What Is Retroactive Jealousy and How to Overcome It

10 Jun 2023
13 min read
Retroactive Jealousy: 7 Causes and 5 Ways to Overcome It

To a point, it’s perfectly normal to feel some jealousy of your partners’ last relationship. After all, you’re now with this amazing person and it can be a little upsetting that you weren’t with them sooner. But is it really “healthy” jealousy – or you’ve already fallen into retroactive jealousy fuelled by your own insecurities? We’re here to provide you with guidelines to check it by yourself.

Retroactive jealousy is a very common phenomenon in the dating world. It is behind those jealous feelings that cause you to do things you know you shouldn’t, like trying to control your partner’s past relationships. These jealous feelings are also bringing up irrational thoughts about their past partners, and may even lead to you stalking them.

So, here we are going to talk about what retroactive jealousy is, what may cause it, as well as ways to deal with it in a healthy way.

What Is Retroactive Jealousy?

Retroactive jealousy essentially means that you are feeling jealous, or even threatened by your partner’s past relationships. It differs from regular jealous feelings which usually relate to existing relationships and behaviors. This has to do with your partner’s past, and can lead to dysfunction and conflict. People who struggle with retroactive jealousy often cope with these negative thoughts in destructive ways.

Why Do People Get Jealous of Their Partner’s Past Relationships?

People getting jealous of their partner’s exes boils down to what somebody views as being first, or rather being the winner. Even if they have somebody for the rest of their lives, there is still that lingering knowledge of knowing that somebody was with them before.

Additionally, someone who experiences feelings of retroactive jealousy may feel inadequate. They constantly compare themselves to their partner’s exes, and wonder if they are good enough.

Finally, retroactive jealousy can come from religious or moral hang ups. Someone may feel upset or obsessive over the simple fact that someone has previous partners. This may be expressed as disapproval when in reality it is retroactive jealousy.

Is Retroactive Jealousy a Mental Health Disorder?

While it may not be directly considered a mental health disorder, it does have a proper name that reflects mental health disorders, which is retroactive jealousy OCD. However, regarding the retroactive jealousy-OCD connection, not all retroactive jealousy is related to OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Only its certain form, called retroactive jealousy OCD, can lead to unmanageable fears and obsessive thoughts that result in many behavioral patterns that are seen in retroactive jealousy.

How retroactive jealousy develops and manifests

Development and Manifestation of Retroactive Jealousy OCD

OCD is caused by genes and family history. However, it can be kicked off by a traumatic event or by no clear cause at all. Retroactive jealousy may develop in a person who already has unwanted thoughts associated with OCD and has an experience that makes them become obsessed with their current partner’s history.

This form of OCD may manifest in experiencing intense fear that a partner will cheat or leave you for an ex. You may also feel jealous to the extent that you are unable to control your emotions at the thought of your partner’s personal history. Other OCD behaviors might include:

  • constantly calling your partner and checking on them,
  • driving by their place of work to see that they are where they should be,
  • checking and double checking social media posts,
  • requiring constant reassurance that your partner cares about you.

Like many mental health conditions, you may be aware your behavior is problematic. However, without help you may not be able to control it. This can make your daily life extraordinarily dysfunctional.

7 common causes for retroactive jealous feelings

7 Psychological Causes of Retroactive Jealousy

Someone may experience retroactive jealousy for a variety of reasons. There may also be absolutely no clear reason whatsoever to be jealous of a partner’s previous relationships. It just happens – but commonly, there are deep psychological processes underneath. Let’s see what are the most common psychological reasons of retroactive jealousy among them.

Related reading: 8 Damaging and 6 Good Psychological Effects of Being Single Too Long

1. Traumatic Experiences

Almost everybody experiences some form of trauma in their past. This can manifest itself in many ways, including retroactive jealousy. Sometimes, these jealous feelings crop up because of trauma that doesn’t even have much to do with relationships.

For example, trauma may create an intense need of security. That can cause you to fear losing a relationship because you aren’t “good enough”.

Of course, relational trauma may cause you to fret over your partner’s past. This may occur if there has been infidelity in your own romantic relationships.

2. Powerful Unresolved Feelings from Childhood

In many ways, this is an offset of the previous point. When the trauma you have experienced happens in childhood, it can be particularly entrenched.

Also, because that trauma often happens before you were able to fully form logical connections between your experiences, perceptions, and feelings, those manifestations may not make sense. This is why it’s so important to work with a licensed mental health counselor or other mental health professional to better understand these things.

