After our divorce, while we each dated other people, my ex and I still did holidays together, went to the theatre together, and had family dinners together. After all we’d been through we were now close, and as he began to date I took on the awkward yet esteemed role of First Wife.
I’d befriend his girlfriends. Partly because it seemed easier; we could all just be a family, and it would be less complicated for our son. Or at least that's what I told myself. But the truth was that I couldn’t let go. I didn’t want to lose my spot as the primary woman in my ex’s life. We’d spent 10 years together, and I barely had an identity outside of him.
Ultimately it was a power-play based on my own insecurities. I was pissing on my territory, and my ex was my territory.
But when my ex started dating the woman he’s now married to, that all changed. We'd all been friends for a while, so knew what I was up to. She immediately set very clear boundaries and firmly (and rightly) pushed me off my perch. Ultimately I knew that this rearrangement of status was perfectly appropriate, but I also had a LOT of feelings about it.
Being moved out of my position as First Wife gave rise to new layers of grief I’d never anticipated.
While my ex and I had been divorced for about 6 years, he was still my “person.” He was my emergency contact on all my medical forms, and I was his. We each still has “ICE” (In Case of Emergency) next to each other’s names in our phones. We still shared the private jokes we’d shared for over 15 years. When he got tickets to a show he knew I loved, he’d take me, even if he had a girlfriend, and I'd go, regardless of my relationship status.
But when he got engaged that slowly began to change. He stopped texting me with our inside jokes, and when I’d send him one, he’d respond halfheartedly. We no longer had family dinners, and I was no longer his date to our favorite shows.
It hit me hardest the first time I saw “ICE” next to his fiancée’s name in his phone.
Over time, I’ve adjusted to the new way of things, and now I’ve had the experience of being the “other woman” to come in and usurp someone else’s status, and that’s not an easy position to be in either.
As my last relationship grew and progressed, I noticed that my (now ex-) boyfriend’s wife was still his first call, and she his. Sometimes that was totally appropriate (like, when it had to do with their daughter), but sometimes it made me feel as if there wasn’t a place for me in his life. If any time something major happened in his life, he called her first, where did that leave me? We had some really hard conversations about this, as I expressed my need to be primary, and he worked to shift his relationship with his ex. I had great compassion for how hard the transition was for both of them as I had been on the other side of this a few years beforehand.
Divorce is a living, breathing entity, with numerous transitions occurring throughout its lifespan. How you make these transitions is what’s key. Here are some tips to help ease the tension as it happens, whether you're the new girlfriend, the one with the ex, or the ex:
Talk about it. The best thing you can do is to name what’s going on with your ex and/or your new partner. Often we enter into transitions and don’t ever talk about how they’re affecting us, and this whistling past the graveyard is often detrimental to the transition process. If your new partner also has an ex and kids, this conversation will be a lot easier as s/he will likely relate to all of this. If you're dating someone who has no kids, take the time to explain dynamics they have no experience with. They may understand, but they never fully get the complexities.
Allow time to transition. No one gets this "right" the first time, so allow some time for the transition to occur, and know that everyone will get it “wrong” a few times. If you’re the new girlfriend, have compassion for how this transition is affecting your partner, as well his ex. There are bound to be feelings about it, and that’s ok. Try not to be jealous or take it personally.
Talk about it some more. This is not a one-and-done. Difficult conversations and acute transitions take time and lots of care. If something feels “off” communicate about it clearly. Keep it in “I” language, don’t blame, and be open to hearing your partner out.
Allow the space for grief. No matter what side of this you’re on, there will be grief. Grief cripples us when we blow past it. Allow yourself to cry; it doesn’t mean that you’re still in love with or want to be with your ex, it just means that you’re grieving another layer of loss. It’s normal. You don’t have to involve your ex in that process, but you may want to share your feelings with your new partner. This kind of vulnerability grows intimacy, and if he’s gonna be your new “person” this will be key.
Remember, you’re tethered to your ex by your children for as long as you're on this planet. As much as you grow and change over the course of one lifetime, so will your relationship with your ex. This will also be true of anyone you date who was also once married and now has children. How you navigate all of this will be the difference between success and failure.