Talking about your exes to someone you’re dating can be a really divisive topic. While most of us would agree that it doesn’t make great first-date conversation, it’s not totally clear what it means later in a relationship.
For some people, talking about your ex at all is a huge red flag, while others think that it’s a sign of maturity and emotional intelligence. What’s going on and why are there such different opinions?
Whether talking about his ex should be a red flag or not really depends on what he’s saying and why. In this article, I’m going to show you six situations where talking about his ex is a strong green flag situation, and six where it’s definitely a red flag.
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This is probably the simplest example of when it’s completely fine that he still talks about his ex. After they broke up, they said that they wanted to stay friends and they’ve managed it. Opinions differ, but for me, this is a fantastic sign.
When you first start dating someone, it’s usually because you think that they’re pretty awesome. They’re interesting, kind, thoughtful, and trustworthy. Sometimes you realize that you were wrong, but more often they’re still pretty great people even after the relationship ends.1
To put it simply, people don’t (or shouldn’t) fundamentally change just because we’re not dating them anymore.
Staying friends with his ex might mean that he just has great taste in girlfriends and that he’s able to continue to see the good in someone even after the romantic relationship is over.2
It also usually means that he’s taken the time to really think about why his relationship ended. Blaming your ex for being an awful person is an easy, knee-jerk reaction to the end of a relationship. Building a friendship takes that option away. Instead, he’s had to be honest about things he did wrong.
Obviously, there is a difference between them being genuine friends vs him staying close and hoping for a second chance. But if he talks about her like just another one of his buddies, that’s more often a good sign than a bad one.
He might also talk about his ex when he’s trying to open up to you about important events in his life. If his partner played a significant role in those events, he might end up talking about her as he starts to share his experiences.
Opening up and sharing things that are important to us is essential for a close, loving relationship, especially if those things helped to shape who we are now.3 Often, knowing who was close to him and how they supported him (or didn’t) is valuable context to help you understand him better.
If he’s talking about his ex in this way, try to remind yourself that this is a much better sign than if he tried to avoid talking about her at all. Trying to hide her existence or not being able to talk about how she was involved in those events would be a far bigger red flag.
If he’s telling you about things that are important to him and he mentions his ex (even several times) try not to become focused on her. He’s trying to tell you about him. Focusing on her makes it about your jealousy or insecurity instead.
It’s sometimes ok if he’s not telling you about the big, life-changing moments as well. We all have funny stories about our lives, including silly jokes we’ve played on someone, holidays we’ve been on, or that one time a goat tried to eat our shorts at the petting zoo. If she features in some of those stories, it’s usually no big deal.
Making space for him to tell you about the role his ex played in his life is especially important if he’s opening up to you about a traumatic or abusive relationship.
Most people default to thinking about male abusers and female survivors when they think about abusive relationships. Try to shed that mindset. Abusive people are abusive irrespective of their gender or the gender of their partner.4
If your guy is telling you about an abusive ex-partner, this is a strong display of trust. Opening up about abuse is almost always difficult, and men often have an added level of stigma if they’re abused by a woman.
If he’s telling you about his abusive ex, make sure that you focus all of your attention and care on him and how he’s feeling. Everything else is secondary to helping someone who has been the victim of abuse to feel safe and supported.
He might also want to talk to you about his ex because he recognizes the mistakes he made in that relationship and wants to do everything he can to avoid making those same mistakes with you. Again, this is a great sign of both emotional maturity and his commitment to you.
In my experience, a guy who talks about his relationship with his ex because he doesn’t want to make the same mistakes again is hoping that you’ll work with him to make this relationship stronger than his last one. He’s telling you what went wrong in the hopes that you’re going to help him do better this time.
For example, he might tell you that his last relationship broke down because he has an avoidant attachment style and his ex had an anxious attachment style. He’d then explain how she was hurt by him pulling away and responded by trying to demand more of his attention.
When he does this, he’s actually telling you what he’s thinking when he pulls away. He’s giving you the information that he should have given her so that you both have better options to get out of an anxious-avoidant trap.
Long relationships often leave people with shared friendship groups, and even close relationships with their partner’s family members. If the breakup was reasonably amicable (and sometimes even if it wasn’t), lots of people will want to keep hold of these friendships.
That’s completely fine. As long as his ex wasn’t abusive or vindictive, it’s totally ok for her to stay in touch with his friends and family. Talking about how she’s interacting with people close to him can be a good sign that he’s got nothing to hide.
Often, he’ll tell you about events she’s going to be at or things that have involved her as a way to keep you feeling included in his life. By talking to you about it, he’s working with you to deal with any problems as a couple. It’s definitely better than being blindsided by her showing up when you didn’t expect it.
