In a relationship, jealousy can arise every now and then. We cannot help it, and it’s quite normal when they come from silly reasons. Whether it’s how your partner got a raise at work or a stranger tried to flirt with you in a public place, communication is the biggest key to solving jealousy.
However, if the jealousy comes from your partner’s dating history and the things they did with them before you entered the picture, that’s another discussion. And that discussion starts now — that kind of jealousy is called retroactive jealousy.
Uncover more about this insecurity-boosting state, how it’s caused and how you can manage it.
What is Retroactive Jealousy?
Verywell Health defines Retroactive Jealousy as:
“The distress or perceived threat a person feels about their partner’s past romantic relationships.”
Such distress leads to having an obsessive and unhealthy fixation on our partner’s former romantic and sexual partners. Or as Verywell Mind placed it, you’d gain an unhealthy preoccupation about your partner’s romantic history. You think about the things they used to do, the sex they had, or how intimately and emotionally close they were. Because of these factors, they can lead to negative, hurtful actions.
Additionally, PsychCentral identifies Retroactive Jealousy as jealousy of the past without current or existing interference from an ex. It’s coined “retroactive” because it consists of jealousy of what has already come and gone, without a possibility of being changed. It can arise out of nowhere. You don’t have to be in a bad part of your relationship to suddenly get this. However, it’s capable of destroying your relationship if you let it consume you and the trust you and your partner have.
Jealousy vs. Retroactive Jealousy
Regular jealousy is an emotion sparked at the moment, usually with a reason. It could be out of protection or in response to something you did that they didn’t like. Caught a waiter flirting with you while getting your orders? They could get grumpy. Or they give you the silent treatment along the way home when you speak to someone who used to have a crush on you.
Scenarios like this are examples of day-to-day jealousy, which can be resolved hours to days later when you and your partner collect yourselves from such strong emotions. The kind of instances that make you look at each other funny, wondering why you argued over something so silly, then move on.
Meanwhile with Retroactive Jealousy, certified sex therapist Kate Balestrieri shares how it focuses on being superior to the previous partners of your partner. Even if they don’t matter anymore since the past is past, you won’t let it go that easily. You’d keep lingering over those people, especially when a jealousy like this can’t really progress.
Stages of Retroactive Jealousy
With the main objective of retroactive jealousy being the type to envy past partners, it can present itself in 3 stages. Know more about each stage derived from Ballard Psychiatry in this section.
1 Mild-to-Moderate Retroactive Jealousy
This first stage of retroactive jealousy is found along the regular kind of jealousy, where you may feel discomfort towards your partner’s past relationships. It may get you paranoid, cross-questioning the people they get in contact with. However, there’s no progress toward abusive or violent behaviors.
2 Value Questioning Retroactive Jealousy
As the name suggests, you question everything about your partner and even judge their actions and behavior. You’ll play victim as your partner is the “immoral” person in the relationship, cheating on you when they aren’t. Any action they do, like walking or how they dress you, they all imply a suggestive or sexual meaning to you.
You can also question their sexual or romantic choices, envious of whatever they did with them before but never done with you. You can comment, “Oh, I hate that you gave them oral sex in the car but never with me!” alongside profanities. You’d wonder if this person is really the one for you.
3 Retroactive Jealousy OCD
Although this stage is rare, it’s also very serious. Especially when violence can begin to occur, you may begin to sneak around your partner and invade their personal space. You can even begin fights unprovoked to “fool your partner” into admitting they did something. When really, they didn’t.
According to PsychCentral, retroactive jealousy also qualifies the criteria of obsessional jealousy, which is an emotional and mental fixation connected to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Hence, Retroactive Jealousy OCD exists. This would then cause intrusive thoughts to form, leading you to the verge of obsession with your partner’s past. And when you feel such a way, you’d follow into a cycle of unhealthy actions they’d do religiously to satisfy such thoughts.
Causes of Retroactive Jealousy
What exactly brings retroactive jealousy to the surface for someone in a relationship? Learn more about the potential causes of this form of jealousy below.
