Anyone who writes fiction will tell you: Misunderstandings are storytelling gold. Shakespeare used them for both comic and tragic effect. So did Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, and J.K. Rowling. I often build an entire plot around a misunderstanding I establish in the first few pages of a novel.
In real life, misunderstandings are less entertaining. They can lead to confusion, anger, and tears. This is never more true than in romantic relationships, especially a new relationship that begins in midlife. What works in a romantic comedy--the cute meet at the beginning followed by the stormy breakup in the middle that leads to the happily ever after--often falls flat in real life when the first misunderstanding arises.
Because here's the thing about modern relationships: In many cases, there are former boyfriends, girlfriends, and even ex-spouses who are not Disney villains. Some are pretty darn nice. And what about all those interesting people you met during the months, or years, of online dating?
What do we do with the people from our past to avoid misunderstandings in our current relationships?
Most of us would probably agree that a candlelight dinner with an ex is a bad idea. But what about a casual dinner or lunch? Researchers at Cornell University discovered that sharing a meal with an ex-partner elicits more sexual jealousy from a current significant partner, male or female, than does an interaction that does not involve eating.
"Eating seems to be viewed as more intimate than just talking or drinking coffee with another person," says Dr. Kevin Kniffin, a behavioral scientist and co-author of the Cornell study.
Okay, so what about coffee? What about Irish coffee? What about the Irish guy you dated casually and platonically over coffee? Do you maintain contact with him in person? By phone? Online? Not at all? How do we balance our desire to be kind to the people from our past with our greater desire to be wonderful partners in our current relationships?
"Attachment theory offers a really good framework for approaching this," says Dr. Heike Winterheld, a social psychologist at Washington University who studies close relationships. "It's important to understand that many people have attachment insecurity because their emotional needs weren't reliably or completely met by early caregivers. In a new relationship, you bring your old attachment history with you."
According to Dr. Winterheld, attachment insecurity generally takes two forms. Adults who had inconsistent care as children may feel anxious and overreact when they feel insecure in a relationship. Other people who were forced to be overly self-reliant as children may avoid or deny their feelings.
So when it comes to lunch dates with exes, it's often: "What?! You're having lunch together? Are we breaking up?" Or, "Go ahead. Have lunch. Have dinner. Have fun, dear."
There is a healthy middle ground, says Dr. Winterheld. "Learning to calmly and openly express your concerns in a non-accusatory way is possible. Pay attention to your attachment pattern and learn the attachment needs and expectations of your partner."
As always, communication is the key. Here are a few questions to get the conversation started:
- How will we respond if a former partner asks us to pet sit or bring in the mail during vacation?
- What if my ex is scheduled for a minor procedure in the hospital and wants me to be there to lend moral support?
- Let's say your ex has always relied on you to help with taxes, holiday shopping, or financial advice. Would you continue to help? Or is it better to say, "I'm not the right person for that job anymore."
- Will we continue to provide former partners with free IT support? Proofreading services? Access to our Netflix account?
- What if someone you met online and dated briefly and platonically wants to have lunch or dinner, "just to catch up"?
- Will we respond to every email and text from everyone we've ever dated? Or should we limit communication and even ignore some messages to avoid sending mixed signals about our availability?
"Attachment insecurity is common," says Dr. Winterheld. "I've never met a person who didn't relate to one attachment disorder or the other. Therapy can help, but if it's a mild attachment disorder, just learning about it can sometimes do the trick."
You might also want to make a list of what's exclusively yours as a couple. Cordon off those special things with a velvet rope to protect them and the relationship. You might also consider keeping your list private. After all, one of the nicest things about being in a relationship is the fact that some things are reserved for two, just like the best table in a romantic restaurant.