "normal" or oversensitive, and should I apply them to this person I am soon to meet? Supersnowflakery within.

My ex-husband and I were married 10 years and have been divorced 3. We live very far from each other and have not seen each other since we split, amicably, but we have remained friendly via phone, email and IM. He and his new wife will be visiting my town in a few months and staying with me and my boyfriend for a couple days. I have not yet met my ex's wife, but we're friends on Facebook and have exchanged somewhat superficial pleasantries there in advance of their visit. Everyone is looking forward to the visit, but I imagine there will be some weirdness. How do I minimize it?

I have experience to draw on: for two years I have been constantly learning and adjusting to my boyfriend's friendship with his ex. They were together nearly 20 years, we see her every couple weeks. She has been single since they split almost 4 years ago. She is very kind to me, she makes a point of including me in their friendship, has reached out to me and been there for me multiple times completely separate from him, and she has regularly shown clear respect for my relationship with him in many ways, so I don't perceive her as a threat at all. However... regardless of company - whether it's just the three of us, or we're out with friends they've both known longer than me, or if we're with new acquaintances - sprinkled into the rest of the conversation, she will refer to things they did together in the past, or will talk about people they knew that I don't, or she'll explain his behavior to me as if I'm unfamiliar with it, or she'll mention some item "we" - meaning she and my boyfriend - own together (when they split, they agreed to share joint custody of a large and valuable collection), with no explanation to new parties. It seems exclusionary, like an inappropriate crossing of boundaries; like she's still trying to hold some claim over him. I remind myself that my negative perception of her motives doesn't jive with the rest of her behavior towards me, that maintaining a friendship with someone you invested many years of your life is a GOOD thing, and that of course they're going to talk about their shared experiences, friends, and belongings, and that this is what I want and expect to do with my ex. All that said, it's still weird for me two years on.

I don't want to make my ex's new wife feel like this, and she won't have two years to adjust to me, only a couple days. Is my reaction just my insecurity and self-consciousness talking, or should I be mindful of doing these things to her too? When I've asked my ex about it in general terms, he says "everything will be fine." He says they know it could be a little weird. Part of me wants to talk to his new wife directly about it (presumably via Facebook prior to their visit). Bad plan?
posted by thrasher to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Facebook is a bad idea, yes.

Talking to her ahead of time might not be a bad idea, but at the very least this needs to be a real-time conversation, like on the phone.
posted by misha at 3:07 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you know exactly what to do. It is only for a couple of days, so even if it takes a little extra effort, why not try to be the ideal ex? Be friendly to her, and be sure to keep your conversation and way of speaking as inclusive as possible. You probably don't have to reach out to her about it in advance. That sounds like inviting unnecessary awkwardness.

To me it sounds like your partner's ex is proud of the the relationship she had with him, so she uses that kind of language to make *herself* feel more connected to him, not to exclude you.
posted by keeo at 3:07 PM on June 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm not really sure why these people have their exes wedged into their new lifes as part of a couple, or why.

I think that staying in your place is a bad idea.

I think anything you can do to be kind and considerate to the new significant other is a good thing...but the most considerate thing might be not going through with this particular strange and unnecessary visit.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:09 PM on June 3, 2012 [16 favorites]

Also your boundaries are not oversensitive, if anything the opposite. The vast majority of people would be less than thrilled with an ex coming around telling them things about their boyfriend like they don't know him.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:13 PM on June 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

Your boyfriend's ex does this because he is her last relationship. If she'd had another boyfriend after, she'd refer to that by default instead. You clearly have had another boyfriend since your ex - your current boyfriend! You will not do what the boyfriend's ex does.

Please don't over think or over prep or talk to her in advance or do anything but treat this with as light a touch as possible.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:16 PM on June 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

Forgive me if I'm making unfounded assumptions, but it sounds to me like your question has a hidden question. You're asking us what to do about your ex coming to stay, but your whole questions screams "I'm uncomfortable with the way my boyfriend's ex acts around him, is that reasonable?" And the answer is yes! My friend has an ex who does it and other people have found it so obnoxious that we've all started inventing stories about when we (including me, a straight male) were dating him, and dropping them into conversation.
posted by Ragged Richard at 4:07 PM on June 3, 2012 [15 favorites]

I think you're confusing boundaries with something else. You don't have to discuss your boundaries with her in advance in this case, unless you want to ask her not to discuss the past or you want to ask your ex not to discuss your and his shared past in front of you or your boyfriend. Personally I would just have some pleasant phrases ready to change the subject if it comes up, something like "oh, that was so long ago...tell me, what do you think about [light topic about current affairs, the city, etc.]."

The boundaries you set on your own behaviour (not getting drawn into reminiscing about old times, if that's the one) are simply yours to set. Just don't talk about that stuff. You don't need to get in touch with her first to prove your good intentions. If something might bother or does bother her it is up to /her/ to act on it.
posted by Zen_warrior at 4:51 PM on June 3, 2012

Thank you all for your responses.

DarlingBri, I've not purchased a house or traveled with my boyfriend. I did both of these things with my ex-husband, as his new wife has - it is very likely that "yes I remember having such and such an experience with him" might come up.

Ragged Richard, that is awesome. I may have to employ that :)

Zen_warrior, I think I might not have been clear. I'm wondering if I were to say to my ex "oh hey remember such and such" or if I was to say to his new wife "when we were married he did this" it might make his wife uncomfortable, as it makes me uncomfortable when my boyfriend's ex does this to me. I have no problem discussing the past with my ex and his wife, as long as she has no problem with it. That's what I'm trying to gauge. Discussing it with her in advance would be along the lines of, "will it make you uncomfortable if my ex/your husband and I reminisce in your presence and should we avoid that?"