This factor is the most common cause of retroactive jealousy. When one starts feeling threatened or fearful within the relationship, they can slowly lose trust in their partner. It can be due to their inner lackings, comparing what they don’t have vs. your ex or how they look.
2 Low Self-Esteem/Confidence
One would avoid social gatherings or trying new things and challenges. They also think of themselves very poorly, wondering if they can keep up to your level. But in reality, you would care less if they weren’t like your ex-partners. They are their own person, yet they want to present an upgraded version of themselves that wouldn’t be authentic.
3 History of Betrayal
In other words, they’ve been cheated on or experienced unfaithfulness from another person before. This would mean that their trust in others runs really thin, highly protective of themselves to avoid getting hurt again. As it’s difficult to continue living with trust issues, they shouldn’t interfere with your current relationship. You shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that they’ll be like them. See and embrace them as they are fully.
4 Abandonment and Attachment Issues
With abandonment issues, you fear being left behind by the people you love. You fear loneliness, a type of anxiety when you lose those dearest to you. Having issues like this will only worsen if you get retroactive jealousy toward your partner. Out of fear of losing them, you hurt them in the process over what has gone and passed. Something that is out of your control.
As for attachment issues, it’s more crucial if you have an anxious attachment style. You view others very highly, while you have a negative outlook on yourself. For example, you see your partner as “the better half” and your companions as successful people. On the other hand, you look down on yourself and question your worth. So constantly, you need reassurance from your partner as you’re afraid they aren’t as committed as you are in the relationship. Thus, abandonment issues come in.
In terms of retroactive jealousy, you’re afraid they’ll go back to their ex if you do something wrong because of your intrusive thoughts about them. You’d cling onto them like no other when really, there’s no competition to begin with.
5 Obsession with the Perfect Relationship
Perfection is a hoax. Even if we idealize a perfect, utopia-like life for ourselves, that’s not possible. Humans are prone to mistakes; that’s a fact. But with retroactive jealousy, that’s not acceptable. We’d want our partner to be flawless from head to toe, including their past. We’d hate any imperfections and flaws in them, whether you used to have more sexual encounters with them or went to places they haven’t been to. There are a lot of pedestals, but the breakdown is that they can’t accept the fact that you are imperfect.
6 Pre-existing or Undiagnosed Mental Health Conditions
As mentioned earlier, retroactive jealousy has a link with OCD. This can also mean that it’s a possible symptom of other prevalent mental health disorders, from personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and anxiety among many others. Keep in mind that only a medical professional can diagnose one with a condition and that the longer a condition goes undiagnosed, the harder it’ll be for one to recover and heal from it.
7 Childhood Trauma
This cause of retroactive jealousy can go many ways. It can be how we were overlooked by another sibling, lacked a parental presence, situated as the middle child, or that feeling of not being wanted or accepted by the family. Reasons like these can grow unresolved, which creates paranoia and insecurity as we grow up and create new relationships with other people. We’d also envy how they were raised, questioning why we were never loved like them. And yes, we’d even forget and invalidate the current love and affection of our current partner when we think like this.
8 Social Media
Everyone has a digital print. It’s hard not to when we want to keep in touch with our close companions and get updated with the latest news and trends. Because of this, it worsens our temptation to inspect someone. Specifically, your partners’ exes. According to Sociology and Intimacy Professor Jacqui Gabb: “There’s a greater capacity for exes to be present in your life through social media.”
Social media has become a strong tool for investigating absolutely anything and everything about your partner’s exes. Based on this interview-based study from 2018, they discovered how social networking sites benefit one’s retroactive jealousy to uncover former relationship details and materials alongside former digital relationship print.
Signs of Retroactive Jealousy
What kind of characteristics should we look out for if someone is experiencing retroactive jealousy? Look out for the following signs to spread awareness towards ourselves or the people around us.
- You compare yourself to their ex constantly.
- You attempt to control the current relationship between your partner and their ex.
- You can’t help but dwell and ask your partner about their past with their ex.
- You insult your partner’s ex.
- And you’re also questioning your partner’s close companions about their ex.
- You’re deeply stalking their exes on social media, and even make various dummy accounts to investigate more.
