How to handle being jealous of your partner's ex

Jealousy in relationships is like damp in the walls of your home – ignore it and it’ll seep deeper and cause serious damage.

Sometimes jealousy is totally logical. You’re green-eyed over your partner’s best pal, who everyone says they thought they’d end up with, or you’re seething when their colleague is a massive flirt.

But there’s also such a thing as retroactive jealousy: when you’re envious of your ex’s past.

On a purely logical level, this doesn’t make much sense. Your partner’s ex is their ex for a reason, and the past isn’t much of a threat right now, right?

That doesn’t stop this feeling being super common, though.

‘In so many relationships the partner’s ex casts a shadow over the relationship,’ relationships expert Neil Wilkie tells ‘They were there, they loved each other and had a history together.

‘The ex is often an unseen mystery, and you will only hear the negatives about why they broke up and how unfair the break up and any arrangements over children and finances were.

‘Being jealous is a natural reaction to the uncertainty over your partner’s past. Was their ex sexier, more interesting, nicer, better looking? Are they still in touch and if so is that contact healthy or combative?

‘There are an infinite number of unanswerable questions that will come to the fore when you are feeling uncertain about yourself or your relationship with your partner. It is so easy to go down a black hole of jealousy or uncertainty.’

Indeed it is. So how do we avoid it? How can we cope with jealousy over an ex in a healthy way?

Create a firm foundation by calibrating your current relationship

You need to make sure your relationship’s foundations are steady to prevent jealousy from shaking them too deeply.

Neil recommends rating your relationship on six key elements, scoring each one out of ten:

  • Communication –are you able to talk, express your feelings and be truly listened to?
  • Connection – how strong is the feeling of connection or have you drifted apart?
  • Commitment – are you both truly committed to the relationship or going through the motions?
  • Fun – how much fun do the two of you have together?
  • Growth – are the ‘you’, ‘me’ and ‘us’ all growing or stuck in a rut?
  • Trust – do you trust them totally?

‘Now get your partner to do the same and compare scores,’ advises Neil. ‘If any are below seven, talk about what you are both going to do to improve matters.’

Ask questions about their ex

‘You need to understand your partner’s past to help you both have a wonderful future,’ notes Neil.

‘The ex should not be a secret. When the time is right, ask them the questions that you have always wanted to ask but never felt able to. You might even feel brave enough to meet them. Who knows, you may like them!’

Deal with any continuing contact and conflicts

If there’s still contact between your partner and their ex, make sure there aren’t any issues there that are triggering your jealousy.

Neil says: ‘If you feel there is too much contact, or it is inappropriate, tell you partner how that makes you feel,’

‘If there is continuing conflict over money or access to children, you both need to work together to ensure that this is not casting a shadow over your relationship.’

Set clear boundaries

Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries – we’ll say it three times because this is so, so, so important.

Make sure your partner knows where your limits are; what you think is acceptable and what definitely isn’t. Discuss this together so your partner won’t accidentally devastate you because they had no idea what you need.

Try to stay in the present

‘For the health of your relationship, you both need to enjoy being in the present moment together and not be dragged back into unhelpful memories and fears,’ says Neil. ‘Remember that freedom is the ability to pause between stimulus and response.’

Work on your own confidence

Sometimes jealousy is a symptom of a lack of self-confidence.

Make sure you’re caring for yourself and showing yourself the love you deserve. If low self-esteem is an ongoing issue for you, considering counselling or self-care methods, such as repeating positive affirmations focusing on the things you love about yourself.

Share 10 things that you love about your partner

Neil tells us: ‘It is really helpful to remind yourself about the good things about your partner. Write down 10 things that you love about them and ask them to do the same for you.’

Share 10 things that you respect about your partner

‘This is where love flows into logic,’ Neil continues. ‘Write down 10 things that you respect about them and ask them to do the same for you. Share and enjoy the mutual respect!’

Talk about your dreams and plan your big future

Remember what we said about refusing to dwell on the past? This is a key part of that strategy,

‘This is an opportunity to create your ideal future relationship, not to replay old dreams,’ explains Neil. ‘A great way of getting clarity on this can be to get a large piece of paper and some coloured pens.

‘Let the thoughts and feelings flow and draw a representation of what your life is like right now and then what it will be like with your ideal future relationship.

‘Look at this and see what it is telling you. Plan out what you need to have happen to achieve this.’

Create time to connect with your partner every day

‘Busy couples often start to drift apart because they are not communicating effectively and are not investing the time and attention to connect with each other,’ says Neil. ‘These three simple disciplines every day will create moments of intimacy and change your lives:

  • When you part in the morning, take a few seconds to focus on each other, kiss, hug and say nice things.
  • In the evening, repeat and show that you are happy to have them back. Hugs should ideally be at least 20 seconds and we need 12 a day for growth, eight for maintenance and four for survival.
  • Before you go to sleep, take it I turns to share 3 good things that you have noticed in the day.

Neil Wilkie is a relationship expert, psychotherapist, author of the Relationship Paradigm Series of Books and creator of online couples therapy programme, The Relationship Paradigm.

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