It’s an age-old conundrum, as classic as the days are long: What should you do if your partner has their ex — or multiple exes — in their life still? Should you be friends with your partner’s exes? Should you give them all the cold shoulder and hope they fade away in time? Should you just pretend like it’s not happening and cross your fingers that everything works out in the end? And what if your partner isn’t necessarily friends with their ex, but things are more complicated — for example, what if your partner’s ex is in the same social circle as you, or works with you, or lives nearby? Then what?
Don’t panic. I spoke with nine amazing relationship experts about just what to do in such a situation, and the good news is that there isn’t a hard and fast answer, so if you’re living in a weird gray zone, that may be OK, depending on what it looks like for you.
Here are nine things to keep in mind if you’re trying to figure out how to handle your partner + their ex + you, and it feels like a bad mathematics problem. No despair necessary — just follow their sage advice, and you’ll get through this without much damage done if all goes according to plan.
1. As Long As It's Healthy And Positive
"As with all relationships, only maintain those that feed you and are healthy and positive," Carlyle Jansen, author of Sex Yourself , tells Bustle. If you have a healthy, positive relationship with your partner's ex, go for it. "Don't compare notes, however, with them about your partner," Jansen says. "It is disrespectful and prejudices you against seeing growth and change in your partner in their new relationship with you." If you're getting too much "insider" information, end the friendship or at least get some serious distance.
2. If They Are Good Friends With Your Partner
"I think this depends on your comfort level and the nature of their relationship," psychologist Nicole Martinez tells Bustle. If your partner and your partner's ex "have been platonic friends with no thought of ever getting back together for years after they broke up, it might be to your benefit to befriend them," she says.
It's better to get used to them being around than to try to fight it: "They are likely going to be a part of your partner's life, [and] you may not like the choice your partner makes if given an ultimatum," she says. "Also, it is more peaceful for all three of you if you make an effort to keep the peace and try to forge a relationship. You will feel more trusting and comfortable, and they will feel that they can embrace a friendship and nothing more due to your support and openness," she says. Everyone wins.
3. Only If There Are Kids Involved
"If your partner has children with the ex, then being friendly and cordial, not necessarily BFF, will just make day-to-day living easier for everyone involved, especially the kids," relationship coach and psychic medium Cindi Sansone-Braff, author of Why Good People Can't Leave Bad Relationships , tells Bustle. "So, put your best foot forward in this case and make a real effort to keep the peace. Your partner will really appreciate your efforts to not put him or her in the middle of things.
4. As Long As Everyone's Sane
"As long as they get along with you and your partner, yes, absolutely," Tina B. Tessina, aka Dr. Romance, psychotherapist and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working it out Together, tells Bustle. "If it’s a crazy ex, it might be difficult," and it's best to leave it alone, of course. "But if your partner shares kids with a crazy ex, you need to keep in touch and keep watch on things," she says. "If your partner is able to be friends with exes, that’s a good thing," she reminds. "It means that nothing happened between them that they couldn’t forgive each other for," and in the long run, that is super important.
5. It Depends On Your Motivations
"If the relationship ended on good terms and the ex is with someone else, it can be OK," Stefanie Safran, Chicago's "Introductionista" and founder of Stef and the City, tells Bustle. The determining factor is all about your motivations to be pals with this ex. "What depends is the reason for the relationship," she says. "If it's to better your relationship with your partner," all good — for example, if your partner is friends with their ex and you want to join in the fun. But if you're hoping "to learn more about your partnership" by getting to know your partner's ex, that's just like snooping, she says, in which case it's better to avoid.
6. Under Certain Circumstances
"You can be friends with your partner's exes" under three circumstances, life coach Kali Rogers tells Bustle. The first: "Your partner is completely OK with it," she says. The second: "There is no competitive nature or jealousy in the friendship." This is key — if you're going to be palling around with someone your partner once dated, it's vital that you don't feel jealous of them and vice versa. Finally, be sure "your intentions are pure, [and] the friendship doesn't exist solely for snooping or gathering extra info about your partner," she says.
As long as these three criteria are in place, you're good to go. If your friendship does not meet those criteria, then it's best to skip the friendship for the sake of your relationship.
7. Only If Necessary
“In general, it’s a great idea to release all exes and their significant others in order to keep things simple and running smoothly,” New York–based relationship expert and author April Masini tells Bustle. “However, if you travel in the same social circles, or work in the same career fields, or live in the same neighborhoods, then that changes things.” It’s better to be friendly than to be unpleasant, which can lead to major problems, but don’t go out of your way to befriend your partner’s ex, she says. “You’re going to see each other no matter what, so be civil, be friendly, but limit contact if you want to avoid complications,” she suggests.
In part, this is because your ex and their ex might have some lingering feelings, she says. “Your ex or his or her former partner may still have feelings or be holding out hope that a future reunion between them may happen. You may not realize this until it’s too late,” and you don’t want to be hanging out with your partner’s ex all the time and facilitate such a reunion.
The flip side can be true too: “There may be ill feelings between them, and your relationship with the ex just stirs the pot,” she says. The best way to go: “Be polite and friendly without being best friends.”
8. Stay Away To Avoid Competition
“If your partner and his [or her] ex do not have children, it's best not to become friendly with their exes,” relationship coach and psychic medium Melinda Carver tells Bustle. “The ex may use their shared history to compete with you, or to cause you problems in your relationship.” If you keep your distance, you’ll ultimately be happier.
“Keeping an arm's length and minimum sharing of your relationship's ups and downs will make it harder for the exes to cause trouble,” she says. Though it might be tempting to be pals with them for whatever reason, it’s best to avoid the urge.
9. It’s All About Your Partner’s History
“This is a somewhat tricky question, but probably not as tricky as you might think,” dating expert Noah Van Hochman tells Bustle. “It depends on the overall relationship your partner has with this person, past, present and even future.” Evaluate your partner’s history, and go from there. “There are some exes that have been there for your partner for a long time and just because their relationship ended doesn’t mean all their feelings have as well,” he says. “You need to determine if those romantic feelings have disappeared but the feelings of friendship have remained.” If so, proceed.
“Would you make an effort to be friendly to your partner’s family or pet? Of course you would, because if those people are important to your partner in some way they should be important to you. You should try to understand their importance to your partner and be friends, or at least friendly,” he says.
That being said, if you evaluate that relationship between your partner and their ex and determine that there are still lingering feelings of romantic love, beware. “If your partner’s ex has not yet gotten over their relationship or breakup, all bets are off, as there will undoubtedly be some residual animosity towards you, possibly even in the façade of wanting to be your great friend,” he says. “Be polite and perhaps even feign being friendly for the sake of your partner” — and for yourself.
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