Lauren was running late for the date. She was feeling cynical and guarded. “I had a sneaking suspicion he might be a bad choice — there were one too many late-night calls beforehand and he was just ever so slightly too cocky,” the 26-year-old tells me. Nonetheless, she was pretty happy to be meeting someone related to her socially (a friend of a friend) rather than another anonymous face from Hinge. She hadn’t been single long but already had dating app fatigue.
Despite Lauren’s reservations, the date got off to a good start. But an hour or two in, things started to nosedive when, without invitation, Max* started to describe cheating on his ex in painful detail, in a tone that Lauren says “almost sounded like pride”.
“It was a big red flag,” she says. “I felt embarrassed I was there and extremely disrespected. Clearly, this guy did not value me or see me as any viable serious dating option or he wouldn’t have done that.”
As far as Lauren was concerned, that was it: the date was over. They never saw each other again. One of the most galling things for her was Max’s lack of regret. “The juxtaposition couldn’t have been more obvious,” she explains. “He didn’t seem to have a shred of remorse or awareness that perhaps this was shooting himself in the foot.”
Lauren’s experience might seem extreme but it speaks to the question all would-be daters ask themselves from time to time when meeting new people: what is the right amount to discuss your ex in a new relationship? And when does it become unhealthy or damaging to do so?
It’s certainly a divisive topic. When I asked Twitter what it thought about talking about exes in new relationships, the responses were split almost evenly. “Curious about people who do it,” said one person. “Surely you would stop yourself??” Another said: “I did this. Drove my partner mental and I still feel very bad about it.” Others were more positive. “The way they talk about their ex often tells you a lot about how they might approach a relationship with you,” said another, going on to explain that for her, assuming it’s not all the time, you can learn a lot about someone from these conversations. So what is the truth? Is there a “good amount” to talk about an ex to a new partner? And at what point should you stop?
“There are many reasons people talk about their exes to new partners,” says Yuko Nippoda, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). “A new relationship can be exciting and stimulating but at the same time there may be feelings of insecurity and uncertainty.” One reason Nippoda gives for why someone might be talking a lot about a past relationship with a new squeeze is that they are conscious of not wanting to repeat past patterns and want you – their new person – to know. This, then, can be a positive.
For 30-year-old Lottie, having oversight of someone’s past is a good way of screening new partners for behaviors that may have proven difficult for her to tolerate in the past. “I actually like hearing about someone’s past relationships,” she tells me. “I call it a sexual CV!”
For Lottie, talking about the past is just another facet of learning about the other person and how compatible you may be. “Learning how relationships ended (and even began) and how long they lasted can tell you a lot about a person,” she continues. “It can reveal red flags, especially in the way they talk about their exes,” she says, adding that she recently noticed a man she was on a second date with was very misogynistic about his ex. “It was a huge issue for me.”
Some, like Lottie, think that the ex-partner conversation can give you a pretty good indication of how someone might approach a relationship with you, about what they need or expect from you.
This resonates with 23-year-old Rosie, who says that both she and her partner talk about their exes very openly because it helps to cement their bond. Far from causing problems, she tells me that it is “cathartic”.
“Being able to openly talk about everything from the past makes me feel safe in my current relationship,” she tells me. “It’s weird but I don’t feel jealous at all […] His ex is in a new relationship and we are very different people so there’s nothing to really compare.”
Rosie adds that her boyfriend feels the same about her ex-partner. “My ex is in our friendship group so she’s not someone I can cut out easily,” she explains. “It’s definitely case by case with these things but for us it just is a way of being open and honest.”
One thing Rosie says strikes a chord with me. “We don’t bitch about our exes or anything like that,” she explains, “it’s definitely more of a therapeutic discussion about specific things or if it just fits in with the conversation.” This feels like an important point: when speaking about your ex, whether or not it hurts your new partner may have more to do with your intention or your feelings around the split than with what you’re actually saying.
“In cases where one member of a new couple is friendly with their ex, they may talk about them to make their new partner jealous in order to gain more attention from them,” explains Nippoda.
Twenty-four-year-old Jess knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of this sort of behavior. “My ex used to talk about his ex-girlfriend a lot and he was still really good friends with her and would often refer to her as his best friend,” she says. “I never met her and yet she seemed to come up in most conversations. It was the most bizarre thing. He only ever spoke highly of her too, which made it all the more strange.”
Jess says that this eventually broke their relationship. “It caused a lot of arguments as he’d feel comfortable talking about her whenever he wanted but he wouldn’t tolerate it if I started a discussion about how that made me feel.”
When it comes to discussing your previous relationships with a new partner, there is a hard balance to strike. Avoiding the topic altogether can be interpreted as suspicious behavior, explains Michaela Thomas, clinical psychologist and author of The Lasting Connection. “Not talking about an ex at all can suggest something painful happened, or you did something you weren’t proud of — maybe you hurt them, or cheated on them,” she says. However, you don’t want to bring someone who you are no longer with into a new relationship to the extent that their presence overwhelms your new partner.
An Austrian academic study published in 2019 suggests there could be a gender component at play, too. It found that, in general, men had more positive attitudes toward their ex-partners than women did. The study cites a number of sociocultural reasons for this. Namely, that “men tend to be more dependent on their female partners for emotional and practical needs” and that “women more frequently report problematic partner behaviors as the reason for a breakup, such as infidelity, substance abuse, and mental or physical abuse.”
Crucially, the study found that “individuals who longed for their ex-partners were more likely to experience lower relationship quality in their subsequent relationships.” So if you’re talking about someone because you’re still dealing with the fallout of your relationship with them, it could be a problem.
There is no right or wrong way to move forward. How a new partner feels about hearing stories involving your ex – the good, the bad, and the ugly – will depend on their own emotional experiences and levels of security. What is important is how you, as a couple, communicate around these issues. “If it hurts your new partner to hear about an ex, be curious rather than furious as to why,” explains Thomas. “Do they worry you like your ex more than you like them? That you’re not over your ex? Reassure them that you left the relationship behind you.”
She advises trying not to shut down the conversation entirely, especially if there are painful or traumatic experiences that have informed who you are now and your needs out of a new partner. “If the way you were treated impacts who you are now, that is what you should focus on when you share stories about your ex,” she explains, “especially if you have been physically or emotionally abused by an ex — that is always relevant information for your new partner.”
Nippoda advises making sure you stay rooted in the present. “The current relationship is with and for the couple, not previous partners,” she explains. “If talking about exes will help the relationship, it might be relevant and even necessary, but the couple needs to be careful not to do this too much as the intimate boundaries can be damaged by it.”
Thomas agrees that communication is key, as well as focusing on what’s in front of you. “You don’t want to miss something beautiful in the here and now because you’re stuck in the past,” she explains. “Hard to say what an okay amount is so ask your new partner how they feel about hearing about exes and use that as your barometer.”
*Name changed to protect anonymity
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