Exes aren't usually anyone's favorite topic of conversation in a relationship, but talking about them can sometimes be important, especially if there are details that your current partner needs to know, or, say, the two of you are co-parenting your children. In situations like that, of course, just because you're no longer together doesn't mean that you don't still have a relationship. Those conversations, in which you discuss your respective exes, can actually give you more insight than you might think. There are some interesting things you can learn about your partner from how they talk about their exes too, it's not necessarily all about the exes themselves or the things that went on between the two of them.
"While history tends to be a good predictor of the future, we can't always indict a person on the basis of their past," Dr. Ramani Durvasula, PhD, a clinical psychologist, psychology professor, and the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Narcissistic Relationship, tells Romper in an email exchange. "However, we can learn a lot about a partner based not just on how they talked about their ex, but also how they reflect on what they learned from that relationship. They may have had a mess of a relationship, but if your partner is able to talk about their vulnerabilities or the reasons they got into the situation, that may also provide insight into their chops for moving forward into something healthier. Our histories shape us, but they do not define us!"
It's important to remember that their history doesn't necessarily dictate their future when in the midst of a discussion with your partner about their ex (or exes) and not read too much into some things, but it's also worth considering how the way the conversation goes can tell you some things about your partner that they might not even realize they're disclosing, based on what's being said. You might end up learning even more from conversations like these than you thought you would.
1. How They Handle Disagreements
It's not always going to be all their fault, but if they're always the victim in conversations about their exes, that's something of which you definitely want to take notice, because they shouldn't always be the victim of something either. "It is important to observe if they creating a victim mentality by placing blame on the ex or if they are able to recognize that regardless they had a part in the relationship issues too," Carla Romo, a dating and relationship coach, tells Romper by email. Romo says it's a red flag if they're always the victim.
2. If They've Moved On
You might think you already have a good idea about how much your partner has moved past relationships with exes, but paying attention to the way that they talk about them might give you some additional insight. "If your partner brings up [their] past relationship frequently or uses their ex as a measuring stick, then it’s a possibility that they haven’t quite moved on," Weena Cullins, LCMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship expert, tells Romper in an email exchange. "This is a red flag because your partner may not be able to see you for who you truly are without measuring you against someone from their past."
Not only that, but if they seem to hate their ex, that too could be a sign that things aren't as far behind them as you'd think. "Are they talking about them with disgust or hostility? Are they using foul language which is cutting and mean to describe them? If so, this is a red flag because this means that they are: one, still harboring feelings (the opposite of love is not hate, it's apathy and hate is a strong emotion still linking them to their ex which is dangerous) and two, they don't respect them enough to use their words carefully and kindly," Deborah Duley, MSW, LGSW, a therapist and the owner of Empowered Connections, LLC, tells Romper in an email exchange. "This gives you some insight into the kind of person they are because it's a demonstration of how far removed they are from this relationship. Imagine having an argument with this person and how they could treat you!"
3. If They're Able To Take Responsibility For Mistakes
Of course, if they were always the victim in the relationship with their ex, it's probably likely that they weren't able (and still might not be) to take responsibility for their part in what happened between the two of them. "The person who has done their work and learned from relationships can own their part in why things tanked, and can tell you how they have changed," psychologist Dr. Lisa Vallejos, PhD, the author of Shattered: How Everything Came Together When It All Fell Apart, tells Romper in an email exchange. "A person who has learned from their relationships can honestly evaluate their partners, themselves and the dynamics in order to create healthier relationships going froward. The person who blames the other person for everything and can't assess how they were a part of things is a person who can't self-reflect and change. You will likely be the next 'crazy ex' who is to blame for everything."
No one is perfect, but you want your partner to be able to own up to their mistakes.
4. How They Deal With Ending Relationships
"Are they still friends? Do they still talk? Was there a 'kind' cutoff or another type? All of this may speak to how your partner might handle the end of your relationship," Marc Zola, LMFT, LPC, a couples therapist and founder of Eugene Therapy and Oregon Counseling, tells Romper via email.
