If your boyfriend’s ex-wife is constantly seeking his emotional support about personal things (not related to co-parenting matters) this can certainly make you raise an eyebrow. But what's more important is how he handles her. If your boyfriend complains that his ex-wife constantly calls him and requires too much of his time, but he takes all her phone calls and rushes to her rescue, then your problem may be with him, not her.
You and Him.....and Her
If you find yourself constantly exposed to your boyfriend's ex-wife, that is a pretty good sign he's not handling her very well and you've been sucked into a relationship triangle. According to Family Systems Theory, a triangle looks something like this: Your time with your boyfriend is continually interrupted by his ex's needs, which he feels unable to ignore for various reasons. You feel resentful, annoyed and maybe jealous. When you question him he complains about her and swears he wishes she would go away. His phone rings and it's her. He rolls his eyes as he accepts the call. He makes faces at the phone while she's talking and this makes you laugh. You feel better as you and he team up against her. But next week there she is again and the cycle repeats itself. It feels like there are three of you in the relationship instead of two!
Get out of the Triangle
According to The Family Systems Institute, "Triangling can become problematic when a third party's involvement distracts the members of a [2-person relationship] from resolving their relationship impasse." In other words, if you and your boyfriend argue about his ex's behavior, nothing will get resolved. You may both end up agreeing that she is the problem, but neither one of you can change her. With the focus on her, your boyfriend gets off the hook for his failure to set firm boundaries with his ex. Instead of obsessing about her actions, it could be more productive to ask yourself what he has done or not done that is contributing to your upset.
Shift the Focus from Her to Him
Family Systems Theory suggests couples talk to each other about themselves instead of the third person in the triangle. "I-statements" can be effective. For example, “I feel rejected and unimportant when you take her -- or any woman's phone calls while we are alone together.” By resisting the urge to focus on her neediness, and using "I-statements" to reveal how his actions affect you instead, you can kick her out of your relationship.
Let Him Deal With His Ex
Likewise, when you see his ex-wife, Systems Theory would suggest that you don't speak to her about him or on his behalf. Remember, avoid a triangle. If she asks for his time, let him deal with that problem. How he responds to her will let you know whether he is truly, fully available for a relationship with you and you alone, and no one in the middle.
Lisa C. DeLuca is a psychotherapist, social worker and writer. Her clinical practice focuses on teens, couples, families, men and women and the elderly. Lisa's specialties include cognitive behavioral therapy for panic disorder, family systems therapy, relationship coaching, parenting and family caregiving at the end of life. She earned a master's degree in social work from Stony Brook University and has been writing professionally since 1984.