Carolyn Hax: Her boyfriend still uses ‘we’ when referring ex-wife

We asked readers to channel their inner Carolyn Hax and answer this question. Some of the best responses are below.

Dear Carolyn: My boyfriend has been divorced for a year and a half and still uses the word “we” when referring to his ex. “When we bought our house,” “We ran a marathon,” “We went to that beach.”

I don’t detect any wistfulness, and the comments are always related to the topic at hand and have a point. But I still don’t like that she is thrown into so many discussions that have nothing to do with her. Something also seems off about the fact that she is never mentioned by name — I’ve had to learn who he’s referring to when he says “we.”

Now that I think of it, maybe he uses “we” to avoid saying her name. Not sure if that would be for my benefit or his. I understand everyone has a past, but I rarely talk about my exes and if I do, I say, “I went to that beach” and leave the ex out of it entirely since my point isn’t about him. He’d probably try to stop if I told him it bothers me, but am I just letting this get under my skin too much? Or do you think this is something to be concerned about?

Leave the Ex Out: Yes, you’re letting this get under your skin too much. Sounds as if you may be processing his memories as competition, when the memories may just be his sharing his past good times with you (in the examples you gave, anyway). What if you try responding positively to the memory and ignore the “we”? For example, “How did it feel to run a marathon? That’s an amazing accomplishment” (or something like that, genuine to you).

By rephrasing the events, you’re opening yourself up to learning more about him and making these incidents less about your insecurities (and perhaps wistfulness that you weren’t part of his life then). As you’re together longer, new, collective memories will replace some of the old memories in your conversations, and you’ll worry less about the past “we” (don’t you have any “we” memories that you share with him?).

I’m basing all this positive approach on the clues you gave about him being committed to your current relationship (“he’d probably stop if I asked him”). And if something seems off about his not mentioning his ex-wife’s name, go ahead and ask him about in the same spirit of understanding him that you’re using in exploring the past events he participated in. In your relatively new relationship, the more open your heart is, the more likely you two are to build a solid foundation and stay together — and that seems like what you want.

Leave the Ex Out: Just ask him, with genuine curiosity. Before you initiate a conversation, think deeply (perhaps write down or discuss with a trusted friend or therapist) about what it is that bothers you and what your goals are from the conversation. To glean insight about his feelings? To ask him to change a speech pattern? I talk about my exes not infrequently, sometimes by name and sometimes as we — because those are my lived experiences and part of my history/identity. While this is not a concern in my relationship, what matters is how YOU feel in YOUR relationship and how you communicate with your boyfriend.

We all have quirky hang-ups that may or may not be indicative of a larger issue. Do you feel secure in your relationship? Is there a reason you’re writing to an advice column rather than just talking to him about it? Does the thought of bringing it up make you feel vulnerable? Are you worried about how he will perceive you or how he will react? Also note that you refer to him as your “current” boyfriend, suggesting a lack of permanence. Why? I wouldn’t bring up this point except it seems like a mirror into the very question you’re asking about.

Leave the Ex Out: It seems to me that he is trying to avoid saying her name, probably out of kindness to you. My spouse did the same thing when we were first dating, and because I like to tease, each time I would say, “there’s no we, there’s only you and me” in a lighthearted, rhyming way. Spouse would always laugh at their habitual remnant. Soon spouse was answering with a singsong, “you and me are we.” It remains our inside joke when we refer to ourselves as a couple.

Spouse also gave descriptive and neutral nicknames (think “car guy,” “Richmond girl,” “soccer guy,” “movie girl,” etc.) to both our exes to provide distance. Only our closest friends knew who we were referring to, and everyone else thanked us for not bringing up rando names that they might have to remember.

Lighten up and the ex will be left out.

Once spouse stopped saying “we” in reference to the ex, the two of us soon became the we.

Leave the Ex Out: When I was dating my now-husband it bothered me that he didn’t use “we” or mention his ex. I worried that, if we broke up, I too would disappear from his stories as if I’d never existed. Eventually I articulated this to him and he confessed that it “felt weird” to mention her to me. I explained that, to me, it was more strained to intentionally step around her presence. I was comforted that she had meant something to him — I didn’t want to feel like she was disposable or I was a replacement. Eventually he started including her in stories more naturally and our pasts became a complete nonissue.

My point is this: History is perceived differently by everyone. You won’t know what your boyfriend’s approach means unless you ask and, crucially, are prepared to be open to his answer.

Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read last week’s installment here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.

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