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How to cope with your 'significant ex'

Jane Murphy / 31 May 2016

You've met someone new and it's going well – but how can you stop your previous long-term relationship from jeopardising this one?

Woman remembering her ex
When embarking on a new relationship it's natural for memories of your ex to keep popping up

When you start dating again, chances are there's at least one serious relationship in your past that's still foremost in your mind. Whether you're widowed, divorced or have been single for many years, memories of that 'significant ex' will invariably insist on popping up. It's only natural, after all. But how can you ensure that your feelings about your previous relationship don't ruin your chances of enjoying your new one?

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Don't make comparisons

Rule number one? Don't allow your past to cloud your expectations and try not to compare your new date to your ex-partner. Of course, it's easier said than done – but comparisons are nearly always unfair and unrealistic. For a relationship to progress and flourish, you need to start afresh and allow yourself time to get to know someone properly. It's not fair on either of you if you expect your new partner to behave in a certain way – whether good or bad – simply because that's what your ex would have done.

'When you start seeing someone new, it's important to think about your expectations of this relationship and recognise what you like and don't like,' says sex and relationship therapist Lorraine McGinlay. 'It's vital that you're honest with yourself and your new partner about how you're feeling, so you don't fall into the unhealthy habit of comparing your new relationship to your previous one.'

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Know when to keep quiet

Of course, it's acceptable – in fact, it's advisable – to mention your ex-partner in passing from the outset. Your previous relationships are a significant part of your 'story', and have no doubt helped shape the person you are today. But the key is to be honest and open without dwelling on the topic and launching into copious detail about what went wrong.

'Honesty is important in every relationship,' McGinlay advises. 'But sometimes, less is more – and that definitely applies when it comes to your ex and your new relationship. There are times when you need to consider the purpose of talking about your ex. I'm not saying it's not a good idea to discuss your past. But in these early days, it's far better to focus on finding ways to get to know each other better. Some things are best left unsaid.'

Be honest with yourself

At this point, it's worth pausing for a quick reality check. If you've been through a difficult break-up and still find it hard to stop talking about your ex or constantly make unfavourable comparisons between your new partner and your old one, it's worth considering whether you're truly ready to move on.

Likewise, if you're still in touch with your ex, be honest about whether you're embarking on this fresh relationship – wholly or in part – in a bid to make him jealous. Are you simply on the rebound? If that's the case, it's not fair on anyone – least of all your new date. Talking things through with a sympathetic friend or relationship counsellor can help you make sense of it all.

Should you get back with your ex?

Start looking forwards

On the other hand, if your new relationship is progressing nicely and you're still on good terms with your ex-partner, there may even come a time when it's natural for the two of them to meet. A couple of pointers? Try to ensure the meeting is in a neutral, relaxed setting, ideally among a group of friends. Don't commandeer the conversation, and don't expect the two of them to hit it off immediately: all new relationships take time. They're both adults and must be allowed to deal with the situation in the way they see fit.

Ultimately, you wouldn't be human if you didn't think about your significant ex from time to time. But there's a big difference between memory and obsession. 'Of course, you're always going to have memories,' says McGinlay. 'But the trick is not to let those memories get in the way of your future happiness. This is a time for you to create new memories with someone else, while still treasuring the happy times you've had in the past.'

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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