Adapted from a recent online discussion.
When it comes to exes, who's the bad egg?
Am I the bad egg?: Been reading through your old columns and realized you always advise against dating people who don't get along with their exes. I have three exes worth noting and am on bad-to-neutral terms with all of them. Would it really be right to assume I'm the problem?
Carolyn: I'm always uncomfortable with the idea of extrapolating the advice from past columns and applying it to similar situations. A difference in one key detail can change the advice completely.
With that disclaimer in place, I'll try for a general answer. First, you say your relationships with your exes are "bad to neutral." Don't discount the neutral; that's a perfectly healthy outcome when two people stop loving each other or don't get along anymore.
And even if all your relationships with exes were bad, there'd still be plenty of room for redemption.
Hostile relations with exes, as a pattern, say that you're a shaky judge of character and/or that you have shaky relationship skills — but both are areas where a person can improve. If you've done the hard work to recognize and break your bad habits, then you'll be a good bet based on your current behavior.
So I guess the answer is, if there's a pattern, then you're at least part of the problem, but that doesn't mean you're doomed to be problematic. Look back at what went wrong, and see whether you've learned from it.
Anonymous: I'm not the one who asked about being a bad egg, but now I wonder, because I'm not friends with any of my three serious exes. I tried with the first but in the end it was better if we didn't speak. For the second one I have no desire to reach out, and for the third I could but have decided not to. For me it's easier to not have contact with them. I'm sure if our paths crossed somehow I'd be civil but I wouldn't go out of my way.
I never thought of this as an issue until I saw that posting. I'm interested to hear what your thoughts are.
Carolyn: To me, falling out of touch with exes goes under the "neutral" heading and is just not a powerful sign of anything, except that life took you in different directions.
What I'm talking about are consistent, lingering, intensely bad feelings between you and your ex after pretty much every relationship ends — or, worse, ongoing, high-conflict relationships with more than one ex.
Anonymous 2: Carolyn, I thought your "bad relationships with exes" definition extended to harboring active ill will or an overly negative attitude toward all of one's exes. If every single one of a person's exes is someone "from hell" rather than just someone with whom things didn't work out, that's a big warning sign. Have I read you right?
Carolyn: Exactly, yes, thank you. Even when there's no ongoing craziness, if the person you're dating speaks about exes as if they're all monsters — or just the ones they blame for the demise of the relationship — than that's a warning sign. Healthy people will account for their own mistakes, not vilify others for theirs.