Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend is divorced and the relationship with the ex is contentious and bumpy. I struggle when I hear the things he has to go through; I can’t imagine how he feels. I am the type to get super emotional and overinvolved when I hear about what I see as injustices or unfair or inappropriate behavior.
Is it wrong to ask him to keep that part of his life separate? Or to tell me key things and not the mean text exchanges and issues that come up every day? They have a child together, so I recognize that if I stay with him, this will be part of my life for the next eight to 10 years.
He is great, but this part of his life, his past -- I struggle with watching him go through it. How do I handle hearing about his issues with her every day in a supportive way?
Ignorance is Bliss?
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This is a problem with two possible origins: bad balance and bad boundaries.
If his custodial drama is all he talks about, then that’s a balance problem, and it’s on him. If instead he’s sharing his mama stuff in proportion with other important things in his life, then your not being able to deal with it without getting “super emotional” is a boundary problem, and it’s on you.
So first you need to consider whether he’s under-, over- or just-right sharing.
Maybe before that you even need to decide what you believe is the right amount of sharing to begin with. You can talk about this, too; if he tends to convey every little detail of what transpires between him and his ex, you can certainly say that it feels to you that too much of your present together is being spent in his past.
If upon reflection you believe he’s sharing a reasonable amount, especially given that this is his child and top priority, then you need to work on your role. Because why should it be his problem -- to be extra careful about what he says, or how much he asks for your support -- that you have unhealthy boundaries? That’s the term for being so “super emotional” about other people’s struggles that you make them your struggles.
Granted, we all have things we just need to block out, like the news story that we can’t get out of our minds for days and wish we’d never seen. But this is everyday life you’re navigating here, not an isolated vulnerability, so finding a way to respond proportionately to the routine ups and downs sounds like a valid pursuit.
Counseling is the logical next step, but you also might get a lot out of the book I can’t seem to stop recommending: “Lifeskills for Adult Children” by Janet Woititz and Alan Garner, which is a quick read on Boundaries 101.
When and if you get to the point where you can see his problems as his, ones you’re glad to help with when you can, but don’t want dominating every conversation, then yes — it’s fine to request fewer gory details.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.