Q&A with J: Getting Over Your Spouse’s Old Flames

I’m back from The Great Hard Drive Replacement of 2016 that sapped my work productivity for about a week. But I got everything back up and running with no loss of data!

In the meantime, the world did not stop turning, and readers did not stop sending questions. So let’s tackle another reader question today.

My wife and I have a wonderful marriage (10 yrs) and greatly enjoy each other intimately. My wonderful wife’s history is similar to yours and we have grown together through our baggage of sexual history and are still cultivating a beautiful marriage. We are blessed with a wonderful family and a spirit filled life.

The one hang up I still have is when I run into her old flames. I still get the there’s the “old dog in my territory feel.” Is there any advice you and your husband would share on how you moved past the “past” rearing its ugly head bringing old memories and hurt feelings back to the surface?

Q&A with J: Getting Over Your Spouse's Old Flames

I think jealousy gets a bad rap. Most believe that jealousy is a wrong emotional reaction that displays a lack of trust. Not always, my friends. First look at the four definitions of jealous from the Oxford Dictionaries:

  1. Feeling or showing envy of someone or their achievements and advantages.
  2. Feeling or showing suspicion of someone’s unfaithfulness in a relationship.
  3. Fiercely protective or vigilant of one’s rights or possessions.
  4. (Of God) demanding faithfulness and exclusive worship.

We tend to think of definitions #1 or #2, but maybe #3 is more the case in marriage. I know the words rights and possessions makes some of you comfortable, but don’t we have some rights to one another in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:3-5) and a deep belonging expressed as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24)? Consider Song of Songs 8:6: “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” Jealousy in this context seems inevitable and good.

In fact, there are more positive uses of the word jealous than negative in the Bible — mostly speaking of God’s rightful claim on His people. For example, “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). Yes, of course, there are negative references — e.g., “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him” (Acts 13:45) — but those relate to coveting what belongs to someone else.

All of this to say that I’m not one bit surprised that you, hubby, have that “old dog in my territory” feel whenever one of your wife’s exes comes around. Hey, that’s your wife and your love for her is “stronger than death” and its jealousy “unyielding as the grave.”

Of course, there’s a difference between a twinge of jealousy for your spouse and the compulsion of jealousy against those exes. Jealousy can certainly rise to the level of distrust of your spouse, unreasonable demands, and obsessive rumination about the past. None of that is positive for your marriage.

So let’s talk about keeping jealousy in check, at the level of unyielding, not sabotaging.

As for me and my husband, we’ve run to an old flame from each other’s past once. I suppose that’s a benefit of moving to a city where neither of us had lived before. Plus, our area is well-populated (Houston’s the 4th largest city in the U.S.), so you don’t typically bump into people willy-nilly.

I have written about the one time I ran into my ex in a store. That interaction consisted of him saying, “Hi, J__.” And me responding with a very shaky, “Hi.” My husband was standing beside me. When my ex walked away, I let hubby know who that was. He didn’t overreact, though I don’t know what was going on inside him. But I suspect him seeing that my response was entirely shock and not at all interest or nostalgia helped him feel secure.

Yet we have taken steps through the years to prevent jealousy of old flames.

Don’t hang out with your exes. If you have a choice, don’t hang out with old flames. That means not having lunch with previous lovers, befriending exes on Facebook, or emailing to “catch up” more than, say, once — if that. You’ve moved on from that old relationship, so move on. The explanation, “But we’re still friends,” really holds no sway with me. There’s a plethora of people you can be friends with, and it’s common courtesy not to remain unnecessary linked to an ex who makes your mate profoundly uncomfortable.

Of course, this isn’t possible for some — for instance, if you have children with an ex or live in an area where rubbing elbows happens no matter what you do. Even then, you don’t have to socialize with an ex. You can be courteous, personable, and gracious without “hanging out.”

Talk to your spouse about what you need. It’s perfectly fine to express how being around your wife’s exes makes you feel. But keep the focus on how you wish there had never been any others because you want to belong entirely to her and her to you. Do not cast doubt on her and her faithfulness simply because her exes come around sometimes. Rather, tell her what you need in those instances.

Would a quick squeeze of your hand reassure you? Would you prefer to be arm-in-arm when she’s chatting with an ex? Do you need her to express outright, more than once, that she chose and loves only you? It can feel a little silly to ask for these extra reassurances, but if that’s what would help, why not ask for what you need? I suspect you won’t need those for the course of your marriage. Over time, I’ve found myself more and more secure that my husband wants only me, so I feel way less uncertain when he’s around other women (some of whom, I’m sure, have flirted with him).

Be in the business of reassuring yourself. Our self-talk can make or break us. If you let your mind wander and dwell in her past, you’ll find yourself feeling more and more jealous — to the point of damaging your self-confidence and your relationship. Instead, when a stray thought pops up, remind yourself how much she loves you and you love her. Make it a habit to reassure yourself mentally that her past is a done deal. It’s forgiven and doesn’t define her, you, or your marriage in any way. God is in the business of redemption, and we can be in the business of reassuring ourselves that we are new creations (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).

I always find comfort in reciting theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Pray for serenity about the past. You can’t change it. But you can courageously change your present and future to God’s glory.

As with much of what I advise on my blog, things improve with practice. If you can practice setting appropriate boundaries with exes, asking for what you need, and reassuring yourself, I think that can go a long way to easing your mind.

I almost never think about mine or my husband’s exes. After 20+ years and learning to have a happy marriage, I’m simply more secure in my marriage than I used to be.

