How to handle ex-partners

Dear Sex Educator,

My girlfriend and I have been dating for over a year now, and she still lives with her ex even though they have been broken up for over a year! My girlfriend allows her ex to control every aspect of her life. Often I feel like I’m in second place. I know my girlfriend loves me and I love her, but my heart breaks each time she must cater to her ex. They have plans to move apart soon, but the actions that would lead to this move are not being accomplished. I don’t know what to think or feel! By the way, we have no official commitment, but seem to be very serious. Any suggestions?

Many women have a very hard time letting go and actually ending a relationship. Your girlfriend is probably stuck in the patterns that she and her ex established long ago, and may not realize it.

The hard part about this type of situation is that it usually takes a confrontation or crisis to push the participants (in this case, your girlfriend and her ex) out of their comfortable (if unhealthy) pattern so that each of them can start living separate lives.

Separation is critical to the ending of a relationship, even though it is initially painful. Your girlfriend is avoiding that separation pain, but it appears to be at the expense of her relationship with you. I want to encourage you to sit down with yourself and work to figure out what it is that you want from this relationship. Once you have done that, and you feel you can keep that clear in your mind, then I think you need to have a very frank discussion with your girlfriend about how you feel about her, how you feel when she slips into her old relationship pattern with her ex, and what you want from your relationship with her.

I am not suggesting that you pose an ultimatum, unless that is what you want, but that you lay out your feelings clearly for her to see and ask her to tell you how she feels and what she wants from your relationship. Hopefully this will lead to some negotiation about how each of you can get what you need from your relationship, and how your relationship fits into the overall framework of each of your lives. If you find that she wants more involvement with her ex than you are comfortable with, you will need to decide if you can live with that, if you do need to say “it’s her or me”, or if there is some time limit you wish to place on your discomfort before you make the decision to push a change.

One of the hardest but most important things to do in a relationship is to be clear about what you feel and want, negotiate with your partner when your desires are at odds, and then work your relationship to a dynamic that is comfortable for both of you. We are not taught how to do that kind of negotiation in our relationships, but it is very useful and in this situation it appears to be critical.

The Sex Educator