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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Klesman, LCSW

Retroactive Jealousy: Being Jealous of the Past



Retroactive Jealousy is technically a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that despite not being officially in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), and can deeply impact romantic relationships. Retroactive Jealousy is the frequent or obsessive fixation on your romantic partner’s past relationships with others. This fixation can range from previous romantic partners or exes to sexual encounters. It looks like hyper-fixating on “mental movies” of things that happened in your partner’s past, focusing on activities your partner used to do with their ex and their memories together. Some people get triggered simply by their partner having had more sexual partners or experiences than they themselves have had. You may compare yourself to your partner’s ex and feel insecure or resentful as a result. This type of imagining can create a false image that your partner dated an extremely attractive and flawless person before you. You may find yourself cyberstalking their ex or excessively asking questions about this person and the relationship.


This type of fixation is far more common than most people talk about. It differs from regular jealousy in that it is intrusive in nature and creates a self-perpetuating loop of obsessive thoughts that produce anxiety, uneasiness, fear, or worry. This can be caused by your own insecurities about yourself or your current relationship. You may be seeking constant reassurance that your partner is sure about you and the relationship due to things somehow not looking the way you feel they should.


Retroactive Jealousy can make you feel crazy and embarrassed, especially when there may be no real threat to your relationship from your partner’s past. In reality, you are now the threat if you are to allow these thoughts to invade the relationship. This fixation can create a wedge between you and your partner since they are powerless to change anything in their past even if they wanted to. Fortunately, you can regain control if you're suffering from these types of thoughts, but it will take an intentional effort on your part.


There are steps you can actively take in order to work towards overcoming your Retroactive Jealousy:


Acknowledging these feelings and accepting them. Jealousy rarely feels good. It often feels more like bitterness and looks like judging another person harshly. While society has a strong bias towards people who are jealous, jealousy is a normal, valid emotion. Ask yourself what do these jealous feelings really mean to you. Sometimes we believe knowing more about the past can help us predict the outcome of the future when really they can be highlighting our own fears of loss and rejection. The key to this step is to accept these feelings and not judge yourself for them.


Stop engaging in activities that lead to jealous feelings. This step will require a great deal of self-discipline. This includes stopping yourself from looking for pictures of your partner and their ex, social media stalking, and asking questions about the past that aren’t relative to the present. Work on closing the app or website if you are finding yourself searching for anything related to their ex. Instead journal, text or call a friend, listen to a podcast, watch a YouTube video, or do something to ride out the urge to look and engage.


Talk to a mental health professional. This is not to imply that you’re crazy or need medication for something like this, but it doesn’t hurt to get an outsider’s perspective to help you process your feelings and struggles. Explore if there are any of your own underlying past insecurities or rejections, fear of abandonment, or traumas that are triggered by this new relationship and could be unrelated to your partner.


Swap places; consider being in their shoes. Think about your own past and if it were being questioned. You know your past and exes, do you think of them on a daily basis? Are they a threat to your partner’s standing in your life? With that mindset, reverse it and consider if the same applies to your partner and their past.


Nurture your self-esteem and the relationship. Know your own worth. Much of these fixations are spawned from your insecurities and fear of abandonment, so nurture what you already have to calm those down. Talk to your partner about what you need from them emotionally and what sort of communication will reassure you.

Accept that just like you, your partner has a past. There is nothing wrong with having a past. It has shaped who each of you are. There is sometimes bitterness towards the past because you believe your partner’s past is somehow wrong. Remember it also would be odd for us, at a certain age, to not have engaged in some form of prior relationships or situationships.


Reframe and be grateful for their past. It can be difficult to try to be grateful for your partner’s past. Try to remember that their past relationship was part of the series of events that brought you and your partner together. It also can comfort you to know that your partner has been able to have loving relationships in the past. Someone who hasn’t been able to have healthy relationships may struggle to have them in the future and why would you want your partner to have had only negative romantic experiences in their life? So to know that your partner had the practice of being in a relationship with someone before you bodes well for your future.


Retroactive Jealousy is absolutely something that you can overcome so be mindful and don’t let your feelings about your partner’s past be what hurts an otherwise healthy relationship.


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