“How Can I Draw Boundaries With My Ex-Spouse?”

March 22, 2023

It’s not unusual to have complex feelings after a marriage has ended. Trauma expert Natalia Rachel shares how you can set healthy boundaries

After being in a long-term relationship, it’s normal to have complex, overwhelming or conflicting feelings after it has ended. But it’s also equally important to establish boundaries and give yourself space if you’re trying to move on. Below, trauma expert Natalia Rachel as well as the founder of Illuma Health and author of Why Am I Like This, shares how you can deal with your ex-spouse and set boundaries after the divorce.

Dear Therapist,

I was married to my husband for 30 years. He would gamble and I would have to pay off his debts. Our daughter had warned him that if he gambled again, she would not forgive him. He promised he would stop, but eventually he did it again. Finally, I couldn’t take it and requested for a divorce. I offered to settle his debts but in return, he would have to leave the house. Even before the divorce, he had also been having an affair with our Thai neighbour who is also married. I knew about their affair but I tolerated it. I thought that as long as my husband came home every day, the woman couldn’t do anything. Even though we eventually divorced in 2019, I still loved him

We’ve since continued to keep in touch, and sometimes we even have dinner together. We would even hold hands when we go for walks. He’s still seeing the other woman, and she does not know that we are divorced. I keep wondering whether I am doing the right thing, why do I still go out with him, and why do I let him hold my hand?

Strangely, nowadays, I don’t miss him. Whether he calls me or not, I don’t feel miserable.  

From, Unsure Ex

Dear Unsure Ex,

When we have been in a long relationship, it’s normal to have complex and sometimes conflicting feelings after it has ended. When you add in the experience of betrayal, both financially and romantically, it’s no wonder that you are finding it hard to make sense of how you feel and what boundaries you should put in place.

Empowered choices, with no shame

Whatever relationship you choose to create now should centre around choices that make you feel empowered, rather than taken advantage of, and also protect you from further betrayal or heartbreak.

You asked: ‘Why do I still go out with him?’ and ‘Why do I let him hold my hand?’

Here are some reasons that may be at play:

  1. He feels familiar and/or comforting to you
  2. You’re not ready to completely let go of the relationship
  3. You feel compelled to say yes to his requests for connection (saying no doesn’t feel easy)

For both 1) and 2) it’s important to know that there is no shame in staying connected to a past partner. If it feels safe and nourishing and doesn’t hurt you, then it’s ok.

For 3) It’s important to check in and consider if you’re saying yes to connection because you feel a sense of duty or force. You can ask yourself ‘If I put his needs aside, do I want to show up in this way?’ If the answer is ‘no’, ask yourself: ‘What would happen if I drew a boundary and said no to catching up or holding hands? Would he respect my boundary? How would I feel, if I said no?’

Saying no to manipulation

Dynamics that involve long-term and complex betrayal often have a strong element of manipulation in them. When your ex tells you that his current partner isn’t aware of your status, it seems that he is trying to convince you that he is available to you. In truth, he is being dishonest with her or you or both of you.

Keep your eyes open for when he tries to convince you that he is not doing anything wrong, or that you should be more forgiving towards him. Manipulation can be subtle and hard to spot. To stay empowered, you need to keep coming back to your choices and not let him guilt, shame, trick or convince you of anything. If you find yourself feeling confused and questioning yourself regularly with internal chatter that says things like ‘it’s not that bad’, ‘maybe, he isn’t doing anything wrong’, ‘maybe I should be more understanding’ then it’s a sure sign that you have lost your sovereign clear mind and may be under the influence of manipulation. 

When you notice these loops in your head, take some space and remember what it is you want from the dynamic. It may be helpful to have a written manifesto of a) your relationship wishes, b) your clear relationship boundaries, c) the reasons you have chosen these boundaries, and d) the ways he tries to manipulate you. Any time you’re feeling confused you can come back to your manifesto and regain clarity and power.

Paving the way to peace

In the end, we all want to feel a sense of peace in our relationships.

If the relationship continues to cause chaos and distress, it’s time to start questioning why you’re still engaging with someone who is taking you away from the peace you crave. Sometimes we stay in unhealthy dynamics because we are avoiding tuning into the pain of being alone and dealing with some of our deeper processes for healing that will only come up when we aren’t distracted dealing with relational chaos.

If a lot of your energy is tied up navigating the relationship, it may be blocking you from creating a life full of peace and joy. Take time to imagine ‘what would I feel without him in my life?’ Tune into the emotions that come. Note any fears that may arise. This inquiry may bring you some answers and direct you to some places that as calling out for healing.

Shift from shame to self-compassion

Navigating a divorce, betrayal and changing relationship boundaries is a messy, non-linear process. There’s no straight line out or through to relational harmony. It’s common to second-guess our choices and be very hard on ourselves. Take time to catch the voice of shame, set a firm boundary with yourself and shift to self-compassion again and again. If you stay turned into yourself this way, the path will be gentler.

Wishing you clarity, power and peace as you navigate these complex dynamics.

Natalia Rachel

Natalia Rachel is the founder of Illuma Health, author of Why Am I Like This, and a trauma expert

Disclaimer: The Dear Therapist column is for informational purposes only. The advice given does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

Text: Karishma Tulsidas/Her World