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When an Ex Refuses to Exit: How to Deal with the Ex in Denial

by eharmony Editorial Team - May 21, 2008

You've cut ties, but somehow your ex is still in the picture. Getting the message that the two of you are through is all about setting boundaries and sticking to them.

You’ve already returned your ex’s stuff. But despite the powerful image of a cardboard box full of memories being left at his or her doorstep, for some reason your ex is unwilling to actually leave the picture. And no matter how hard you’ve worked to let your ex know it’s over, he or she continues to call, to send emails and text messages, and to “accidentally” run into you when you go out.

When an ex refuses to exit, what it all comes down to is boundaries. You have to set clear and firm boundaries, and you have to let the person know that the relationship is absolutely and unconditionally over. As you read through these different boundaries, ask yourself whether you have, in fact, actually and finally ended the relationship.

Communication Boundaries

Sometimes we think we’ve clearly delivered a message when in fact we haven’t. So make sure you’ve presented the message that the relationship is over, and make sure there’s no ambiguity about the issue. If you truly don’t want this person in your life anymore, make sure that what you say and how you respond to his or her intrusions make it perfectly clear that there really is no “us” for you two anymore. If you haven’t already done so, you may want to have a “sit-down” (Sopranos-style, if necessary) that leaves nothing open to interpretation. Or, if there are good reasons that you just can’t or don’t want to even be in the same room with this person, then you could write a letter. The point is, you need to confirm that the relationship is definitely over and that the person’s intrusions into your life are completely unwelcome.

Physical Boundaries

If you have already clearly communicated that the relationship is over, and your ex is still hounding you and intruding in your life, then do all that you can to sever whatever ties still connect you two. This may not be completely practical if you work in the same place, share many of the same friends, or live in the same neighborhood. But as much as possible, create physical space between you. You may have to be creative to achieve this distance. If you think about it, though, there are probably all kinds of ways you can cut down on those “coincidences” when you just happen to run into each other. For example, you might change your social patterns, even if it’s only for a short period while you let things blow over between you two. Avoid the usual hangouts; try some new restaurants or clubs; reconnect with old friends you haven’t seen in a while. This may not solve all the problems associated with your ex, but some physical distance between you will most likely get you each headed in a separate direction.

Behavioral Boundaries

As tempting as it can be, don’t play the games your ex wants to play. Don’t sink to his or her level, and don’t get caught up in any one-upmanship. Some people, for instance, will do all they can to push your buttons and get you riled, knowing that when you get upset, you’re more likely to interact with them. If your ex seems to be working hard to upset you and to draw you into his or her games, that person may be doing so because he or she know this is the only way to get you to actually interact. So the worst thing you can do, if you really want the relationship to be over, is to give in and react in a way that puts you on your ex’s level. Instead, remain the mature one and refuse to be drawn into the mudslinging and game playing.

Internal Boundaries

Just as you must observe certain external behavioral boundaries, you must also set clear and firm boundaries within yourself. One of the most important internal boundaries has to do with how much you let the efforts of your ex get to you emotionally. If you begin to obsess over all the games and intrusions, then you will have allowed this other person to control you and keep you from living your life as you choose. Another internal boundary to observe has to do with new dating relationships. Do your best to wipe the slate clean and allow yourself to explore new possibilities. And promise yourself that when you go on dates with new people, you won’t talk about your ex and review all the problems that person is causing in your life. Draw a firm boundary that prevents your ex from being present in the conversations and interactions you have with people you’re now meeting and going out with.

Protective Boundaries

Let’s be real: There may come a time when you have to get much more serious regarding your ex’s infringement on your life. If intrusions become more than a mere nuisance and begin to get a little scary, be sure to talk to friends and watch for little ways you can protect yourself. And if it becomes necessary, be willing to set up some legal boundaries as well. Don’t hold back when it comes to taking care of yourself and doing what you have to do to keep yourself safe. So whether we’re talking about taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, or psychologically, it really is crucial that you set clear and firm boundaries with your ex. You can do so in a way that’s both kind and respectful. But make sure that you’re working hard to do whatever is necessary to keep yourself safe, healthy, happy, and moving forward with your life.

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