Girlfriend's ex-boyfriend won't go away

Dear Alice,

What should I do about my girlfriend's ex-boyfriend? Their friendship is getting out of hand. He is consistently telling her how regretful it is for him and he wants her back badly. He would go out of his way to see and to talk to her. This is affecting my relationship. It is affecting my girlfriend emotionally. This has been going on for four years. I met my girlfriend two years after their break up. He is now more persistent than ever.

— Miserable one

Dear Miserable one,

This sounds like a difficult situation for all involved. It can be a wonderful thing when ex-lovers become friends after they break up, but it's not always possible. You say it’s starting to affect your girlfriend emotionally. It could be beneficial to parse out in which ways this is affecting her and whether or not the behavior from her ex is consensual If she does want to continue to have a friendship with her ex, it could be helpful to set some boundaries with her and her ex that might allow you to feel comfortable in your relationship with her. 

It might help to start with some personal reflection. For example, what about his relationship with your girlfriend bothers you? Are you concerned that she’ll leave and go back to him? Do you feel as though your relationship isn’t being respected? Are you concerned that his behavior doesn’t respect her wishes and is violating her sense of safety? Thinking through these questions may frame the approach that you take during a discussion with your girlfriend. 

Here's one way you could structure your conversation: 

  • Let her know what's bothering you: Naming the situation is helpful to ensure that you’re both on the same page. Using "I" statements can signal that you're sharing your own perspectives and seeking to avoid putting the blame on her. For example, “I feel uncomfortable when you share with me the comments your ex-boyfriend makes about wanting to get back together with you.” 
  • Then tell her how the action makes you feel: Sharing how this situation makes you feel allows you an opportunity to express your emotions. One way to do this could be, “I feel as though he doesn’t respect our relationship, and when you continually hang out with him when he does this, it feels as though you don’t care as much about our relationship either.” 
  • Work on some boundaries together: Not only do these include boundaries in the relationship between you and your girlfriend, but it also includes boundaries that are set between your relationship and her ex-boyfriend. Discussing how the boundaries between your girlfriend's ex will be set can help you get a better understanding of how your girlfriend is willing to navigate through this, too. Additionally, you can discuss how you will move forward if those boundaries are violated. One example of a boundary may include your girlfriend continuing to spend time with her ex, but telling the ex-boyfriend that he needs to stop making those types of comments to your girlfriend. 

You may choose not to use these exact words—you can use whatever language feels most comfortable for you and what feels most relevant to your experience. Having notes when it's time for the conversation may also help you both stay on track, especially given the emotions linked to the topic. 

If the situation is emotionally affecting your girlfriend because she doesn’t want her ex to be contacting her in this way, it may be worth setting firmer boundaries with the ex-boyfriend. If he isn’t abiding by the agreed-upon boundaries and he’s continuing to go out of his way to see her and talk to your girlfriend, this could be considered stalking. Your girlfriend may consider taking note of the boundaries she and her ex agree to as well as documenting if he violates them. This will serve as evidence if your girlfriend seeks to get an order of protection. This is an order from the courts to stop a person continuing to act violently or harass. 

You may also find it helpful to talk your concerns out with a mental health professional beforehand. When speaking with your girlfriend, it may even take a few conversations to come up with a solution that works for both of you. You may also find that you aren't able to come to an agreement if your girlfriend isn't willing to set boundaries with her ex-boyfriend. In that case, you may want to think about how this relationship is meeting your needs and if continuing it will be fulfilling for you. Difficult conversations are, as the descriptor implies, potentially difficult. Despite the challenge, these conversations often help people get on the same page about an issue and enable both to focus on a solution. 

Best of luck to you as you open the doors of communication, 

Last updated Jul 28, 2023
Originally published Nov 30, 1993