Q: I am dating a new guy after 10 years of being with an abusive ex. By abusive, I mean he broke my jaw when I refused to make him dinner. He’s very angry I’ve moved on (he cheated), so when I see him out and about, I cling to my boyfriend for dear life. Yesterday we were at the mall and there was my ex in the parking lot. He sees us together, I move in close for protection, and he speeds off. I don’t know how to handle this. His expression scared me. Should I call him? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: No you shouldn’t call him! Good ex-etiquette is proper behavior after a break-up — and unless you are contemplating reconciliation with an abusive ex, proper behavior is, “Do not call!” He’s your ex.
But, I have to say, it’s not surprising that you ask if you should explain yourself. It’s quite common after being together for a long time — especially if there was abuse of some kind. You find yourself in a situation that generates a feeling you felt when you were together — and you react the same way you used to even though you are no longer in that situation. In this case, you were frightened and that feeling still generates a reaction that makes you feel as if you must clarify what’s really going on — or else.
Good ex-etiquette suggests that unless you continue to share something after your break-up, like children, a home, an animal or possibly a business, there’s really no reason to communicate with your ex. Then the only reason you do is in the best interest of the kids, possibly if the house payment changes or you need a new roof, the animal gets sick, or it’s time to pay taxes. There’s always the possibility that you may be one of the lucky ones who can remain friends — but that doesn’t happen when someone breaks your jaw.
Break-ups are rarely clean. After 10 years, there are lots of loose ends — and feelings — to tie up before you can move on completely. When there has been abuse or infidelity, those hurts can actually keep you emotionally tied to an ex and need to be addressed before you can successfully start over. So, although your initial question describes a rather innocent interaction in a parking lot, the feelings that it generated could be a signal that you need some extra help. Past domestic violence often causes a psychological condition called post traumatic stress disorder. It’s a reaction to trauma and the symptoms associated with the condition can be devastating, from flashbacks to extreme anxiety, if you don’t get help.
With that in mind, don’t be afraid to talk to a therapist to get some tools to get on the other side of your fears. Your response was a natural reaction to being afraid for a very long time. That feeling is difficult to shake and may complicate your life and your relationships until you get the help you need. “Ask for help if you need it” (Ex-etiquette for Parents rule No. 2) That’s good ex-etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website exetiquette.com at email@example.com.
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