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Friday, January 8, 2010

Relationships: When Your Boyfriend is Stuck in a Codependent Relationship with His Ex

Codependency and Problems with Letting Go of the Ex Are Not Unusual:
The title of this posting could have easily been "When Your Girlfriend Can't Let Go of Her Ex" or "When Your Husband Can't Let Go of His Ex-wife." You get the picture.

Relationships: When Your Boyfriend is Stuck in a Codependent Relationship with His Ex

As a psychotherapist in NYC who sees individuals and couples with relationship problems, this is a problem that I hear about often: The client is in a relationship with a person who is wonderful in every other way, except that he or she still maintains regular contact with the former romantic partner, which creates problems in the current relationship. Whether it's a heterosexual or gay relationship, it doesn't matter--this can be a thorny issue to contend with and often leads to hurt feelings and, in some cases, the breakup of the current relationship.

When there are Children Involved:
Of course, there are times when this problem is unavoidable--specifically, when there are children involved. If you begin a relationship with someone who has children from a former relationship, you know (although you might not like it) that your partner must talk to his ex about matters relating to the children.

 This is what a responsible parent does, and it requires a good dose of understanding, compassion and patience on your part to deal with this situation. It helps a lot if you feel secure in your relationship and you know that you can trust your partner to maintain appropriate boundaries with his ex, basing his contact solely on the children's welfare without blurring the lines.

 I mention this as almost an aside because this is also a dynamic that I help individuals and couples with in individual psychotherapy and marriage counseling. These are issues that people deal with in blended families, but that's not the focus of this particular posting.

How the Former Relationship Affects the Current Relationship:
The particular dynamic that I'm addressing has more to do with someone who leaves his relationship (where there are no children), enters into a new romantic relationship but, for whatever reason, he finds it extremely difficult to sever his ties with his former girlfriend or wife.

 If you're in a new relationship with someone (whether it's with a boyfriend or a girlfriend) who can't or won't let go of his former partner and it's affecting your relationship, I don't need to tell you that you're in a challenging situation.

 I'm not even talking about situations where there is actual infidelity going on with the former partner. I'm focusing on the situation where your partner still makes and receives calls to his ex, still gets together with her (without you), and where this interferes with your relationship.

I know that there are situations where maintaining contact with ex partners doesn't interfere with the current relationships. I've had clients who divorce, both people remarry and maintain friendships with their ex-husbands and ex-wives.

 Not only is it not a problem, but the couples enjoy going out together, they vacation together, and they value the friendship. The boundaries are clear, and it isn't a problem for anyone.

I'm mostly referring to situations where, for all intents and purposes, the prior romantic relationship has ended, but the two people who were involved decide to try to maintain a friendship. So, for example, in this type of situation, you begin a new relationship and you find that your boyfriend is still very focused on his ex.

 Maybe they've ended the romantic and sexual aspects of their relationship, but (even though they might not admit it) they're still very emotionally dependent upon each other: He still feels that he must have her advice before he makes any major decisions, she still calls him frequently to help her with her problems, and so on. And if it happens frequently enough and it starts to impact your relationship, there you are, feeling left out and, possibly, feeling like you're having an affair with your own boyfriend.

Feelings Don't Always End When the Former Relationship Ends:
Just because two people have broken up doesn't mean that there might not still be strong emotional feelings between them. It's usually better to know about this before you enter a new relationship with someone. Then, you have the option of deciding whether you can handle a relationship with someone who still has strong emotional ties with his or her ex.

As I mentioned earlier, for some people, it's not a problem because there is a recognition that the girlfriend or wife in the new relationship is primary and, usually, when this type of situation works out well, the new girlfriend is included in any plans and it's clear that the former romantic relationship has developed into a real friendship and it's not a threat to the new relationship.

 Anyway, the point is that the end of a relationship doesn't necessarily mean the end of feelings. And if your boyfriend (or girlfriend) is unwilling and/or unable to be clear about whether you or the ex is primary, that's when problems develop.

The following vignette, which is a composite of many clients' stories over the years with all identifying information changed, is an example of the type of problem that I'm addressing:

Susan and John
When Susan met John, he had broken off his relationship with Jane about six months before. Susan and John began dating and they hit it off right away. They both felt a strong romantic connection that was different from anything either of them had experienced before. Their relationship seemed ideal--with the exception of one thing: He still maintained frequent contact with Jane.

Relationships: When Your Boyfriend is Stuck in a Codependent Relationship with His Ex

John was very upfront from the start that he and Jane wanted to remain friends. They had been together for five years, and they still cared about each other, even though they weren't romantic or sexual any more. At first, since everything else seemed to be going so well, Susan told herself that it was admirable that John and Jane were able to maintain a friendship. But, over time, she began to resent John's frequent contact with Jane, especially as it began to interfere with her relationship with John. It seemed that things were not quite what they appeared to be at first. Susan never felt that John was cheating on her, per se. But she sensed that now that Jane knew that John was seeing someone new, Jane called John more frequently and seemed to depend on him more.