- You’re easily suspicious of your partner and what they do due to the lack of trust.
- When arguing or fighting, it’s due to their exes.
- You snoop through your partner’s private property.
- You worry and overthink everything about yourself.
How Can I Overcome Retroactive Jealousy?
If you’ve come this far, that may mean you are experiencing jealousy or are curious about this topic. Either way, in the midst of something terrible to your well-being, there are solutions you can look towards for retroactive jealousy. Keep reading to find out more.
1 Accept your feelings as they are.
Face it: you’re gaining jealousy over the past and you’re frustrated about it. So by noticing it through the signs we mentioned in the previous section then accepting them allows you to be honest with yourself. You validate your emotions as they are. And at the same time, be open to change and don’t get so defensive. It’ll make your journey through this challenging time smoother and easier.
2 Communication is key.
Retroactive jealousy involves your partner without them noticing it. To combat this, take time to sit down and converse your feelings with them. Not only does this strengthen your communication skill as a couple, but it also gives you both a path to be straightforward rather than be left with assumptions and to open up more. Ask them the questions that have bothered you, especially about their ex-partners. This is so that you can get closure to those horrid thoughts. After that, accept what your partner says about them, and don’t force them into a corner too if you think their answers aren’t sufficient.
3 Work on yourself.
No, we’re not saying you’re lacking in the relationship. That you’re not worthy of your partner and all that jazz.
We’re more centered on how you should work on your self-esteem because retroactive jealousy is rooted in insecurity. Focus on fixing your confidence by absorbing times in energy-giving activities and your own hobbies that make you happy. Redirect that negative energy and emotion into something that’ll benefit your well-being. For example, try out a new exercise routine where you can let out all that stress and frustration.
Take this time to also break any cycle you may have built unintentionally, like taking up too much screentime lurking on your partner’s exes to get peace of mind. But really, you’re worsening your anxiety and obsession.
4 Reflect on your relationship so far.
Easier said than done, but ignore the past and everything in it. It’s done. Shift your mind to the present and the fact your partner chose you. They may have even done things they’d never done until you entered the picture. Yes, comparing what happened then is irresistible, but that shouldn’t matter anymore. To help with those, you can practice gratitude and journaling to free your negative thoughts.
5 Go on a social media cleanse.
Social media is a place where everyone gets to document their lives, including their partner’s exes. However, not everything is posted or uploaded as it’s also a place where we choose what aspects of our lives we want to show. Regardless, setting yourself boundaries or even blocking their exes in worst-case scenarios prevents them from popping up on your timeline.
But you can even choose to log out, deactivate or delete your social media apps depending on the degree of retroactive jealousy you’re feeling toward them. It further resists heightening the levels of digital stalking behavior.
How To Manage Your Partner’s Retroactive Jealousy
What if it’s not you gaining retroactive jealousy? What if your partner feels a gradual heaviness in your dating history? Below are tips on acting and dealing with this type of scenario.
1 Create a safe space for them to talk.
Retroactive jealousy is motivated by insecurity and anxiety, wherein your partner may lack the courage to tell you this kind of negative emotion. No matter how healthy your relationship can be, there are still things we want to hide because we are unsure of how you or your significant other will react.
Set an inviting, kind tone as you approach to speak to them and offer them a seat beside you. It’s also best to converse with them without any stress-giving activities surrounding you and them. From there, gently ask them what’s been bothering them so they can gradually open up to you. Doing so gets you to pinpoint the root of their jealousy and worry for the future.
2 Be compassionate and patient with them.
This tip follows after the first one, wherein you soothe their anxieties over the past through constant reassurance. Affirm to them that only you have eyes on them and you’re committed to making your relationship last. If their love language is words of affirmation, use such statements.
Simultaneously, own up to your past as you honestly answer their questions. Being upset over them should be the last thing you could ever be. If you have a history of infidelity, let both words and actions reassure them that it’ll never happen again. Hold their hand, kiss their cheek, take them out every now and then; it’s up to you. Don’t rush them to move on right away with their jealousy, and take it day by day. No healthy relationship is built overnight.
Alongside this, you’re not responsible for their healing as much as you encourage them to move past their retroactive jealousy.
