So Your Partner Has Unhealthy Boundaries With Their Ex-Wife (or Husband)

a man on his phone with his ex-wife while his spouse looks on

“HELP! My partner’s ex is ruining my relationship.” I’ve heard that cry for help more than once for clients who are desperate to get their partner’s old relationship out of their current one. Although unhealthy boundaries (otherwise known as a lack of actual boundaries) happen most often when one member of the ex-couple is not re-partnered, making them more co-dependent, unhealthy boundaries with the ex-wife can happen to anyone.

What Unhealthy Boundaries with an Ex-Wife (or Husband) Look Like

While unhealthy boundaries can also be boundaries that are impossible and inappropriate to enforce, such as the ex refusing to let dad have his phone call when you’re in the house or demanding your stepson not speak to you, more often than not the unhealthy boundaries are the nonexistent ones.

A lack of boundaries, or a set of incredibly unhealthy habits being exhibited by the ex —allowed by your partner — can include:

  • Incessant daily phone calls
  • Showing up to your house unannounced
  • Overreaching and trying to control what goes on in your home
  • Making last minute change to the custody schedule
  • Dictating what or how your involvement with your stepkids looks
  • Seeking advice or favors from your partner that are unrelated to their kids
  • Talking about their personal lives
  • Any of these sound familiar? If so, keep reading.

You might be worried that your partner’s unhealthy boundaries with their ex might be a symptom of a longing for what they left behind. But that’s rarely true. Your partner probably just finds it easier to “keep the peace” or “go with the flow” by complying. After all, that might be how they survived before you came along. Sometimes being controlled feels normal and easier when it’s how you’ve been functioning.

What percentage of divorced couples actually get back together?

The research says (although there’s not a lot of it) that only around 6% of couples who have divorced actually end up reuniting. So although your partner’s ex having a total lack of respect for boundaries can be incredibly damaging to your relationship, it likely won’t lead to their reconciliation.

The common denominators behind unhealthy boundaries between exes are:

  • One person is still too attached to let go of an aspect of the relationship, whether because they still want to be in the relationship or are simply too complacent and uncomfortable to figure out a new way.
  • The other person carries too much guilt or avoids conflict too much to put real and healthy boundaries in place.
  • How do you keep the ex-wife out of your relationship?

If you’re a stepmom, that unfortunately means your partner shares kids with their ex. That also means you’re kind of tied to him or her for life. But just because you can’t keep the ex out of your life, doesn’t mean you can’t keep them out of your relationship with your partner.

To do this, you need to communicate your needs to your partner, clearly state your limits, and set real, healthy boundaries you both commit to enforcing.

What are healthy boundaries?

I talk a little bit more in-depth about boundaries, what they are, and how to set them here, but let’s do the down-and-dirty short version now. In essence, boundaries are limits you set to protect yourself and your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Boundaries look different for everyone, and they are fully within our own control to set and enforce.

Some examples of healthy boundaries include:

  • Not accepting verbal abuse.
  • Not having the capacity to do someone a favor.
  • Not wanting to spend hours of your day talking about the ex.
  • Not wanting to attend an event that makes you feel uncomfortable.
  • Preferring not to have the high-conflict ex in your home.

You can enforce these boundaries by:

  • Hanging up a phone or blocking the number.
  • Saying “no.”
  • Setting a timer.
  • Leaving a room.
  • Not attending an event.
  • Meeting the ex at a neutral location or outside of your home.

How do you establish boundaries with the ex?

When it comes right down to it, we have to take responsibility for the treatment we tolerate. Boundaries help with that, because they are completely within our control to enforce. When the unhealthy boundary involves your partner, the first step you need to take is to align with your partner about:

  • What crosses YOUR boundaries and why those things make you feel triggered or unsafe.
  • How they feel about the existing boundary — or lack thereof.
  • Why things are the way they are currently and whether they think it’s working well.
  • What actions they can take to help you feel better about the situation.
  • How you can both move forward in a way that honors each of your own personal values and beliefs.
  • Set boundaries you both agree on.
  • Set your own boundaries as an extra precaution.

That last one above is particularly important. Because above all, we cannot control what anyone else does. Our partners might agree to something, but in the moment they might make a different decision that honors their own values, safety, and comfort zone. If and when that contradicts yours, you need to have your own separate boundary in place so you can have full control over protecting yourself.

I know dealing with unhealthy boundaries with the ex can be one of the most stress-inducing parts of being a stepmom. But I also want you to remind yourself that your partner loves you, so even when they do or don’t do what you would — or what you want them to do — try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Ask yourself “why did they feel like they needed to” instead of “how could they.” Empathy always gets us farther than anger.

This is all MUCH easier said than done, and you don’t have to go at it alone. If you need help with unhealthy boundaries with the ex-wife (or husband), join me inside the Stepfamily Circle membership, where you’ll access regular coaching and tools each month.