When Exes Attack

Written by
Michael Wells

When Exes Attack

5 Reasons Why & What to Do

Written by
Michael Wells

When Exes Attack

5 Reasons Why & What to Do

Written by
Michael Wells
Relationships
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QUESTION
“Why would my ex wife be upset with me and my girlfriend moving in together, nearly five years after our divorce?
She moved in with the guy she cheated with after five months, I made this move after five years and suddenly I’m the bad guy.”
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Relationships end all the time, for all sorts of reasons. 

Sometimes it’s an explosive finish, where someone storms out, or you find all your stuff on the lawn. Sometimes it’s a quiet death, a gentle fade away until there’s just nothing left. Suddenly, you’re just ghosted, or you come home to an empty house.

These are difficult ways for a relationship to end. 

If you’re lucky, your past relationships have ended more smoothly. With a good deal of perspective, two emotionally mature people can return to being good friends after.

But that’s rare. 

Most people aren’t so lucky, and some struggle to even see each other for years after the relationship ends.

And too often, I see one of the partners attack the other even after the relationship has ended. You’d think that the end is the end, but no... sometimes there’s an outpouring of resentment, abuse, blame, character sabotage and character defamation that’s worthy of a Netflix drama. 

Have you ever been in a relationship where you felt attacked after the relationship ended, and you had no idea why? Especially... if that other person was the one who ended the relationship? 

How? Why?

That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

First, a hugely important note

To make this article more understandable, I’m going to frame it in the most common scenario I see... which is in heterosexual relationships in which the female ended the relationship, and the female then “attacked” the male, in different ways - even long after the relationship ended. 

Obviously, this is NOT the only scenario in which attacks happen, so don’t limit yourself to this perspective. But... gender psychology does appear to play a role. 

I want to make it very clear that even though I’m focusing in on this scenario, this is not an article about women, or women attacking men unfairly.

This is an article about relationships... why they are hard, and how we often make them harder than they need to be.

Even after they’ve ended. 

Why attacks happen

Our relationships are a deeply important part of our personal world. They are a big part of our daily life, and our social world. They affect how others see us, how we see ourselves, and how we plan our future. 

They can even be a part of our identity.

When a valued relationship ends, it tends to end with a flood of emotion. We feel vulnerable, confused, rejected, distraught. Our social world is often flipped on its back like a helpless turtle on a motorway, during rush hour. 

We feel anger, sadness, panic, resentment, confusion, desire, all at the same time. 

It’s intense. 

When a relationship has been a long-term part of your life, there is a scarred landscape and a Sea of Wounding, where the glacier of a relationship used to be. 

Life’s not over... but in many ways, it sure feels like it. 

What’s interesting is that

Sometimes that emotion gets the best of people. Sometimes, it takes the form of anger, resentment, or jealousy, and sends one - or both - of the partners into attack mode.

I hope you never experience this. If you do, perspective helps. it might even help you confront the problem, have an honest conversation, and save the friendship. 

Here are some of the most common reasons I see exes attack. 

#1 - The Balloon Breaks

For the person who ended the relationship, it probably wasn’t a sudden decision. Pressure built over months or years, until one day... BOOM, a decision was made. 

Before that point, the relationship is under intense stress, with both people trying to manage their emotions, frustrations, and resentments. In an effort to improve things, and to keep the peace, those emotions are buried.

Until suddenly... there's no longer a reason to hold them back.

#2 - Win the Crowd

For women especially, the tribe of friends and family is a huge part of their sense of security. After a breakup women will often try to win the crowd by painting herself as the victim. Any perceived flaws her ex had are magnified 10x, and everyone she knows gets to hear about it.

Her goal is to win the crowd socially because her sense of security, and her sense of self-worth, are hugely impacted by the people around her. 

The Pre-Emptive Attack

I’ve even seen women do this as a pre-emptive attack, with the belief that her ex was going to call her out on her behavior. This seems to happen most commonly if there was infidelity on her part, and she is fearful of being ousted from her tribe. 

#3 - She Feels Threatened

Even after the relationship has ended, part of our brain - the mammal and reptile parts - imagine that the relationship is still there, and they continue to try to protect it.

Why? because our idea of relationships as a “thing” is not real. 

Our human, rational mind sees a relationship as a promise... a boundary that we live within. We think of a relationship as tangibly as we think of a house. 

To our mammal and reptile brains, a relationship is an opportunity for a better future. Children... security... companionship... sex. Those parts of the mind do not understand agreements or labels, and there’s no permanence there.... so they hold on hard, trying to keep that relationship going, and trying to protect it from others... 

The upshot of this is that feelings of betrayal, jealousy, protectiveness, and resentment can all happen even long after the relationship ended, because the more primal parts of our mind see that as a threat.

Special triggers- your ex starting a relationship with someone else, moving in with someone, or getting married, or starting a family. And all of this hits extra hard if it all happens fast... because suddenly, you weren’t so special. They just moved on. 

#4 - Low Self-Esteem

For those who have ever asked the question “am I good enough?” That question hits extra hard when you are confronted with your ex finding a new partner.

For many that’s a huge opportunity to question your value, compare yourself to someone else, maybe even ask yourself 

“Why can they make my ex happy, and I couldn’t? What’s wrong with me?”

If you’ve ever asked yourself this, you're not alone. Both partners usually do-  no matter who ended the relationship. 

If your ex is reacting badly on this basis, it’s because in their head, they’re hearing... 

“See, you weren’t good enough.” 

#5 - Schadenfreude

Schadenfreude is a German word that means “delighting in someone else’s misery.” 

Granted, some people are just jerks, and want others to suffer- but I see this most often when someone is miserable. The idea that other people are happy, and they’re not, is discomforting.

The idea that your ex is happy, and you’re not... is too painful to bear.

When your ex starts a new relationship, or gets a huge career promotion, or wins the Lotto... it’s easy to feel resentment about that...

Hey, why do they get to be happy?

What should I do?

There’s no easy way through this situation.

For yourself

Understand why, and that she’s just dealing with a lot of personal emotional crap.

When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help.
- Thich Naht Hanh 

For your friendships

If this was a longer relationship, with mutual friends, you’ll see 90% of those friends take sides. For friendships are important to you, you can open yourself to them as well. 

Don’t cast blame, just...

  • “We couldn’t make it work.”
  • “I couldn’t make her happy.”
  • “She wanted a different life.”
  • “We did our best.”
  • “I hope she finds happiness.” 

These are a good way to indicate that the book is closed, but that you are are being as emotionally mature as you can about it- neither casting blame, nor accepting it.

It just didn’t work. 

Also, focus on building new friendships, and new hobbies with your new life as well. That tribe knows you as YOU, rather than as so-and-so’s ex... and that’s a much easier place to be.

For your ex

Maybe you can do something, maybe not.

To be honest the only case I’ve really seen work consistently, is when the breakup was well-handled, and when both people are emotionally mature.

Then, both understand that the relationship didn’t work- but neither is to blame, and both wish each other all the happiness in the world.

In this space, there’s not much opportunity for resentment and anger. 

And done right, there’s still a very special friendship to protect.

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First published on 
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November 19, 2022

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