When we talk about getting married, we tend to talk in terms of finalities and absolutes—your one and only, your happily ever after. There’s a sense of this and only this. But the truth is, for a lot of people marriages aren’t a one-time-only event. With a divorce rate hovering at around 50 percent, there’s a good chance that you or your partner may have been married before, and that’s totally fine. One of you having been married before doesn’t keep you from having your own fairy tale. If you’re marrying someone who has been married before, there’s a good chance you’ll have to deal with an ex—and that can be an intimidating prospect.
The good news? Normally, ex-spouses are totally harmless. “The best tip for dealing with an ex-spouse is to try and contain your jealousy,” says relationship therapist Aimee Hartstein. “Ninety-five percent of people who are divorced are happy that they have moved on to new partners.” So you shouldn’t assume that there’s going to be a problem—though it’s totally natural to feel a little uneasy about the whole situation, at least at first. Here’s how to handle your spouse’s ex, because taking the high road can go a long way.
Meet the Expert
Aimee Hartstein is a relationship therapist and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She received a Masters of Social Work from New York University and has advanced clinical training from Washington Square Institute in New York City.
Remember: You Both Have a Past
First of all, it’s crucial to remember that everyone has their own past—even if you haven’t been married before, there are still significant people and partners from earlier in your life. There are relationships that can be just as meaningful and transformative that never involved a ring or vows.
“Do not go down the road of thinking that the ex is a threat to you in any way,” Hartstein says. “Chances are you have your own exes and you know your partner has no need to be worried about them.” If you feel yourself panicking or being jealous, you can talk to your partner about the issue—not in an accusing way, just sharing the fact that you're struggling. But also remember that if your exes are no threat, theirs shouldn’t be either just because they decided to get married.
Be Realistic About Their Role in Your Life
When dealing with an ex, try to look at how much they’re actually going to impact on your married life. For many people, this will be not at all—either you’ll never see them or maybe you’ll bump into them once or twice a year at events with shared friends. But in some cases, they may be a more present part of your life—and if there are children involved, it’s even more important that you make an effort to keep things as healthy and positive as possible. “If your partner has kids with their ex, then this advice goes double,” Hartstein says. “You and your partner will be dealing with this ex basically forever. The more amicable and friendly the relationship, the happier you all will be. Don’t go looking for threats and trouble where none may exist.”
If there are kids involved, remember that they’re the more vulnerable group—and put their well-being first.
If Necessary, Take the High Road
Occasionally, it may be that your partner’s ex is genuinely problematic. Maybe they’re not over your partner, maybe they’re not a very stable or happy person, or maybe they just like to throw micro-aggressions your way. It’s a really tricky situation to be in, but you have to do your best to take the high road. “In the unfortunate case that their ex really is difficult and a problem, my advice is to try your best not to engage and not to take the bait,” Hartstein says.
If you feel like you’re having trouble coping with your partner’s ex or if you feel like they’re impacting your relationship, then you may want to seek help. “Find a good individual or couples’ therapist if the family dynamics get too intense,” Hartstein says. “A professional take on the situation can go a long way.” It may be that you’re actually projecting other insecurities about the relationship onto the ex or that you and your partner are allowing the ex to take up too much of the oxygen of your relationship. In either case, meeting with a professional can help you cope.
For most people, dealing with an ex-spouse will be (fairly) easy sailing—either you’ll hardly ever see them or you’ll bumble through the occasional awkward run-in just fine. Try not to overthink the relationship, keep things in perspective, and if there are kids on the scene, put them first. Your partner split with their ex for a reason—just like you split with yours—so it’s time to look toward the future.