Some guys will also need to talk to and about their ex because they still have shared responsibilities that they need to work together to fulfill.5
The most common example is if they have children together, but it could also be pets, a business, or even just disentangling their finances. I once had an ex who stayed in touch to help me work on an allotment we’d taken on together!
This is another really great sign. Not only is he able to have at least a relatively amicable breakup, he’s also showing you that he takes his commitments and responsibilities seriously. Lots of people take the first opportunity to walk away from their responsibilities. He’s showing you that he’s different.
Having shared responsibilities with an ex can be challenging, and it’s ok if he wants to talk to you about the ways that this is difficult for him. Alternatively, he might want to share news about his children or business that necessitates talking about his ex as well.
You can learn a lot about someone from how they talk about their exes. Sometimes, you’ll learn more than you wanted to know. If a guy is rude and insulting about an ex or violates her privacy, it might be a sign that he never had a lot of respect for her in the first place.
Someone who is happy to date someone he doesn’t treat with respect is a huge red flag. Misogynists will often ‘give themselves away’ by using sexist slurs or gendered insults about their exes.
It’s especially worrying if he talks about several (or even all) of his exes in this way.
For example, if he describes all of his exes as “crazy” and calls them names, he’s clearly not taking responsibility for his part in the relationship and he’s certainly not respecting them. You might be left wondering whether he’s going to talk about you in the same way. In my experience, that’s a valid concern.
There are also lots of ways that he might violate her privacy and this should also be a red flag. Some situations are obvious, such as if he shares intimate pictures or videos of her with others (even if he doesn’t share them with you).6
Other examples are more nuanced. For example, if she had a mental health diagnosis, he shouldn't share that information generally. That’s private and no one else’s business.
If her diagnosis had created problems in their relationship which he’s still coming to terms with (for example, if she had narcissistic personality disorder) then he might need to share that information with you to help you understand what’s going on for him.
Ask yourself why he’s sharing information about her and whether he’s taking steps to protect her privacy, or even showing that he’s thought about it at all.
Talking about his ex in a conversational manner is one thing. Making direct comparisons between you is a whole different ball game. There are almost no circumstances where it’s a good sign for him to draw direct comparisons between you and his ex, even if he says that you’re better.
If he starts making comparisons between you and his ex, it means that he’s thinking about you both in a similar context. I’ve talked about how it’s great if he stays friends with his ex, but he needs to have put her in his mental box marked “friend.” If he’s comparing you, she’s still at least partly in the box marked “girlfriend.”
This might explain why it feels so uncomfortable when a guy compliments you by saying something like “you’re so much prettier than my ex.” If you’re in a monogamous relationship, you usually want to be the only person in the mental “girlfriend” box. It can feel pretty crowded otherwise.
Comparisons also feel uncomfortable because they carry the implication that he’s evaluating or ranking women. When you try to compare two people and say that one is better than the other, you’re not really seeing them as unique individuals who are valuable and important in their own way.7
There is a huge difference between talking about his ex as one of his friends or a part of his past and talking about her as his “lost love” or “the one that got away.” If he still loves his ex and talks about her a lot, that’s not a good sign.
It’s actually perfectly possible to have an ex-partner who you would never date again but still care deeply about. The difference is that they fade to the back of your mind. When you think about them or run into them, you hope they’re happy and thriving. The rest of the time, they’re not super-relevant.
If a guy is talking about his ex to you in loving terms, he’s making her relevant to his life. He’s thinking about her, bringing her up, and she’s clearly on his mind.
This doesn’t mean that he’s a bad person. Unfortunately, it probably does mean that he’s a bad person to date right now.
Another difficult situation is when a guy is still deeply hurt and angry about how an ex treated him and isn’t ready to start moving past this. Relationships do sometimes end badly and there are definitely people who have behaved in ways that we can rightly criticize. But this shouldn’t get in the way of our current relationships.
One of the problems, when a guy is still hung up over how badly his ex treated him, is that he takes on the role of victim. He sees injustice in perfectly normal situations and can overreact to problems that could have been solved much more easily.
Let’s use the example of a guy whose ex cheated on him. If he’s dealt with her behavior and moved on, he’ll recognize that this was a horrible way to treat someone and that he’d misjudged her character when they first got together. He might feel more anxiety and jealousy than before, but he’ll talk to his new partner about it.
If he hasn’t moved on, he’ll be constantly looking for signs that you’re cheating and trying to restrict your freedom to make it harder for you to cheat. He might even say things like “all women cheat if they get the chance” or “everyone cheats on me.” He’ll also constantly bring up her cheating and use it to justify his behavior.
