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Some Tips on Handling That Possessive Former Husband or Lover

August 03, 1989|JUDITH SILLS

There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but there appear to be considerably fewer techniques for getting your lover to leave you. Sometimes your ex, the man you think of as firmly in your past, keeps intruding on your present.

Perhaps he keeps calling you, pouring out his loneliness, his pain. He wants to discuss the relationship endlessly. You feel compassionate and maybe a little bit guilty. You try to cut the conversations short, but he won't let you go. And he won't stop calling.

Or, he has moved out, but he still acts as if your home is his. He drops by unexpectedly, lingers when he brings the kids back. Only outright rudeness can dislodge him.

Some men hang on by doing you favors. Somehow, he's still picking your car up at the shop or volunteering to straighten out your taxes. Somehow these kindnesses end up including dinner or a movie. You think you've told him clearly that the relationship is over. He says, "Yes, dear," and goes right on acting as if nothing has changed.

Of course, the worst case is the man who stays around to vent his anger. This man may call to criticize you, may bang on the door if you refuse to receive him. He makes scenes, insults you, even threatens you. He can be a frightening presence in your life.

What's the problem? Why won't these men let go? In most situations, an ex who hangs on is a man who does not understand or will not accept the limits of the new relationship. Your role is to define those limits, loudly, clearly and firmly.

There are three possible problems with limit-setting which may create a situation where your ex-lover won't leave you alone:

You haven't set any clear limits. Maybe you have mixed feelings about letting go, so you make it possible for him to hang on.

You have set limits, but he misunderstands the new rules.

He deliberately, probably angrily, flouts the limits you've set.

You haven't set limits. On the one hand, you think you have made it clear that you are no longer a couple. On the other hand, you don't want to let go completely. Doesn't it seem reasonable that the two of you remain friends?

Yes, it does, depending upon what role this friend plays in your life and what role you are expected to play in his. When this relationship begins to interfere with new relationships you might form, or with your peace of mind, you will have to set a much firmer limit.

A man who continues to do you favors is a man who is still involved with your life. Eventually, he may be a man who wants to know where you were last night. If you continue to accept his help, you continue to receive his love. What are you willing to give back or give up in exchange?

When you make a break, you have to give up the benefits of the relationship. It's tough, because you may be totally on your own and it's tempting to be taken care of--even by a man you've decided to let go. It's tough on him too, because he is less likely to move on to a new woman while he is still focused on you. For some of us, that hold is an unconscious motivator. We don't want him but a small part of us doesn't want anyone else to have him either. So we keep control by letting him hang on.

The solution is to bite the bullet and say no to the favors. It's a short-term inconvenience in order to allow both of you to move on with your lives.

When the situation is reversed, and he is the one asking you for some attention, limit-setting may be even more difficult. After all, you rejected him. Aren't you at least obligated to take his phone calls or continue to advise him on his wardrobe? Perhaps--up to a point. That point is reached when his requests feel uncomfortable, intrusive or burdensome to you. Then it is time to say a firm, clear, albeit gentle "no." You might say, "I understand that you are hurting, but I'm not the right person to discuss this with," or, "I'm not comfortable helping you in this way anymore." You might even have to say, "Please don't call me anymore. I don't think it's good for either of us."

Limit-setting is difficult because it forces you to make a choice when you probably have mixed feelings. But only a clear choice will allow you both to move on.

You have a misunderstanding about the limits. This is most often the case when you have children and are therefore required to have an ongoing relationship. You both wish that relationship would be an amiable one, but you might easily have different expectations of what is proper ex-husband behavior. His vaguely possessive air, as if you are still his wife or this is still his home, may infuriate you. It feels as if he is deliberately intrusive. Maybe he is.

But maybe this is just his version of cordiality. When he picks up the kids or calls you to discuss a problem, he has a difficult psychological task. He has to behave in an old familiar situation in some new, unfamiliar way. Without some guidance, he is likely to fail miserably.

Instead of being instantly antagonistic, you might try helping him figure out a new way to act. You have to clarify your expectations, let him know what you are comfortable with. Find out what his needs are too, and what would make his visits easier on him.

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