Thanks all for your insight, it's helpful, as I still wonder if I'm oversensitive about things, though clearly the "oh he means this" type of comments from my boyfriend's ex actually are out of line.
posted by thrasher at 4:58 PM on June 3, 2012

You are not oversensitive at all. You are being very empathetic to this woman and that's probably a good thing. If she wants to listen to you two reminisce (boring for everyone and possibly painful for her) then she'll bring it up, but it's better to err on the side of caution.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:03 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

In this type of situation, I think I would make a huge effort to put myself in the other person's shoes.
No FB etc. beforehand, but just treat the person as a 'new potential friend' and put your best foot forward! Surely you have numerous topics of conversation...and although some sparsely sprinkled references to the ex might be appropriate, they need not make up the bulk of your chatter...
At the least, you will be the cool, classy one...and you may even make a new friend...
posted by PlantGoddess at 5:26 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

"will it make you uncomfortable if my ex/your husband and I reminisce in your presence and should we avoid that?"

It's worth remembering that good manners generally mean not having conversations about events or people in front of other people who weren't involved & don't know anything about it. This is true whether it's a former romantic partner or a platonic friend: to the extent you can keep the conversation about topics that everybody can participate in, it's considerate and welcoming to do so.
posted by Lexica at 5:30 PM on June 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

I think most people have been socialised to be wary of and skittish around people's exes, and I think that is a bit nutty in 2012. Nicest to treat all these sort of relatives-through-balling as actual relatives; be kind to them and put them up, disengage and distance if they turn out to be unpleasant, but otherwise, file under 'life's rich pageant' and bust out the hors d'oeuvres. I have exes with exes I think are great, and I don't begrudge them their enjoying their histories; it's...yeah, I don't know, thinking of them all as a sort of far-flung relation works well for me. YMMV, obviously.

I definitely would not bring these concerns up beforehand; if you have any contact with her, just make the standard hostess overtures: any dietary concerns [etc]?
posted by kmennie at 5:57 PM on June 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

No, don't talk to her about it in advance. If anything, you are undersensitive. So the fact that comments like that bother you is a really good sign that you should not make similar comments in this new context. Just don't do it and don't risk making her feel uncomfortable.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:38 PM on June 3, 2012

Personally, that sounds like torture to me to stay at my partner's exes' house (sans extenuating circumstances, like kids). I'm afraid you're trying to fix an inherently unpleasant situation with pleasantries ... Not possible. I am not against being friends with exes, and even with their new partners. But it has to happen organically, and this situation does not seem organic.
posted by yarly at 6:49 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]


Man, it was almost a year and half until I started pulling the reminiscing stuff in front of my best friend's (he's male) now live-in girlfriend because we lived next door to each other and worked together sporadically for 6 years. And I'm married!

No one needs to feel uncomfortable, and you do that by not mentioning stuff others in the group feel left out of.

FWIW, the house guest part sounds TRULY unnecessary.Only because it will be so so intimate between you and your ex (who you were with for many many years) to be sharing living space again, and sleeping under the same roof. Not because socializing with ex's and SO's is any sort of problem! This being the first time you're getting together and all, maybe leave opportunity for a graceful exit should the need arise? Forced cheeriness can be taxing for all parties involved, and this is often unexpected. YMMV.


Ragged Richard makes an excellent point.
posted by jbenben at 6:53 PM on June 3, 2012

I think I actually have very, very different boundaries than you. I'm not saying your boundaries are wrong, exactly...but just that for me, your boundaries around your partner's ex are totally "the aliens are talking."

I think people tend to treat exes very differently. For some people, when a lover goes to an ex-lover, they remain at a "best/good friend" level. Which means: continuing to have insight into their personality, continuing to share things, having stories that other people haven't participated in, in-jokes, and other things that, say, any two old friends tend to. It doesn't necessarily mean anything malicious. For other people, when a lover goes to an ex-lover, they become a weird new status which has carefully proscribed rules. These two kinds of people have great difficulty understanding each other, because each thinks their way is best.

I don't know which level your ex's wife is at, but I don't think you need to worry that she will have similar boundaries to yours. I think they are potentially oversensitive, and if your ex hasn't mentioned them, you probably don't need to worry about it.

Just worry about the usual stuff - I think the general rule is, you know, no walking around in towels and things like that, avoid exposure to intimacy, and if your walls are thin, try to avoid having loud sex if they can hear.
posted by corb at 7:53 PM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's just two days, you probably won't have any trouble finding conversation topics that don't exclude the new gf, and if you do bring up some of your past stuff, just make sure you talk directly to her and pay attention to any sign of annoyance. You'll probably be extra careful and empathetic thanks to your experience with your bf's ex, so that should be easy.

Your bf's ex on the other hand… try to do new stuff together so that she doesn't dwell in the past?
posted by Tobu at 12:51 AM on June 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Update: they were in my town for two nights, but because of other circumstances did not stay with us. We did get together with them a number of times with them while they were here. Everyone got along fine, there was no weirdness (or if there was they didn't mention it, there was none for me and my boyfriend). She met my parents and a number of friends of mine and my ex. She's now Facebook friends with several of them, my parents included.
posted by thrasher at 1:44 PM on October 5, 2012

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