It seems that nobody I know is good at setting boundaries in relationships, present or past. When it comes to dating, the effects of this can wreak havoc on social circles, because if you date within your social group, and then break up within your social group, and then remain in your social group, not much else but chaos—internal and external alike—can ensue.
Just last week, a friend was lamenting to me about how her ex asked if it would be okay to visit her at a work event mutual friends were attending, and she felt pressured into saying yes “to be nice.” And that, one pro says, is exactly the problem. “You’ve just addressed the major problem most of us have in setting boundaries; we want to be nice,” says relationship expert Susan Winter. “And while that’s a beautiful sentiment, whenever we break our boundaries for the benefit of another, it’s done at our direct expense. Bottom line: This form of ‘being nice’ makes us miserable.”
Still, setting boundaries in relationships with exes—and everyone else in your life—is tough because of things like social media, mutual friends, and, often, geography. So how do you deal? Winter shares a few ideas below.
1. Setting boundaries in relationships with exes
Pro tip: You don’t have to be rude about it. The best way to approach this is by setting guidelines early and upfront. That’s easier said then done, of course. (Not all of us schedule our breakups in our Google Calendars as if they were board meetings). Still, if you can define your boundaries when the breakup is fresh, that’s the best course of action.
“It’s important to make an initial statement of intention that lets your ex know you’d like to remain cordial, but that you need time and space for complete closure,” Winter says. It may be emotionally hard and painful, but doing it now instead of later makes backpedaling easier to resist for both parties. Because even if you’re solid on your intentions, without boundaries in place, your ex may misinterpret every instance of seeing you as a free invitation to get back into your life. “If they become bothersome, explain that you no longer feel a connection and to pretend otherwise would be a disservice to them,” says Winter.
2. Setting boundaries with a new partner who’s insecure about your ex
Great news: You’re in a happy, and healthy relationship! Less great news: Your partner isn’t stoked that you have semi-regular contact with your ex. Your new S.O. may not be controlling about it by any means; there’s just a level of discomfort for them in knowing that you ex joining you for group happy hours. If this is the case, it’s definitely worth having a bigger dialogue.
“Ask your partner what aspects of seeing your ex bothers them the most,” Winter says. “Have your new mate be very specific. For example: ‘I don’t like it when you stay out late with him/her. It makes me uncomfortable. I trust you. I don’t trust them.’ Then ask yourself, ‘Is my new partner’s request reasonable?’ If yes, agree to certain amended behavior. If not, either negotiate a middle ground or set boundaries with your new partner.”
3. Setting boundaries in relationships with mutual friends
Unless your ex did something especially unforgivable, you might not want to go in guns a-blazing about how your friend needs to pick a side. Whether the mutual friend stays friends with your ex in addition to you isn’t something you can (or should try to) really control, but you can moderate your own behavior.
To that end, depending on how you feel, be selective and mindful about your RSVPs. Feel free to ask others whether the dreaded ex is going to be somewhere so you can be informed in your own choices while still respecting those of your friends. Then, prioritize your social calendar from there. For example, maybe you don’t want to skip your college bestie’s wedding just because Pulp Fiction Poster Matt is going to be there—but you maybe you do skip the celebratory engagement drinks.
“Pick and choose only those events which are truly enjoyable, and create the least amount of friction for your current relationship,” Winter says.
4. Setting boundaries with, um, yourself
Whether you still have residual feelings or you’re 110 percent over it, this is the most important boundary you have to maintain—and the only one that you’re in control of.
Winter suggests a simple two-step, terse response to exes for preservation of personal boundaries: acknowledge their presence, and be brief.
“You could nod your head, or smile,” she says. “You then have the option to either keep moving, or say hello. Now that you’ve politely acknowledged their presence, continue what you were doing previously.” And if that doesn’t work, well, there’s always the option to move far, far away.
Does your S.O. get super weird about pictures of your ex lurking in your Instagram account? Here’s how to reckon with that part of your past. And this is what to consider if you want to attempt a friendship with an ex.
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