In a previous article, I covered the potential for infidelity with previous spouses and significant others. We noted that some divorced couples may need to maintain a working relationship if children are involved, and that contact between some former spouses without children may be required due to social or professional obligations. In still other cases, former spouses manage to maintain cordial, even affectionate but distanced friendships with one another.
If you marry someone who maintains a friendship with a former spouse or significant other, it's important to understand the full nature of these relationships so that appropriate expectations about them are set. If your spouse has child-raising responsibilities, you should come to an understanding of what this means before you marry. Similarly, you also should discuss and resolve how you and your spouse-to-be will deal with contact an ex- in the workplace.
But what about instances when there are no other ties between your spouse and a former partner except the past relationship?
In some cases, this can be harmless. The ex-partners have shared experiences, may know or understand each other on some level, come from the same country or culture, and choose to remain friends or confidentes.
This may be more common today than in the past. Today there is far more informality, fluidity and nuance in the way men and women meet, mix and mate. Partners often meet as part of social groups or friendship circles and both may return to the same group after a relationship runs its course. Friends morph into lovers and back into friends again.
While marriage (or living together) is still the bright line denoting an exclusive, monogamous relationship, younger people are more likely to carry active friendships with former lovers into married life. In most cases involving responsible adults, this too can be harmless.
I make that claim with a few caveats. It's only likely to remain harmless provided the new spouse is both aware of the past relationship and comfortable with it, there are no obvious 'sparks' between the former couple, and the old partner-turned-friend has no designs on his now-married former partner. Infidelity risk is further reduced if the partner-turned-friend finds a new mate of his or her own.
These sorts of friendships can be maintained at whatever level of activity the primary couple is comfortable with. But boundaries must be set in terms of the amount of time devoted to such a relationship, lest it become interfering, competitiveness, or worse, a threat. It must be clear to former spouses and partners that the new marriage (or household) has primacy.
So when do such relationships present an infidelity threat?
Under certain circumstances, these types of friends can become a threat. Now before you panic, take a good look at the ex-partner-turned-friend. For instance, has this person remarried or become involved with someone else? Does he or she seem happy in that relationship?
While I do not want to over-generalize, an ex-spouse from a long-ago marriage who has re-married and is expecting a third child should present a significantly lower threat than may a single ex- who still has strong feelings for your spouse.
Also, take a good look at the nature of the friendship between your spouse and his or her ex-. Look specifically at the tone and character of contact and interaction for indications of the potential for sparks to fly. You should be satisfied if dealings between them are always in the open, especially if you are included and nothing about them is secret or hidden.
This is not a call to drop your guard or to be naïve. Pay close attention to the frequency of contact, which should be limited to what is appropriate for any other friendship and must comfortable for you. Again, your relationship must in every aspect take primacy over any friendships.
In addition, as I've recommended in past articles, know your spouse's relationship history. Multiple previous partners or marriages, even if infidelity was involved, are not necessarily iron-clad indicators of future extra-marital behavior.
Some people learn from mistakes, grow up or finally find the right person with who to settle down. But a pattern of make-up-and-break-up relationships without any other indications of growth or change may spell trouble.
What does it mean if the friendship exists because one or both still have strong feelings for each other?
If your spouse's ex- is still in love with your spouse, then any friendship between them is clearly inappropriate until this is no longer the case. Even if your spouse does not reciprocate the affection, it is self to receive attention he or she has no intention of returning, especially when your affection and attention should be enough for your spouse.
Perhaps your spouse is simply too weak to disappoint the old partner by terminating contact or perhaps he or she enjoys the flattery and attention. But holding out hope in such a fashion prevails the ex- from moving on and may increase the his or her desire for a reconciliation.
Another reason for keeping an ex- on the hook with passive attention is that your spouse sees this person as an alternative if things do not work out between the two of you. This is not only cruel, but substantially dishonest. It means your spouse has made a provisional commitment to you and is using the ex- as some sort of consensus prize should your relationship fail.
One final reason for a temporary relationship may be that your spouse is still in love with his or her ex-. There may be several clues to this. Who ended the prior relationship, and why? Was infidelity involved, and if so, by which partner? How long ago did the relationship end?
Further, did you meet your spouse while he or she was still pining for the old partner? Does your spouse speak far too often or too fondly of the previous partner? Does the name of the ex-spouse come up during disagreements or in comparison to you?
If the ex-spouse in question does not share this affection for your spouse, then your spouse must make a decision between the ex- and you. It is clearly a form of infidelity to love someone outside your marriage, even if this person does not return the love.
In the worst case, the friendship is either an acknowledged or unspoken cover for the strong feelings of both ex-spouses toward one another. One or both may be in denounce about the true nature of the friendship. One or both may feel a mistake was made when they parted, but feel conflicted about honoring obligations to a new relationship (s).
In all but the details, this kind of friendship is an affair and should be abandoned or terminated immediately. While friendships with ex-spouses and partners may be enriching and unthreatening, you deserve more than marriage to a person who is still 'involved' in another relationship.