Clear boundaries with your ex create safe and healthy relationships with everyone involved – you, your kids, your new partner, your ex and your ex’s family and friends.
If you are struggling to set boundaries with your ex post-divorce (or break up), chances are you struggled to set boundaries during the relationship as well. Whether you just separated or have been divorced for years, setting clear boundaries can improve your relationships.
Boundaries provide a physical or emotional space between you and someone else. This space allows for self-expression, self-care, and mutual respect. If boundaries are weak, we risk being taken advantage of, abused, and disrespected. This space is also important so that you can have healthy intimate relationship with a new partner. You must disengage from your ex to free yourself up emotionally and physically for a new partner.
If you have children with your ex, you will continue to be in relationship with him/her for many years as co-parents. This means you probably can’t just cut all ties and never talk to him/her again. Boundaries allow for the right amount of sharing and connectedness.
On the other hand, if boundaries are too rigid you are closed off and disconnected. In this way, setting healthy boundaries allows you to protect yourself from harm and allows you to connect and form satisfying relationships.
Boundaries with your ex need to look different than boundaries when you were in an intimate relationship with this person. Generally, you need to put more space between yourself and your ex. Your ex no longer needs to know about many aspects of your life.
Let’s take a look at what poor boundaries with an ex might look like:
- Allowing your ex to go through your mail, email, or phone
- Fixing his/her leaky faucet, cooking him/her meals, etc.
- Having sex with your ex
- Loaning him/her money when you’re struggling to pay your own bills
- Looking at your ex’s social media posts and photos
- Allowing your ex to use his/her key and let him or herself into your home
- Expecting your ex to cheer you up when you have a bad day
- Trying to get him/her to go to counseling or rehab
- Often feeling upset after contact with him/her
You might be thinking this seems really harsh. I still care about my ex. Of course you do! And that’s a good thing. You can absolutely continue to care about him/her without taking on the responsibility for solving his/her problems, relying on him/her for emotional support, or feeling s/he’s invading your personal space. Boundaries give you choices. I had a client who was separated but still allowing his wife to show up unannounced, look through his refrigerator and comment on what he was feeding their children. He was angry, but didn’t know how to tell her to stop for fear she’d blow up and he’d feel even worse.
If you find yourself resenting your ex, doing things for her out of obligation or guilt, or regretting your decisions, you will need to strengthen your boundaries. The most important thing to remember is that appropriate boundaries really serve both people in the relationship. They set clear expectations for how you want to be treated and what your ex can expect from you in return.
If you are a “nice person” you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. You are sensitive and empathetic, which is awesome. But nice people run the risk of being people pleasers who sacrifice their own happiness or well being for others. This is where being a “nice person” can get you into trouble.
People-pleasers tend to:
- Put others’ needs before their own
- Allow others to take advantage of their kindness
- Avoid conflict
- Take care of others
- Feel guilty when they take care of themselves
- Find it hard to say no
- Do things out of obligation
- Stay in unsatisfying relationships or situations
- Be indecisive
- Minimize their own feelings and needs
- Worry about the future and have a hard time with uncertainty
- Compromise their values if it means people will like them
With any change, I suggest starting small. Changing too much at once can be overwhelming and hard to maintain. I suggest choosing one behavior to change and focus on that. As you begin making changes, your stress and anxiety level will increase. This is normal, but it will not last. As you get used to behaving differently, your anxiety will decrease.
It’s also important to anticipate that your changes will be met with resistance. This is also normal. Relationship dynamics try to maintain the status quo. So, your ex will, at least initially, try to maintain the old relationship patterns. Conflict may ensue. Don’t panic. Conflict is not always bad. In this case it is a reflection of positive changes you are making to take care of yourself.
Stay true to your goals. Remember that healthy boundaries benefit everyone. It is not selfish or mean to set boundaries. You do not have to do things to make your ex happy. You can meet your own needs. The good news is that you can do all of this and still be a nice person. Nice guys and gals are not doomed to finish last.
How to set boundaries with your ex:
- Make a list of the reasons you need to tighten up your boundaries.
- Politely and calmly state your position. This is simply being assertive.
- Detach yourself from your ex’s response. It is OK if s/he is angry, sad, or resistant. You aren’t responsible for his/her feelings.
- Be firm. Restate your position if needed.
- If you are feeling badly about yourself, challenge your negative thoughts to see if they are accurate.
- Seek support from a friend or family member who gets it.
- Reward yourself for working toward positive change.
Setting boundaries with your ex is an important piece of forming a new relationship with him/her. It may be challenging, but I’m certain you will find it worthwhile.
And if you need to strengthen your boundaries, download a copy of Sharon’s workbook Setting Boundaries Without Guilt.