3. Insecurity

“Recognizing that jealousy is usually a sign of insecurity can help us be more mindful of how we’re feeling and interacting with others. Perhaps if we catch ourselves feeling jealous, we can take a step back and reassess the situation. Is there something we’re afraid of? Are we feeling threatened? Taking the time to identify our feelings can help us to address them head-on rather than letting them fester.”

Lanae St.John, a board-certified sexologist

Insecurity can absolutely cause intrusive thoughts. Sometimes, these involve retroactive jealousy. This is because insecurity isn’t just rooted in comparison, it also leads to even more unhealthy comparison. For example, you may compare what you have to your neighbors or coworkers. Likewise, you may look to your partner’s romantic history and become worried that you might not be good enough.

Related reading: Insecure Men: How a Fragile Ego Can Ruin Romance

4. Substance Use Issues

Does substance abuse cause retroactive jealousy? Maybe not. But it can make these intrusive thoughts worse. It can also prevent you or your partner from dealing with these feelings in a healthy way. If you are experiencing retroactive jealousy, understand that using substances will probably make the situation worse. You should deal with this issue first, and so should your partner if they are struggling.

5. Low Self Esteem

People who are experiencing retroactive jealousy may also suffer from low self-esteem. As a result, they expect negative things to happen in their relationships. This can create a feedback loop where they either expect to be cheated on, or to be judged as inadequate. When these feelings become focused on their lover’s past romantic relationships, that is retroactive jealousy.

Related reading: The Making of a Sexual Goddess

6. Sexual Dysfunction

Sexual dysfunction is more common than most people think. Someone may experience retroactive jealousy if they believe a partner’s sexual relationships in the past were more satisfying. Fortunately, there is help for this. A certified sex therapist can be extremely helpful. Also, if dysfunction is the result of a medical issue, a physician can absolutely provide advice and treatment to make things better.

We want to note that this isn’t just an issue that impacts biological men. Women can also struggle with sexual dysfunction.

7. Other Health Issues

“Emotions can be information without being directives. That means you can experience jealousy, acknowledge that it is uncomfortable, and ask for appropriate support, without immediately behaving in a knee-jerk way or being accusatory.”

Bethny Gabriella Brown, licensed professional counselor

Chronic illness can have a far reaching impact. If you or your partner struggle with this, that may change how you are intimate with one another. Sometimes, it forces one person into the role of caregiver. All of these things may cause the person who is ill to worry that their partner secretly wants to be with a previous partner who is healthy and better able to function.

How Retroactive Jealousy Impacts Your Life?

You or your romantic partners retroactive jealousy can have an impact on your current relationship. Depending on the behavioral patterns that result, it may also negatively influence future relationships.

Mental Health

Retroactive jealousy isn’t just feeling jealous at times. It can be mentally exhausting and embarrassing. You know it isn’t logical to feel that way, but you do anyway. This can cause feelings of shame and frustration. You might even struggle to sleep properly.

Your Relationship

Whether your partner starts to experience retroactive jealousy or you do, there can be damage to your relationship. Sometimes, you may not be able to recover from it. If you can do so safely, look into couples therapy. This will allow both of you to develop strategies to deal with this and help you ensure a healthier long term relationship.

Future and Reputation

Sadly, retroactive jealousy can lead to serious, red-flag behavioral patterns. This might include stalking your partner’s social media accounts or obsessing over their ex’s online presence. If you do these things or engage in more alarming actions such as confronting people or making them feel threatened you could do damage that you can’t undo. You certainly don’t want to deal with legal issues or develop a reputation as an obsessive or jealous lover.

Related reading: Need to Catch a Cheater? Here Are the Ways to Do It!

5 signs of retroactive jealousy

5 Common Signs of Retroactive Jealousy

Jealousy is a natural emotion. Everybody experiences times of feeling insecure about their relationships. However, most people learn to deal with these difficult feelings.

1. Unexplainable Emotional Patterns

The feelings of anxiety, suspicion, and anger that are common with retroactive jealousy aren’t predictable. They rarely make sense, and rarely align with things that are occurring in real life. You may feel perfectly content, and then suddenly filled with a feeling of dread that your partner has been in contact with their ex partners with the intent of cheating on you.

2. Ruminating About Your Partner’s Past Relationships

Even without intending to, you start thinking and obsessing over your partner’s romantic and sexual partners. You wonder about the details of each past relationship, and convince yourself that you don’t measure up. Ironically, this causes you to neglect your present relationship, endangering it even further.

3. Digitally Stalking Their Ex

It’s normal to be a bit curious about your partner’s romantic past. Many people have taken a glance or two at their boyfriend or girlfriend’s ex lover’s Facebook. But, this is different. You check their social media accounts excessively, sometimes multiple times per day. You even read the comments to see if your partner is still in communication with them. When you don’t find anything suspect, you still don’t feel better. So, the vicious cycle continues, as you look for more dirt on your lover’s past partner.