Whether it involved household repairs, late night talks about how lonely she felt or about her personal problems or wanting to get together with John (without Susan), more and more, Susan began to feel that Jane was taking up a lot more time than Susan felt comfortable with, and she was resenting it. Susan sensed that Jane still wanted to maintain an emotional hold on John, even though he was in a new relationship, and she sensed something manipulative in the way that Jane played on John's feelings of guilt for having ended the relationship with Jane. She also sensed that, for whatever reason, John was caught up in this dynamic.

When Susan talked to John about this, he responded by trying to reassure Susan that nothing romantic was going on between him and Jane and Susan had nothing to worry about. He seemed unable to see how much time Jane was taking up and how this affected his new relationship with Susan.

For a while, Susan tried to be understanding. She loved John, she trusted him, but she also had a bad feeling about the dynamic between John and Jane. Then, one night, John was staying over with Susan and they were starting to be intimate. It was close to 11 PM when John received a call on his cell phone from Jane. Susan asked John not to take the call, but he gave her a pained look and said that if Jane was calling at this time, it must be important. He asked Susan to be understanding, and he took the call. From her side of the bed, Susan could hear Jane sobbing on the other end. Susan felt the now-familiar anger and resentment welling up in her. John could see that Susan was getting annoyed, but he gave her a helpless shrug, as if to say, "I can't abandon Jane. She needs me" and took the call in the other room.

A half hour later, when John came back into the bedroom, Susan pretended to be sleeping. She felt too hurt and angry to talk to John, and she didn't want to have a late night argument with him. So, they each slept on either side of the bed and feelings were tense the next morning before they each left for work.

This was the situation when Susan and John began coming for couples counseling. Susan felt that she was in a terrible dilemma--she loved John and she knew that he loved her, but she couldn't tolerate how his friendship with Jane was affecting their relationship. For his own reasons, having to do with his history with a dependent mother and his complicated relationship with Jane, John was unwilling to give up his friendship with Jane.

 He loved Susan, he didn't want to hurt her, and he didn't want to ruin the relationship, but he felt tangled in a strong emotional web with Jane, and he said he couldn't let go of his friendship with her or even set limits with her constant emotional demands. He had an intellectual understanding that he was in a dysfunctional and codependent relationship with Jane, but he didn't know what to do.

It was a very sad and painful situation for both Susan and John. John began his own individual psychotherapy to deal with his family history which was a big part of the problem. Over time, he began to see that each time that Jane called in crisis, he felt emotionally triggered in the same way that he felt with his mother who had been overly dependent on him when he was a child. In many ways, John was "primed" for the codependent situation with Jane due to his family history, and this was primarily why he had such a hard time letting go of Jane or even setting limits with her.

As John began to work through those earlier issues, he developed greater awareness and insight into the current situation and realized, on a deep emotional level, that he was caught up in a codependent situation with Jane and it was ruining his relationship with Susan.

Although it was difficult for him, he began setting limits with Jane, letting her know that his relationship with Susan was primary--no more late night crisis calls, no more getting together without Susan, and so on. Jane did not respond well to this type of limit setting and, eventually, she decided to sever her ties with John. Over time, John dealt with the loss of this friendship in his own individual psychotherapy, how it related to his family history and, over time, his relationship with Susan began to thrive again.

It Takes a Commitment from Both People in the Relationship:
This vignette illustrates that couples can work out problems when one or both of them can't let go for a former partner.

 It takes a big commitment from both people, a willingness to work on this issue in couples counseling, an understanding of the underlying psychological dynamics that are often involved in this type of situation beyond the current people involved, a recognition and acknowledgement that the friendship with the ex is having an impact on the current relationship and, ultimately, a commitment to the current relationship as being primary and a recognition that, if the friendship with the ex cannot be modified so that it's not adversely impacting the current relationship, that relationship needs to end.

Unfortunately, not all relationships that have this problem end well. Sometimes, there's just too much unfinished business with the former partner or spouse. Other times, the partner who is maintaining an enmeshed or codependent relationship with the ex refuses to see it for what it is and thinks the current partner is being unreasonable. Sometimes, it just gets too complicated. But it's more likely to work out if you don't wait too long to try to get help.

Getting Help in Therapy: 
If you find yourself in the type of situation that I've described in this posting, whether you're the person with the partner who is stuck in a codependent relationship with your ex or you're in a relationship with someone who can't let go, recognize that you're not alone.

Getting Help in Therapy


This is a phenomenon that often occurs in relationships, and you and your partner could benefit from attending couples counseling. If you're partner or spouse is unwilling to attend couples counseling, you could benefit from seeking help in individual psychotherapy.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with many individuals and couples who have successfully worked through relationship problems.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, you can call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.

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