The last thing you want to hear out of a partner’s mouth is the name of his or her ex — but talking about an ex doesn’t always signal romantic doom. In fact, it can help build a solid foundation for your current relationship.
Experts say the individual growth that leads to healthy, stable relationships begins with heartbreaks, and one of the best ways to turn past disappointments into future relationship successes is to share these experiences with your new partner.
But how should you broach the subject? If you’ve kept in touch with your former flames on social media platforms such as Facebook, you’ve got an easy in, said Dr. Linda Young, a psychologist and senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families.
“There’s your opportunity to talk about something that happened a long time ago,” she said. “It will, chances are, resurrect some feelings around that relationship. It’s not a bad thing. In fact, it can be helpful to discuss it with your current partner.”
But dredging up stories of past flames can be treacherous, and it’s worth taking the time to think about how to do it right. Here are seven things to know before talking about an ex with your partner.
Recalling past relationship mistakes makes you less inclined to repeat them.
When you’ve been dumped, areas of the brain associated with addiction as well as physical pain light up, said Helen Fisher, chief scientific adviser to Match.com and a senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute. Human brains have evolved to “attach” to other people after forming romantic bonds. When a relationship ends and that attachment severs, there’s a huge emotional and physiological hit. After that, brain regions associated with processing what happened fire up.
“People will go through long periods after they’ve been dumped or after they dumped somebody asking, ‘Why did I do this? What did I lose? What did I gain?'” Fisher told The Huffington Post. “The brain really does remember this, and it remembers this forever. You remember the ones that got away. It’s entirely possible that the brain is built that way so that you can remember why it didn’t work so that you can do it better the next time.”
Talking about past relationships can give your partner insight into who you are.
Aside from the evolutionary benefits, talking about your exes can help you communicate to your new partner how you grew into the person you are today. Often, romantic relationships serve as learning experiences that let you test the boundaries of your interests and needs. Reflecting on a past relationship can even help you find out something about yourself that you may have missed during the relationship and breakup.
“I think every experience can help form your character,” Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce coach with The Functional Divorce, told The Huffington Post. “With partnerships, oftentimes you’re spending so much time with that person and have so much more intensity that they have a chance to be a greater influence than other things are in shaping your character and shaping your responses.”
Candid, focused conversations build trust and encourage open communication.
The American Psychological Association encourages those who have gone through breakups to focus on the positive aspects and outcomes, rather than banning talk of exes completely. While it’s ideal to hash out all of your strong emotions before entering a new relationship, the ability to speak freely with your partner is important.
“Unless you’re able to share what you’ve learned, it’s like hiding a part of yourself,” Finn said. “Does that mean that you need to share every last sexual encounter you’ve had and the intimate details of it? No. There are appropriate levels of sharing.”
Young, Finn and Fisher all recommend keeping details to a minimum. Simply explain what happened with the ex, what you learned and where you are now. Of course, every couple is different, and you’ll have to gauge your partner’s curiosity and comfort level — you don’t want to inadvertently make him or her feel as if you’re either not over your ex or using your ex as a benchmark by which to measure your new partner.
When it comes to talking about an ex, timing is everything.
The beginning of a new relationship may not be the best time to drop the ex bomb. Finn explained that there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to timing, but you probably want to give a relationship time to develop before adding in any emotional third parties — i.e., avoid talk of your ex on the first date. Take it from Finn: “One of the biggest turnoffs that people have when they’re starting to date again after the ending of a romantic relationship is going out with someone that can only talk about their ex.”
If you want to get your brain geared up for a new attachment, Fisher explained, you need to build your partnership and put the past aside for at least a little while so you two can have your own set of experiences and goals.
Remember that perception may not match reality.
When Fisher polled a representative sample of 5,000 Americans for Match.com recently, she asked people how long it takes them to get over an ex and found the average answer was about three months.
“But you know what? It’s one of the few things I didn’t believe,” she said. “I actually don’t believe that. I’ve seen people take 10 years.”
However long it may take you to get over an ex, how you talk about that person when you’re in a new relationship can reveal a great deal. If you’re still grieving over an ex, that can create a barrier between you and your current partner and signify that you’re not “over it.”
“If you’re continuing to talk about an ex in ways that are not indifferent and that person is out of your life, that suggests that you really aren’t over that person, you aren’t ready to move on and it’s not time to have a serious relationship with a new person,” Young said.
You can still have fond memories of your exes and bring them up occasionally, but be wary of spending too much time dwelling on the past, Young warns.
Know that the reason you’re talking about your ex is to move forward, not backward.
Once you’ve shared the lessons of past relationships with your partner, it’s best to continue to get to know him or her, form a new bond and create new memories — don’t let your current relationship stagnate. There’s always more to learn about the relationship at hand, so you’ll need to give it as much attention as possible.
“The bottom line is that you have to build a new relationship,” Fisher said. “The best way to do that is to start with the two of you right now.”
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