That’s not to say that I think jealousy ever goes away entirely. My husband recently told me a story about a girl who planted a kiss on him when they were 13 years old. My claws came out, and I thought, How dare she touch my man! Silly, I know. But I laughed off my reaction and said something that reassured him and me of our one-flesh love — which sure beats anything either of us had before.

11 thoughts on “Q&A with J: Getting Over Your Spouse’s Old Flames

  1. Kate

    This is a great article! I like how your advice isn’t “get over it, don’t be jealous”, “let it go”, etc. which is the “advice” I feel that we get predominantly in our culture. I struggle a lot with jealousy of my husband’s exes, and it brought peace to read that I’m not crazy for feeling jealous when thoughts of them come up, etc. I like the idea of praying for serenity about the past as well.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Perfect timing of this article!!! I was just having a conversation with my husband about this the other day. He has a child with his ex-girlfriend, so we see her frequently. They don’t get along, so I don’t feel that she is a threat. However, knowing that he was ‘intimate’ with someone else before me springs up in the back of my mind every once in a while and bothers me; especially since I wasn’t ‘intimate’ with others in my past. Thank you for the great advice of how to work through my feelings!

    Reply
  3. Lynn

    My husband re-connected, via e-mail, with two old girlfriends from his college days. Both meant a lot to him: one was his first girlfriend/first kiss, and the other had turned him down for marriage. He has a nice friendship with her now, they e-mail and talk on the phone. Both women are over 500 miles away, and they and my husband are all over age 70, so I understand this is more nostalgia and perhaps some life review. The only time it bothers me is when he shares something with her that he didn’t share with me, such as asking her to review something he’s written – but we’re both grownups, and I can live with it.

    Reply
  4. libl

    Thankfully, my hubby cannot stand his ex girlfriends, and gave up dating for a while before he met me. We have run into a few of them before, but it has never been a pleasant experience.

    There are a few women he didn’t date and was interested in, and sometimes we run into them and I feel like they get too flirty. At least once a year or two he mentions “the girl that got away.” He would have married her, but he didn’t know she was interested and didn’t pursue her. After he married me he found out she was very interested but too shy. Kind of makes me feel like second choice.

    I only had two boyfriends before hubby. One was a childhood lunchroom pal, so really only 1 boyfriend. I recently found him online (he lives on the other side of the world) and wanted to get in contact just to say hi and see how things are going for him. We were more friends than romantic, though we did kiss. But, I feel like it might be inappropriate, and open doors for hubby to excuse contact and flirtiness with other women, so I will just leave it be.

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  5. a. nony

    J, just to clarify, are you just talking about people you/your spouse slept with? Or anyone you dated? If it’s the latter, some of this seems maybe unnecessarily broad? I may not be understanding you well here, but I see it slightly differently.

    I would be genuinely concerned if my husband didn’t just exit previous relationships in a calm, mature way, but felt like he had to cut off all contact with exes, or keep that contact to bare minimum politeness. And I’d see it as a HUGE red flag for an adult to have nothing good to say about any of his/her exes or *refuse* to have contact with them. It seems childish and punitive, not to mention blind to one’s own faults and contributions to relationship problems. And of COURSE in some situations or with certain people it wouldn’t be wise to be friends with an ex, but I honestly think there needs to be room for two grown adults to be able to say, “Actually, we should have just been friends to start with, and we’re both grownups and can choose to navigate our friendship with integrity and honor without having to stop grabbing a coffee now and then.” I go to church with a couple of exes and/or people I’ve dated, and with several people I’ve had strong unrequited feelings for (I’ve gone to most of their weddings, in fact!). They’re my brothers in Christ, and my friendship with them is in no way a threat to my marriage or theirs just because we dated several years ago.

    Again, sorry if I’m misunderstanding you here, J. I just think a blanket dismissal of “we’re still friends” is unnecessary in a lot of situations. 🙂

    Reply
    1. J Post author

      I presumed the questioner was talking about former lovers, since he referenced a history like mine (and that’s what my forgiven history entailed). And I never said anything about being punitive to exes. Absolutely be Christ-like to them — gracious and kind. I just don’t understand the point of hanging out with people you slept with before. What’s the benefit that makes the discomfort to your spouse or potential misunderstandings worth it?

      I’m personally in contact with a couple of guys I dated before through Facebook, but we had a friendship much longer than the few dates. Meaning that our relationship was clearly identified by a friendship, and with one guy in particular, that man can’t go two seconds without talking about his amazing wife so I know we’re in perfectly safe territory.

      For the most part, however, I live in the better safe than sorry camp. Partly because I know too many people who found themselves in difficult situations — not even because they did anything wrong, but because their ex hit a bad spot in his/her marriage and started viewing the relationship in a problematic way.

      Reply
      1. a. nony

        Oh, I didn’t think you were telling folks to be punitive! Just that seeing “cut off relationship” as your only option for an ex SEEMS punitive to me.

        I certainly see the wisdom in limiting interactions with people you’ve had a sexual past with.

        Reply
    2. Anon B

      This comes down to personal boundaries. What is or is not ok, as deemed by someone else, is irrelevant. It’s what works for you and your spouse. My wife and I agree that we don’t contact or hang out with exes, period. It’s happened, and when it does, we’re nice, but it’s not a dynamic we want in our relationship. If it works for someone else, great, but it doesn’t work for us. I’m with J on this one.

      Reply
  6. Keelie Reason

    My husband and I have dated since we were 16, his past girlfriends are completely irrelevant. He doesn’t even know who they turned out to be really. It must stink to have a spouse who has ex-girlfriends you feel at all jealous of.

    Reply

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