You probably agree that it’s a bad idea to bash your ex on a first date. It makes sense that you’re not going to impress your prospective new sweetie with lurid tales of your former boyfriend’s affairs, your ex-wife’s rages or your custody battles during your first hour of face time. But you’re eventually going to have to talk about what went wrong in your previous relationships, and it’s tempting to not always take the high road. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of their date’s sympathetic ear and really dish? We all desire a soft shoulder and soothing voice to say, “He did what? That’s so terrible. I can’t believe you survived! Well, I’d never treat you like that. It’s a good thing you met me when you did.”
The problem is that voice shouldn’t come from your date – at least in the early days of dating. Here are a few reasons why it’s a good idea to tread carefully on the ex report:
1) You’ll make them think you’ll talk about them like that one day
If you call your exes nasty names or bash their core personality traits, you come across as someone who talks about people like that. Your dates can’t help but wonder what venom you’ll be spewing about them when they eventually upset you.
2) You’ll appear as someone who doesn’t take responsibility for what went wrong
It would be refreshing if you said to your date: “I hated the way my ex-wife would fly into rages, but I suppose she was reacting to me withdrawing” or “I wish my ex wouldn’t have cheated, but I see how I’d pushed him away for the last couple of years.” Few people, however, own up to their own behavior. The risk is that we appear like victims who aren’t aware of our roles in perpetuating conflict. Or worse, we’re victims with such little self-respect we stay in terrible relationships for years on end.
3) You’ll make them wonder if you’re looking for “Not Ex”
Past relationships are great teachers in what we want and don’t want in prospective partners. But if you’re looking for the exact opposite of your ex, your dates are going to question if you’re going to love them for all their endearing quirks. So be careful about the way you talk about your “not ex” checklist: You’re looking for a morning person because your ex was a night owl. You’re seeking a gym rat because your ex never exercised. You want a man who likes corn tortillas because you’re sick of your ex ordering flour tortillas. You get the picture.
4) You make them question if you’re over them
Can’t stop talking about what your ex did wrong? You probably don’t seem ready to welcome someone new into your life.
So what can you do? On the other hand, it’s not a good solution to never talk about your ex. Your date will wonder why.
1) Talk about your past relationship in a distant way
I have a friend whose ex who was a moody, punishing jerk who wouldn’t talk to her for days if he got mad. This is a better way to frame her past: “I was in a marriage in which we had different styles of handling conflict.” There’s no ex-trashing in that statement.
2) Make it a lesson
Everyone loves a lesson. If you want to come across as particularly savvy and emotionally evolved, you’ll show how the experience helped you grow and become a better partner. Try this: “I was in a marriage in which we had different styles of handling conflict, and it’s made me realize that I need to air grievances right away rather than let them fester.”
3) Compliment your ex
I once had a date whom I instantly respected after he said, “My ex and I didn’t get along, but I’m grateful that she’s a good mother.” It’s a healthy exercise to identify the positive aspects of past relationships in any case, but you get extra points if you can express them. “I’m grateful to him that we had an amicable divorce” or “I regret that our marriage didn’t work, but I admire how much effort she put into saving it” or “I admire how my ex has become a more involved father since the divorce.”
We all have past relationships in which we’ve been frustrated, hurt, and disappointed. But how we talk about them – and the exes who starred in them – reveals our true character. Use this opportunity to show your date what you’re made of.
How do you talk about your exes?
About the Author:
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate, and Salon.