Just because they handled a past breakup extremely poorly doesn't necessarily mean that they would act that way again, but, particularly if the situation was scary or violent, that's something that you need to pay attention to. Seeking out the help of a qualified professional, if need be, might help you sort through things and determine how you might want (or need) to proceed.
Likewise, just because they're friends with an ex doesn't mean that they'll expect that you two will stay friends if your relationship ends, necessarily, but knowing what they've done in the past can give you an idea of what you might expect.
5. The Things They Think Are Deal Breakers
It's not uncommon for people to have relationship deal breakers, but, ideally, you'd probably like to know what those are before they inadvertently become an issue in your relationship or recognize if their deal breakers are things that are deal breakers for you too, like if not having kids is a deal breaker for them, while having kids is one for you.
"Listening to your partner discuss the reasons their previous relationships didn’t work out can teach you a great deal about their likes, dislikes, and boundaries," says Cullins. "Knowing this information can also help you determine how compatible the two of you are. If you learn that you engage in a behavior that has been a deal breaker for your partner in the past then you have time to decide if it’s worth giving up or talking about with them to avoid an uncomfortable situation down the road."
6. Your Partner's Traits & Personality
"[I]t may give you insight into how they resolve conflict, or may even give you some insight into your partner's resilience," Durvasula says. "For example the ex may have been a difficult narcissistic partner —and your partner may have come out of it stronger and not resentful — that speaks volumes about your partner's resilience. It may also give you insight into tender zones that you may want to steer clear of (if they keep bringing up themes from their relationship that were an issue, you may be able to preemptively steer the ship away from those topics or at least be sensitive to them)."
Knowing if your partner addresses conflict head-on or shies away, at least at first, can, of course help you navigate conflict resolution in your own relationship. Not only that, but knowing that they're resilient can tell you how things might go when they face obstacles moving forward.
7. Times Your Partner Felt Unnoticed Or Uncared For In Their Past Relationships
"Your partner may insert their ex casually in some of your more private moments," Chelsea Leigh Trescott, host of the podcast, Thank You Heartbreak, and breakup coach, tells Romper via email. "The irony may be a bit startling. For example, you may be holding hands and jamming out in the car together. When the song stops, your partner may mention how their ex could never let go and be playful like you can be. This is a compliment but can also feel oddly timed. If you don’t have compassion from where this comment is coming from, you may even feel like it’s robbing you of a precious moment that you just had together. You could even become jealous, wrongly assuming that they are still caught up with, in love with, and have a preference for their ex. The truth is though, these kind of sidebar comments are innocent. If you pay attention, they’ll tell you a lot about the moments where your partner felt small or unseen, overlooked, unloved, and even lonely. Not only that, it will show you where and how your partner wants to be loved."
Knowing where your partner's ex let them down in these somewhat-subtle ways can help prevent you from making the same mistakes, but also, more importantly, help you to be a better partner for them and address the things that the need from a relationship and a partner.
8. If They Can See The Positives In Other People
It can sometimes be hard to see the good in people who have hurt you in the past, even if you've moved forward. You know they didn't treat you well, and while you might not hate them for the way things went, you might not be ready to acknowledge that they were pretty great in some ways, either. That being said, if your partner is able to say kind things about an ex, that can be a good sign.
"If your partner speaks highly of an ex, it’s a positive sign that they can separate out and hold on to positive pieces of their experience despite the fact that the relationship didn’t work out overall," Cullins says. "This objectivity can be an asset in your current relationship since most couples encounter tough times along their journey. Your partner may be able to remain positive in the face of a challenge, or keep a good image of your character despite the circumstances you face."
So while they might not be best friends with their ex, the way that they talk about them might be able to give you clues about your own relationship future. There are no guarantees, of course, but learning how they've handled things in the past, as well as how far they've come since, might help you determine what you should expect and just maybe bring you two a bit closer together, as well.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.