During my last relationship, I was friends with my previous ex. My partner knew about our friendship — not because it was this huge thing I had to confess to him, but because it would have been weird to hide it. I told him as much about my ex as I told him about my other friends, which didn’t include every text conversation we had but did include when we hung out. Since I talked about my ex like any other friend, my partner didn’t blink an eye over it.
For some people, though, the decision of what to reveal to your partner about your ex is more complicated. Nicole, a 20-year-old student in England, for instance, works with her ex. “My current boyfriend often asks me what happens during my work day, so I tell him conversations I have with my ex,” she says. “I don’t really need to, but I like to show that I am unbothered by him.”
When telling pays off
Sometimes, telling your partner about your ex can benefit all parties. Nikki, a 21-year-old retail manager in Shelton, CT, told her now-husband about her ex when he got in touch with her a year into her next relationship, and it led the three of them to become friends.
“I was upfront with my husband, saying, ‘Hey, this person popped back in my life. Nothing will come of it, but out of common courtesy, I’m letting you know,’” she remembers. “He was cool with it but a little hesitant to know how to feel. But after a while, he joined in a Skype call when he felt comfortable, and now, they’re actually really good friends. They play video games pretty often together.”
While the outcome may not always be this positive, experts recommend that you tell your partner if you’re still friends with your ex and work through any problems that triggers together. “Insecurity is at its most toxic in a relationship when it is suppressed, repressed, dissociated, or denied,” says psychologist Mark Borg Jr., Ph.D. Talking about your ex sends the message that “your love, care, and affection do not need to be sheltered from actual real-life circumstances,” he explains.
But before you bring up an ex, Darnell recommends preparing yourself for any emotions that might arise on either person’s part. “If you aren’t resourced enough to manage the emotions that come with hearing about each other’s experiences, avoid it until you have the resources to discuss it from a place of generous listening and compassion, not judgment and blame,” she advises.
In the case that they are open to the conversation, talking to your partner about your relationships with your exes can help the two of you learn about each other, says Borg. “As you build a sense of security together, you can know more about what you’ve gone through [on the path] to reach each other,” he says.
When you don’t need to tell
Mollie, a 23-year-old student in Manchester, England, decided not to clue her partner in when an ex SnapChatted her a flirtatious joke about a revealing Instagram photo she posted. “I just didn’t tell him that because, although me and that ex are friends, he lives in Singapore, and he’s generally not that important to my life,” she says.
Experts agree that sometimes, telling your partner about an interaction with an ex can do more harm than good. “Only disclose as much information as they can handle,” says relationship therapist Cyndi Darnell. “Sometimes, people ask for TMI not because they’re curious, but because they’re anxious. This can set them off on a spiral of shame, fear, anxiety, and so many other unhelpful feelings.”
Before deciding to hide an interaction with an ex with your partner, though, you should consider what would happen if they were to find out on their own. Most likely, your partner’s feelings will be stronger and harder to deal with than if they heard it straight from the source, says Borg.
How much do you need to share?
“I don’t tell my partner every time [my ex and I] talk, but I have told them about the fact that we do still converse,” says Amber, a 20-year-old preschool teacher in South Carolina. “I think the fact that we are so far removed and both in relationships helps make it not so awkward for my current partner. Also, I think my partner understands that we went through a lot together and can’t ignore that.”
This is generally in line with what experts recommend. Borg says you should share “as much as you can offer to help your partner and you to build a sense of trust and security into your relationship.”
A lot of it comes down to keeping your partner in the know about your life, which your ex is just a part of. “Your partner should know who you confide in and who your friends are,” says Adina Mahalli, MSW, relationship expert and mental health consultant. “If you are sharing your life with someone, you should share current people you are in communication with.”
However, that doesn’t mean you need to disclose every little interaction. “It’s not necessary to tell your partner every time you bump into someone you slept with,” says Mahalli. “Not because you are hiding it from them, but because constantly telling them about people you were previously with can be upsetting to them.”
What if they respond badly?
Learning about a partner’s relationship with an ex can trigger feelings of jealousy or insecurity. However, those feelings are not an excuse for your partner to act controlling. “Traditionally, this kind of information has been heavily biased against women and used to shame and control them,” says Darnell.
Even if your friendship with your ex makes your partner uncomfortable, you’re not responsible for their feelings. You can try to come to an agreement that can help put their worries at ease, but ultimately, it’s not their right to tell you who you can and can’t be friends with.
Instead, try to help them figure out why they’re feeling the way they’re feeling. “The strongest, best relationships are not the ones where we avoid conflict but the ones where we use each rupture as an opportunity to repair,” says Borg. “’Bad’ reactions are part of the rupture that can lead to more solid and enduring repair.”
Once you figure out where your partner’s concerns lie, you can discuss a compromise that addresses them without forcing you to give up a relationship that’s important to you. Make sure both people are open to making concessions instead of just one. “Compromises can only be sustainable when they’re willingly agreed upon,” says Darnell.
If your partner has trouble with this news, you can remind them that you’ve chosen not to be with your ex anymore — but you have chosen to be with them. As Amber puts it, “I think my partner understands that I wouldn’t be with them if I still had romantic feelings for my exes. So, we have enough trust that I don’t feel I need to say everything about my interactions with my exes, nor do I need to keep secrets about the fact that I still interact with them.”