Soon after a wonderful woman comes into your life, you may notice a phenomenon unique to our lesbian world. She’s still good friends with her ex-partner, and likes to hang out with her and include her in friend gatherings. We have a lot of mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to be able to continue to switch from lover to friend, where the Ex morphs into part of a supportive, extended family. However, some couples have recurring conflicts about one person’s relationship with her ex-partner. There are some dynamics that can create big problems. So how do you recognize these, and avoid them?
It’s a challenging situation, because we really don’t have good models for this. In the heterosexual world, ex-spouses rarely socialize with each other. Since we don’t have clear guidelines to follow, we have to figure out for works best for both of us. That means asking ourselves some probing questions.
Am I participating in a dysfunctional triangle? Are we talking about her instead of talking about you and me? If we weren’t so focused on an ex-partner, what else might we be talking about?
Most of us think “primary relationship” means two people committed to each other, a dyad instead of a triangle. And, a majority of us like it that way. The problem with triangles is that you wind up focusing a lot on a third party, instead of how to make your relationship with each other stronger.
After Jane and Susan moved in together, they began to argue about how much time Susan spent hanging out with her ex-partner. Jane said she felt disrespected, and Susan felt controlled. Both thought they were right. This endless debate went nowhere. When they were asked to stop talking about the ex, other important issues came up. Jane had some medical problems, and Susan hadn’t recognized the implications until she was living with her every day. Meanwhile, Susan was embarrassed about some financial problems, and hadn’t been completely honest with Jane about that. They avoided being vulnerable with each other, and instead argued about the ex.
As Brene Brown points out, we hate being vulnerable–but that’s how we connect! When Jane and Susan managed to talk more authentically about their vulnerable places, they strengthened their dyad. When they felt more connected to each other, it was easier to work out boundaries that felt okay to both of them.
Am I acting in a way that lets my partner know I have her back? That she can trust me to help her feel comfortable around my friends and family, look out for her best interests?
Drs. Julie and John Gottman, marital therapists and researchers, suggest that what each of us most wants to know is “I’ve got your back.”
Am I letting you know you can count on me? Or am I too busy looking backwards or sideways to give you the undivided attention you need? Are my behaviors the kind that help you trust me more? Or am I too busy trying to convince you that you should trust me more and be less insecure?
If your partner is telling you she doesn’t quite trust you to have her back, please take note: You cannot talk someone into trusting you! You earn her trust, by being sensitive to her feelings and placing her needs above those of your ex-partner. Listening, understanding, and yes, sometimes changing your behavior is how you nurture a committed, loving, primary relationship.
She needs to know she’s #1 on your list–if you want to be #1 on hers.
What’s my history with this issue? Have I gotten in triangles like this before? On which side of the issue? Do I usually feel threatened, or do I want more freedom to spend time as I choose?
History tells you if this current problem is about you, or about the situation. For example, Jane had never experienced anything like this before. She showed zero evidence of trying to control Susan’s other friendships. Her friends confirmed that this wasn’t an old pattern of hers. It didn’t seem fair to label her as “insecure” because her response seemed specific to this situation.
Granted, some people do have fits of insecurity, and may need more reassurance and loyalty than others want to give. That’s why an honest look at history is so important. When you take responsibility for your part, you open the way to working through this barrier–and chronic insecurity, jealousy, and possessiveness is a huge barrier. It’s definitely in your best interest to try to decrease this intensity if you want an emotionally intimate relationship.
Susan, on the other hand, did have a history of conflicts about relationships with the ex. She had dated a couple women between the ex and Jane, and both of them had also complained about the same thing. Her interpretation was that she needed to find stronger women who wouldn’t have a problem with this. She was shocked to realize that a stronger woman might not tolerate this at all. She needed come to terms with a fundamental dilemma of intimate relationships: you gain the benefits of intimacy, and you lose some individual freedom.
If an issue with an ex is coming up with your partner, ask yourself these questions, and listen carefully and honestly to your replies.
Am I participating in a triangle?
Does she know I have her back?
Glenda Corwin, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist who specializes in lesbian sexual issues. She is the author of Sexual Intimacy for Women: A Guide for Same Sex Couples (Seal Press, 2010). Her specialty areas of practice are:
• Issues associated with female sexuality and sexual desire
• LGBT individuals and couples
• Workshops on sustaining sexual intimacy
Find out more at GlendaCorwin.com