An "ex" headache

There ain't enough room in this town for both of us -- me and my boyfriend's ex, that is.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 12, 2004 8:29PM (EST)

Dear Readers,

Hey, if you're in San Francisco Friday night, feel free to drop by the Odeon Bar on Mission Street for Blabbermouth Night, a free-expression evening where you can vent, curse, condemn, confess, indict, proclaim or even apologize profusely until you exceed your alotted time and are dragged bodily from the stage by one of my henchmen. See you there.

Dear Cary,

I have an ex-girlfriend problem -- my boyfriend's ex-girlfriend. I live in a small city and occasionally find myself in situations where my boyfriend and I have to socialize with his ex (we share some mutual friends). They broke up more than three years ago -- her doing, though he says he was grateful to her for it, as they had been together for four years and it wasn't working anymore. I was acquainted with them when they were a couple, and after they broke up I had a fledgling friendship with the woman. I, too, was newly single, and she and I bonded over our breakup sagas. That was really all we had to talk about though, and after hanging out a few times neither of us pursued the friendship.

After a year or so I ran into her ex-boyfriend at a cafe one night, and it turned out he'd had a crush on me for a long time, even when he was still with this woman. We started dating. It's been two years and we are very happy together.

The problem is that when we see her, she tends to be friendly to him, overly so in my opinion (and he agrees), bringing up people they knew when they were a couple, music they used to listen to, etc. To me she is sometimes aloof, even snubbing me or making subtle digs at me, and other times she makes an effort to be nice. She has a reputation for being a little crazy, a drama queen. She also hasn't had another boyfriend since him, though she has dated. All this really surprised me at first. I had assumed she would be long since over him, especially since she initiated the breakup, and she and I had enjoyed each other's company in the past, so the first time she acted this way around us I was very much caught off guard. I had even thought she and I might laugh together over the irony of me ending up with him. Wrong.

About a year into all this she contacted him, saying she liked me but didn't know how to act around me, didn't know if I hated her, etc., though I had always made every effort to extend myself and make her comfortable, even though her unpredictable behavior made me anxious to the point of nausea.

He and I both reassured her we wanted everyone to get along and harbored no bad feelings toward her. But the fact is, I do. I resent the hell out of the hot-and-cold way she's treated me, and the way she seems to need to prove my boyfriend still answers first to her, or carries a torch for her, even though she decided she didn't want him for herself. I know that isn't true, but I also know he's sweet and fairly nonconfrontational, and it galls me that she tries to exclude me and flirt with him, and he's too polite (or wimpy) to call her on it. He has cooled down toward her in general, but I think in a way this only makes her more desperate to get his attention. Her behavior makes me feel threatened, or disrespected, and it has continued in the aftermath of her e-mail, though on a more subtle level.

I don't know how to act around her, or how to protect myself from feeling anxious and threatened when I have to see her. I've tried to minimize situations where I have to be around her, and that's helped a lot (I used to obsess about her endlessly), but there are some gatherings that I don't want to skip just because of her, and that's really when the problem flares up again. Any advice about how to psychologically defang her and feel more secure about my relationship when I'm in her presence? Am I reading too much into her behavior and being a drama queen myself? Is there anything my boyfriend should be doing to let her know where the boundaries are? It's gotten so I look forward to the day when either she moves away or we do.

Cat Fight in a Small City

Dear Cat Fighter,

When I was younger, I used to think that all my girlfriends should be friends with each other. I thought that was a nice, cozy idea. Life should be like a village, where you walk down the street and all the women you've slept with are sitting on the stoop, gazing longingly at you and greeting your present girlfriend with forced politeness tinged with envy. That's the way the world was supposed to be: The guy is at the center of it, and all the women hover around competing with each other for his attention.

That was a young man's illusion. I think a better view of it is that in a mature relationship, once a man commits to a woman, she becomes the center of his world, and he turns his back on anything that threatens what they have; all the other women whose admiration feeds his ego become subservient to his love for her. When his love is big enough and full enough, he no longer needs to think fondly back on certain experiences; he no longer secretly compares his current girlfriend with his ex; he no longer gets any pleasure out of the attentions of his ex. He is secure, and he is committed, and what he does is try to protect his current girlfriend from feeling threatened by the ex. He guards his woman from her. So in many cases he cuts off communication with the ex.

That's not something you can necessarily make your boyfriend understand. It's a very seductive feeling to know that you remain attractive to your ex, to sense that she'd take you back if you wanted, to sense there's always a lingering possibility, and that you're the center of erotic competition.

I'm saying all this about your boyfriend because his behavior can do a lot to help you feel more secure. If you can make him understand the dynamics of the situation, he can do much to shut her out. I don't think she'll go away just because you want her to. She may find satisfaction knowing she can still push his buttons, that she still has some power to attract him. It's understandable: Being the ex can be a powerless, frustrating role, and there can be a lot of sadness or anger left over that expresses itself in certain covert or subtle ways. That's probably what you're picking up on -- threatening behavior disguised as friendliness. But if he truly rejects her once and for all, if he cuts off all contact with her, I think she will go away.

If your boyfriend won't cut off communication with her, you're just going to have to live with the situation for a while. You can't change her. You can't stop her from behaving as she does. Meanwhile, you can try to control your own extremes of emotion. Be coolly polite but distant. Don't spend more than a minute or two in her presence. Excuse yourself, and drag your boyfriend with you.

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Cary Tennis

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