If you’re over 30 and have been in more than one serious romantic relationship, the odds are you’ve done this. (Or, if you haven’t said it out loud, you’ve had it in your head and just got lucky enough to slam on the verbal brakes before the fateful blurt.)
What is it that you’ve most likely done?
Called your current partner or spouse by your ex’s name.
I’ve done it, my wife has done it (to me), almost all my friends have done it, and I’ve worked with many clients who have done it.
And you don’t need me to tell you that it doesn’t feel good, whether you’re the blurter or the receiver.
Why is this little slip (which doesn’t feel little when it happens) so prevalent among couples?
The first thing to realize is that this typically happens when couples are comfortable with each other (so all of you out there worrying that it means your relationship is in trouble can breathe a sigh of relief). When the relationship is very new and you’re anxious about how you’re appearing to the person you’re dating, you tend not to let down your guard and relax, so this innocent mistake is less likely to occur.
But before you read any deep-seated motives into this common occurrence, let’s look at some reasons for the dreaded name blunder:
Habits leave residue
The most common reason for this is quite simple, actually, and quite benign. It’s easily explained by the workings of the brain:
Anything you do regularly can become automatic over time (this means that you do it without thinking about it, without needing to focus on it). For example, you probably don’t vividly remember brushing your teeth this morning (unless something unusual happened, like your toothbrush snapped in half or you couldn’t find the toothpaste), but this doesn’t mean you didn’t brush your teeth.
Likewise, when you drove to work this morning, you didn’t have to tell yourself when to press the brake pedal and when to press the gas pedal. Your brain sends your feet the appropriate messages without you needing to be aware of them. And therefore, you don’t remember each and every gas/brake pedal depression after the fact. Driving has become automatic so that you do it without consciously thinking about it (even when you’re struggling with the directions to a place you’ve never been, you aren’t focusing on the underlying mechanisms of operating the vehicle…that part stays consistent).
Once you master driving, neural pathways have been created around that. I’m sure you can think of lots of other examples of automatic, habitual behavior.
So, in your prior relationship, your brain became used to saying your ex’s name. It became a habit through repetition. Now obviously your brain has gotten the memo that you’re no longer with your ex, but the sheer habit of saying your ex’s name has left a residue, causing you to slip back into the habit now and again.
Please hear—loudly and clearly—what I’m about to say next:
You accidentally using your former partner’s name does not mean that you secretly want to be with your ex! (And the reverse holds true: if your partner makes the name blunder, it does not mean they’re pining for their ex.)
Unconscious triggering through similarities
Typically (but not always) we are drawn to types of people. And even though our partners might change, the types we are attracted to usually stay the same (for instance, if you tend to be quiet and introverted you might be drawn to someone outgoing and loquacious; if you are impulsive you may find yourself attracted to someone who’s a planner). It may be unsettling to think that you share characteristics with your mate’s ex (or that your current partner has similarities to your ex), though the truth is that those similarities may exist.
Perhaps your partner said something or did something in a certain way, using a certain mannerism, that momentarily caused a blip of unconscious confusion. Notice the word unconscious. This occurs below the surface of your awareness. So it’s not as if you literally forget who you’re with. You don’t actually rewind in your head to being with your ex!
Specific event or circumstance
In this case, a specific event, circumstance, or interaction led to an unconscious connection to the partner of your past.
For instance, if you’re taking scuba lessons with your partner, and the last time you took scuba lessons you were with your ex, your brain is primed with the unconscious association between scuba lessons and your ex. So you can see how understandable a name slip would be in this situation! Obviously your brain will replace the old connection with the new one, but a slip in this area is common.
You may have had a dream about your ex, one you may not even remember (depending on when in the sleep cycle a dream occurs, the dream won’t be remembered the next day). And the residue of that dream can lodge in your unconscious and cause you to say your ex’s name when you mean to say your current partner’s name.
As with the other reasons above, this does not mean that you want to be with your ex, or that your partner wants to be with his/her ex. Our dreams are populated with lots of people/places/things, some that mean a great deal to us, and some that mean little-to-nothing to us.
So you can see that usually the name blurt is totally benign, whether you are on the blurting end or the receiving end.
But when can it be a problem?
Far less commonly, the name blunder can signal a potential problem. For instance, the following scenarios bear further exploration:
• You or your partner makes the name mistake regularly and continuously; it’s starting to feel as if the ex’s name is the one used more often than the current mate’s name. This might be because the person making the repeated mistake has not allowed enough grieving time at the end of the prior relationship before entering into a new one. It does not necessarily mean that they want to be with their ex—it just may be that they didn’t work through the pain of the past breakup before committing to a new partner.
• Your partner doesn’t want to hear that their slip hurt your feelings or made you feel insecure. And worse, your partner doesn’t want to try to make sure the mistake doesn’t keep happening. In this case, your partner may be minimizing your feelings; if this is the case, it reaches far beyond the name issue to other, more major issues—it may mean that your partner fails to take your feelings into account, or doesn’t want to understand your feelings.
• The mistake isn’t a mistake but is something your partner does to get your goat during a fight. That is not a benign, innocent slip like the examples above.
Okay, with all that said, it’s important to note that when you’re on the receiving end of this (if your partner calls you by his/her ex’s name), it will probably sting. There’s nothing wrong with you if that’s the case! It may cause you to wonder where your partner’s heart is. It sets up a context for being compared, for wondering about your partner’s ex and how s/he felt about him/her as compared with you (never a fun thing to think about!). And the more vulnerable you are when it happens, the more it will sting. (For instance, during love-making.)
So what do you do when you are called the wrong name?
Honesty and openness are always the best bets in marriage or long-term relationships. Your partner will most likely already know that the slip hurt you, and s/he probably apologized the minute it happened and wished it could be taken back. Still, it may feel right to you to express your feelings about the slip. Do so as calmly as you can, with the humbling knowledge that you might make the same mistake one day.
If I tell you not to think about a white elephant, you’re thinking about it
It’s important to know that if your partner is made to feel shamed about the slip, or pressured to guarantee that it will never happen again, s/he will likely be thinking about the name s/he shouldn’t utter, which, ironically, will make him/her think more about that very name!
If I tell you not to think about a white elephant, not to vividly picture a white elephant—or a ripe strawberry, or a bowl of spaghetti, or a tidal wave—then what are you thinking about? That’s right…elephant, strawberry, spaghetti, wave…
So take that into consideration if you’re on the receiving end. These benign slips tend to naturally work themselves out and fade away, and since they’re occurring at the unconscious level, making them conscious with undue pressure—or inward chants of Don’t say the name _______, don’t, don’t, don’t!—can do more harm than good.
If you’d like to take a peek at a humorous view of this topic, check out my article What to Do When You Call Your Partner by an Ex’s Name.
Until next time,
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured [top] images “I Can’t Believe This” and “Woman Covering Her Ears” both by Stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)