My Partner Gets Angry When I Call Him By My Ex-Husband’s Name

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Reader’s Question

I am newly divorced after a 16 year marriage yet have just started the most beautiful new relationship. The problem is that my ex-husband’s name is very similar to my new partner’s name. When my new partner and I were first dating I occasionally slipped and called him my ex’s name a few times. I felt so terrible! Even now, 7 months into our relationship it has slipped out (the last time was in front of his parents!). He gets so angry with me and reminds me that he has never called me his ex-girlfriend’s name (not even close to mine, however). How can I stop this screw up? I have tried to explain to him that it is just “muscle memory” and has nothing to do with what I am feeling for him. I think I feel just as badly, if not worse, when I make this mistake.

Psychologist’s Reply

Given the circumstances, it seems perfectly reasonable that you will occasionally slip. Old habits die hard, especially if the two names start with the same sounds. Although your explanation of the slips seems valid, it doesn’t sound as though the explanations have kept your partner from having his feelings hurt.

I suspect that your partner is sensitive to the slip-ups due to the fact that the relationship is still relatively new; that is, there may still be some insecurity or uncertainty about the strength of your feelings for him compared to a man with whom you were married for 16 years. Also, if he has not lived with a partner for that long, it’s unlikely that he can fully appreciate the automatic habits that develop, such as calling out a spouse’s name without much thought.

As you’ve already tried the rational-explanation approach, it may be worth focusing on soothing the underlying source of his anger or frustration when you slip up: uncertainty. That is, when it happens, simply reassure him that there’s no one you’d rather be with than him, and then let it go and focus on something else. Also, as your relationship matures, the occasional slip-up will mean less, as there will be a more solid history that provides reassurance that the mistake has no emotional meaning.

To help ensure fewer slip-ups, here’s one last suggestion: choose a nickname for your partner that sounds nothing like your ex-husband’s name.

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