I’ve received dozens of letters to the Psych Central advice column with the same problem: The writer has married a man or woman who is divorced and is upset because the new spouse wants to keep old pictures or items from their former marriage.
For the spouse, these things are reminders of happier days with their ex or with the children they raised together. For the writer, they are a distressing indicator that their partner isn’t truly committed. “If he loved me, he would take those pictures down,” they write. Or, “If she loves me, she will never mention her ex again.”
Stop. Please. When you get together with someone with a past, the past comes with them. No matter how much you wish that you were the first love of his or her life, you’re not. Having a good life together does not and should not require erasing past experiences, memories, and growth, whether good or bad. It’s part of what made the person you love who she or he is.
Dealing with the past together:
The past happened. If you bristle with every mention of it, the issue will quickly become more toxic than it has to be. Now and then, your partner will inevitably comment that something reminds him or her of the former relationship; that they used to visit x or y place; that his ex loved this or disliked that. It’s normal and natural for people to refer to past people and events. Let it go by and it will keep on going. Make an issue of it and it can become the central topic of strained discussion for days. Sure, if it happens a great deal, express your discomfort and ask that your partner keep some of those memories to him or herself. Find a comfortable balance.
Stress the positive.
Remember that the person in your partner’s past was once someone he or she loved. Since your lover is not a total idiot, there must be something about the former wife or sweetheart that was endearing or important at the time. Treat that choice with respect, and you’ll earn more of it for yourself.
Don’t join in a grudge.
If your partner digs up old hurts from the prior relationship, resist the temptation to get angry or upset on your lover’s behalf. It doesn’t help someone get over it. More likely it will stoke the hard feelings. Further, if you do join in the outrage, you may be surprised to find that your partner starts defending the ex. Why? Because he or she is defending the fact that they once made the choice to be with that person. No one likes to be reminded of times they made a mistake or felt stupid. It’s better to acknowledge the feelings, sympathize with how hard it was and shift the conversation to how lucky you both are to have found each other.
This one is tricky. I’ve received letters from spouses complaining that their partner still keeps the ex’s picture on the bedside table or keeps her or his clothes in a drawer. Other writers are upset that their spouse has not disposed of a piece of art work that was a gift from the ex or taken down pictures of children when they were young. They worry that keeping such things means that their partner has not really let go of the prior relationship.
Yes, pictures of the ex should be put away. An ex’s negligee or favorite pipe has no role in your life. But sometimes an object is only an object. A piece of art or the dog that was once a gift may be loved for its own sake. As for pictures of children, don’t go there. Those kids have a longer and deeper relationship with your partner than you have. For better or worse, they are part of your family now. Ask your spouse and the kids to tell you stories about the pictures and you’ll get to know them better.
Encourage family relationships.
People are individuals as well as members of a family. The divorce of a couple doesn’t require the divorce of the extended family. Once people open their hearts to someone, they don’t always find it necessary to shut them out. The ex may be your new mother-in-law’s best friend. Your partner may still like to hang out with his former brother-in-law. If children are involved, they have a right to stay as connected with grandparents and extended family as they always were. Their parents’ divorce is not their fault and they shouldn’t lose the people who love them because of it.
Some families have more difficulty accepting a newcomer than others. Take the high road and be patient. As long as your spouse insists you be treated with respect and boundaries are kept clear, it can work out.
Accept and embrace children from a prior relationship.
Regardless of how old they were when their parents separated, it takes time for children to accept the change in their lives and the entry of a new person. Even if their other parent was terribly abusive, it was life as they knew it and they have complicated feelings about the abuser they depended on.
It’s normal for kids to feel loyal to both their parents, to love them, and to be distrustful of any new relationship the big people get involved with. They will often run hot and cold — friendly and playful one day, with a fierce case of attitude the next. Give them a break. Their lives are more complicated than yours. They often have to change residences regularly and have to deal with multiple and complex family relationships. If they like you, they may feel guilty. If they don’t like you, they may be furious they have to deal with you.
Take that high road. Let the biological parent take the lead on discipline and take your time acting like a parent. If you are loving and understanding, they will probably come around eventually. If you want some good information on how kids respond to divorce, check out Judith Wallerstein’s books.
When people are in love, they tend to gloss over potential problems. Love conquers all, right? Wrong. Love certainly helps. But honoring each other’s pasts and committing to working issues like this through — together — are the key to building lasting relationships.