3 Make compromises.
What if you’re still on good terms or friends with an ex? Your partner may feel anxious about that.
If they’re going to be present at a party you and your partner are going to, plot out how to prepare for that encounter. It also helps to converse with your partner about how to act if they come across your ex without you by the side. It’s all about covering all the possible bases. But also consider their feelings when you’re already in the venue, wherein if they want to bounce earlier than expected, then do so.
Aside from this scenario, remember the reason/s why you and that ex are done. After that, proceed to exhibit all those positive emotions to your current partner and remind them why you chose them.
4 Create new memories.
Retroactive jealousy is when we envy over the happy memories shared between your partner and their ex, seeing their jolly expressions as they go on different adventures. So to overcome that, create new plans and rituals to spend time with your significant other. Plans that are exclusively special to the two of you.
If you and an ex enjoyed drinking coffee at a popular cafe as your regular Saturday morning dates, perhaps visit a different cafe that’s not so known and try their specialty drinks. Bring your favorite books and add a sweet delicacy to share to mark a new ritual in your relationship dynamic. By doing this, these new memories would fill that void the retroactive jealousy made and make great stories to tell and look back on.
5 Know when to say goodbye.
With everything we’ve discussed about retroactive jealousy, the worst-case scenario is refusing help or working through their emotions. If it comes to the point where your well-being is negatively impacted, and even your safety is at stake, it’s time to reevaluate and study the ins and outs of your relationship so far.
Everyone deserves a healthy, loving relationship, and if your partner still chooses to live in the past, that’s on them. You are not your past, and if you don’t see a future with them anymore, then you have your answer right there.
Treatment for Retroactive Jealousy
If you’re seeking medical help to overcome retroactive jealousy, check out the section below for various options to explore alone or with your partner.
Since retroactive jealousy has a link to OCD, a mental health disorder, medications utilized for such may be prescribed to the patient. More medication may be added if said patient is diagnosed with other mental health disorders.
Through this kind of treatment, the person dealing with retroactive jealousy can release their frustrations and anxieties over the partner’s past and alleviate their struggle. By talking it out, the therapist would listen, pinpoint their problem spots, then shift their negative mindset to a more positive, healthier one. An example of therapy that someone with retroactive jealousy can go to individually is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
3 Relationships Counseling
If communicating at home together isn’t as effective in sorting things out, finding a couple therapist is the best solution. The couple can collaborate with a therapist in engaging in open, raw conversations to have a better understanding of their current emotions and concerns. Also, the therapist acts as a mediator when conversations can get heated between the couple. The end goal here is to have a stronger relationship filled with trust and honesty.
Frequently Asked Questions
Still eager to know more about retroactive jealousy? In this section, we’ll answer common queries about this crucial type of jealousy.
1 Is retroactive jealousy a mental health disorder?
No. Even if retroactive jealousy has roots in other mental disorders like OCD, it’s not identified as one.
2 Do those with mental health disorders only experience retroactive jealousy?
No. However, people diagnosed with mental health disorders are more prone to experiencing said jealousy. That doesn’t mean that those without present mental health disorders are immune to them. It’s all based on how you truly trust your partner.
3 I think the retroactive jealousy that my partner is exhibiting is going overboard. What should I do?
Call the emergency hotline at 911 for violence against women. Some laws that can protect you from violence can be found here.
4 If I’m jealous of my partner’s ex due to their present actions, does that count as retroactive jealousy?
No. Retroactive jealousy focuses on the past. So if you observe any uncomfortable actions this ex does, especially towards your partner, this should be something you must voice out immediately.
5 Can I overcome retroactive jealousy?
Yes. It’s about how dedicated you are to ending the obsessive thoughts that cause unease and rebuilding your and your partner’s trust. We all have a past, and it’s up to us to grow from it.
Retroactive Jealousy isn’t merely the green-eyed monster of envy between couples. But it doesn’t have to ruin your entire relationship completely. Opening up and being on the same page gives room for growth and opportunities to get vulnerable and raw. That way, such a form of jealousy would no longer torment either of you in the long run.