4. Comparing Your Past with Your S.O.’s Past

You engage in a type of social comparison with your significant other. You think about your dating experiences and theirs. Then, you begin to feel insecure, even a bit angry. Perhaps they have more sexual experience than you. You may resent they had more opportunities to experience romance than you. In any case, these comparisons trigger distrust of your partner.

5. Controlling Their Relationship with Their Ex

This jealousy can lead you to believe you can prevent potential cheating in your relationship, as long as you maintain some control. This particularly tends to crop up when your partner has an existing relationship with their ex. For example, they share custody of a child, have professional ties, or even mutual friends.

You may try to exert control by insisting you be allowed to read text messages or that you are present whenever they meet. Of course, your partner resents this. Nobody wants to be treated like a child who needs supervision.

How to overcome retroactive jealousy

5 Techniques for Overcoming Feelings of Retroactive Jealousy

Overcoming retroactive jealousy isn’t just possible – it’s necessary. Your obsession over your partner and their romantic or sexual history is unhealthy. Worse, it’s inconsiderate of your partner’s feelings. Fortunately, with effort and open communication, you can improve the situation and stop jealousy from undermining your relationship.

1. Discover the Underlying Issues

Sit in silence and ask yourself questions:

  • What is causing these feelings?
  • Are you struggling with a mental illness that isn’t being treated properly?
  • Have you had past experiences that are causing this obsessive romantic jealousy?

Get a professional involved who will conduct a personal interview or other assessment to provide proper insights and recommendations.

2. Talk to Someone

In addition to seeing a professional, find someone you can trust to help you work through your emotions and come up with healthy coping strategies. They should be objective, and it’s important that you are honest about the nature of your problem when you talk to them. A trusted friend is a good choice as long as they recognize that your issues with your partner aren’t based on a realistic narrative.

Related reading: Appreciating a Platonic Soulmate

3. Practice Developing a Healthy Mindset

You can control your behavior to a great extent. That changed behavior can lead to a healthier mindset about your partner’s previous relationships.

When you begin feeling jealous or angry, stop. Take a walk. Write down the positive aspects of your current romantic relationship. By turning your focus on the positive traits in your own situation, you can gain better perspective. Also, if you do this often enough, it will become habit.

4. Build Your Own Self Worth

“You will see that the value you give yourself is the value the world reflects back to you.”

Oprah Winfrey

People who lack self confidence are more likely to experience jealousy and insecurity over their relationship with their partner. Instead of comparing yourself to a past lover, work on building your own strengths.

Anybody can be a catch. Know what you have to offer and focus on that – whether it’s a great sense of humor, dedication to your community, interesting hobbies or something else. Get your partner to engage in these activities with you. That’s a great way to strengthen your relationship and make new memories.

Also, consider taking a break from your favorite social platforms. They are full of toxic content that are designed to make you feel less than. There’s just no denying social media’s role in making people feel bad about themselves. So, why let that happen to you or your partners.

5. Talk to Your Partner About It

It’s important to be honest with your partner, but tread carefully. This isn’t their issue to fix for you or even with you. They also shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed for having a romantic or sexual past.

Instead, let them know that you are struggling, but that you are taking responsibility for working on these issues.

If there are changes you need to make, such as removing yourself from certain situations, tell them about that as well. If you’re seeing a professional, your partner may or may not want to join one of your sessions. Don’t pressure them to do that, and make sure your therapist thinks that will be a productive idea.


What Should I Do If My Partner Shows Signs of Retroactive Jealousy?

What you can do in this case is be lovingly understanding while enforcing boundaries. You can also provide them with specific help if they ask in terms of seeking therapy or developing healthy strategies. However, this isn’t your problem to take on. Don’t do the emotional labor of your partner’s recovery. This is true for both OCD sufferers or those who struggle with retroactive jealousy for other reasons.

You Can Get Past Retroactive Jealousy

Couples can get beyond retroactive jealousy! However, it does take significant effort. Remember that your partner’s romantic history doesn’t make you an inadequate lover, and your own past is nothing to be ashamed of. You can do it if you genuinely want to overcome it.

Love&Sex Expert
Cherie Hamilton
I’ve always been inspired by women who are outgoing, very sure of themselves, and not afraid to be who they were, including their sex lives. Under their tutelage, I gradually shed my old self, hung out and socialized with them, and, over time, became the empowered, self-confident, and sexual woman I am today. Happy to share my insights with other women today!

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