This is incredibly hard to deal with as a partner, and it has a strong chance of slipping over into abusive or codependent behavior.8
Hearing about your partner’s ex in casual conversation might be a little bit uncomfortable, but it’s nowhere near as bad as when he puts her on a pedestal. There’s a huge difference between talking about her as a part of his life before he met you and holding her up as a perfect example of a girlfriend.
Remember that his relationship with his ex broke down. This means that they clearly weren’t the perfect match. If he doesn’t want to recognize that fact then he’s probably still in love with her.
If he’s putting his ex on a pedestal when he talks about her, it’s probably only a matter of time until he starts making comparisons between you. I’ve already talked about why this is unhealthy and hurtful.
If your guy is genuinely over his ex, he won’t be overly worried about who she’s dating. After all, he’s got you now, so why should he be jealous of who gets to go home with her?
If he becomes jealous about his ex’s new partner, this is a sign that he’s not over her and that he might not be completely ready for a new relationship.
There is one exception to this. If he has genuine reasons to be concerned that her new partner is abusive, it’s totally normal for him to want to talk to you about the problem and get your opinion on his ex’s new partner.
This isn’t actually so much about asking him whether he’s over his ex (though, that’s also a pretty important question to ask). The most interesting question is whether he wants to be over his ex.
Sometimes we can know that a relationship is over (and even genuinely not want to get back together) but still feel strong emotions about the other person. That’s normal, especially after a long relationship.
Knowing whether he actively wants to get over her is important in deciding whether it’s worth waiting for him to fully process the end of his relationship and be ready to make a strong, meaningful emotional connection again.
It’s important to let him know how this situation is affecting you. You don’t want to guilt-trip him or try to push him to talk about her less, but you do need to be honest about your feelings and needs.
Talk to him about the things that hurt your feelings and try to work together to find something that feels ok for both of you.
Putting someone under pressure to move on from their ex isn’t helpful. It’s often better to have a little more distance from him and give him the space he needs to work through his feelings on his own.
It can be hard to leave someone you care about to deal with something painful without trying to help, especially when it has a direct impact on his ability to be in a relationship with you. This is one area where you’re absolutely not the right person to help him deal, however.
We all know the temptation of a rebound relationship, and how easy it is to try to hide our feelings about an ex in the whirlwind of a new relationship. If you think that he isn’t fully over his ex yet, make sure that you keep things slow to start with.
It’s ok for you to set your own boundaries around how you expect to be treated and what works and doesn’t work for you in your relationship. Remember that boundaries need to be things that you control.
For example, you can’t set a boundary that says that he has to take down all pictures of his ex from his social media. That’s an expectation or a requirement. You can set a boundary that you won’t listen to stories about his ex. If he starts to talk about her, you can change the subject or walk away.
In my opinion, this is probably the hardest tip in this list to achieve. Do your very best not to let it affect your self-esteem. Honestly, knowing that the guy you’re falling for is still hung up on someone else is painful, and it’s hard not to make comparisons and wonder what she has that you don’t.
Even though it’s hard, it’s important to try. He has a past with his ex and (hopefully) a future with you. Try to distract yourself when you start drawing comparisons between you and her.
This is probably not going to be a popular tip, but try not to expect him to completely sever all of his links to his past or to ignore positive memories he might have had. It’s totally normal to feel jealous if your guy isn’t fully over his ex, but making demands is rarely the right way to go about fixing things.
For example, seeing things of hers around his place might be upsetting for you, but it’s actually pretty common, especially after a long-term relationship breaks down. To you, they might be links to his ex. To him, it might just be “stuff.”
Consider asking him to put it in a drawer when you’re around, rather than demanding that he throws things out.
It’s not your job to help him work through his feelings about his ex. Not only is that a huge amount of emotional labor on your part, but it’s also setting you up for a possible codependent relationship in the future.
If you think he needs support and therapy, encourage him to find a qualified professional. And make sure that you get support where you need it as well.
It’s not a red flag if he talks about his ex to you. The more important thing is how he talks about her and why. If he’s respectful about her and is using the opportunity to open up to you about himself and his past, that’s a really good sign.
A guy might speak badly about their ex for many reasons. If their ex was abusive, for example, we can’t expect them to be polite or kind when they talk about her. More often, it’s a red flag that he doesn’t respect her and can turn nasty when the relationships end.
Talking about an ex can be a sign that he’s not over her, but there are lots of other explanations as well. Sometimes it’s a bigger warning sign if he doesn’t talk about her, because he might be trying to hide his feelings.
There’s no single answer to the question of whether it’s a problem when a guy talks about his ex to you or not. Sometimes it’s a red flag. Other times it’s a strong sign that he’s a good person. In either case, it’s useful information. He’s showing you who he really is.
How do you feel when he talks about his ex? Let me know in the comments, and why not share this article with someone who will enjoy it too?