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Have you been in a relationship and felt worried or uncomfortable regarding your partner’s past relationships? Have you spent time looking through the internet or social media trying to scope out their past dating life? Or, have you ever looked through your partner’s cell phone? If so, perhaps you are experiencing retroactive jealousy.
What Is Retroactive Jealousy?
Someone with retroactive jealousy feels upset regarding their partner’s previous romantic, dating or sexual relationship(s). They experience troubling thoughts and feelings about their partner’s past relationship even though it has no impact on the current relationship. For example, a spouse may talk about a high school partner from many years ago. The other spouse feels jealous about this relationship from 20 years ago and compares it to the current marriage.
In contrast, traditional jealousy involves upsetting thoughts and feelings about current perceived threats to the relationship. The partner feels worried and concerned about their relationship based on present-day challenges to the relationship. For example, a spouse tells the other spouse about a business colleague and how closely they work together and shares about an after-hours event they attended with the colleague. The other spouse then feels jealous, worried and threatened by the relationship with this colleague.
Signs of Retroactive Jealousy
People who struggle with retroactive jealousy experience certain emotional and behavioral signs. The emotional signs often lead to problematic behaviors. Some emotional signs to suggest that someone is experiencing retroactive jealousy include:
- Ruminations about past relationships: Finding yourself stuck in repeated thoughts regarding your partner’s past relationships.
- Questioning your partner: Having doubts about your partner’s honesty about their connection to dating partners in the past
- Comparing yourself to past partners: Measuring yourself against your partner’s past relationships
- Insecurity about your relationship: Comparing and questioning the stability of your relationship based on your partner’s past relationship experiences
These emotional signs often lead to problematic behaviors that may include:
- Searching the internet for information about past partners and relationships
- Looking at social media profiles
- Asking your partner many questions about past relationships and partners
- Going through your partner’s phone and/or computer
- Requesting or demanding to see your partner’s phone, email or messages
- Frequently asking your partner for reassurance
- Looking over photos from previous relationships
- Making negative or sarcastic comments about your partner’s past relationships
- Accusing your partner of communicating or spending time with exes
Causes of Retroactive Jealousy
Many experiences can contribute to someone experiencing retroactive jealousy. Some common causes include:
- Sensitivity to feeling rejected
- Past hurts
- Past infidelities
- Your partner has a relationship or communicates with a previous partner(s).
- Feeling like your relationship is “less than.”
Retroactive Jealousy and OCD
Retroactive jealousy shares similar characteristics with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is an anxiety disorder in which someone experiences obsessional thoughts and repeatedly engages in rituals (or compulsions). With OCD, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors cause disruption in the person’s life, but they cannot control or stop them.
Quite similarly, with retroactive jealousy, the person has obsessive thoughts about their partner’s past and has trouble controlling or stopping them. People may worry excessively, ruminate about their partner’s past relationships and even visualize their partner being intimate or having fun with someone else.
As with OCD, people with retroactive jealousy may try to soothe their worries and anxiety by engaging in compulsive behaviors. They may engage in repeated checking-type behaviors such as looking at their partner’s phone, social media accounts or internet history. They might repeatedly ask their partner questions either related to past relationships or seeking reassurance about their relationship.
What To Do if You Have Retroactive Jealousy
If you think you have retroactive jealousy, learning to cope with and manage it can help to provide you with much relief and improve the quality of your relationship.
Self-esteem can often lead to jealousy. Low self-esteem can contribute to feeling worried and insecure in many relationships, including romantic ones. Improving your self-esteem can help build your confidence and comfort in your relationships. Consider journaling, reading self-help books, listening to a podcast or going to therapy to improve your self-esteem.
With retroactive jealousy, your focus tends to migrate from your current relationship to your partner’s past relationship. Instead, try keeping your thoughts and feelings relative to your relationship with your partner. Remind yourself that your partner chose to be in a relationship with you (as opposed to the past partner). Plan and spend time with your partner so you can feel an emotional connection with each other. Build new traditions and memories with your partner, and take photos you can share with each other.
Learning how to manage your stress levels can help you feel calmer, accept your current relationship and not slip into so many ruminations about the past. Try journaling, yoga, meditation or talking to others for comfort and support.
Seeking therapy can help if your retroactive jealousy causes problems in your functioning. You can learn more about the underlying issues leading to your retroactive jealousy and how to treat the problems and calm the jealousy.
Should You Tell Your Partner?
Keeping these thoughts and feelings to yourself can cause much strain on your relationship. Retroactive jealousy can interfere with your ability to fully connect and appreciate your partner and cause problems with intimacy. It can lead to fights and even ultimately destroy your relationship.
Sharing your worries with your partner can allow you to discuss your concerns, deepen your connection and provide comfort and reassurance about your relationship. If your partner is engaging in behaviors that contribute to your jealousy, communicating with them can lead to changes that can improve your relationship. While sharing these worries with your partner might seem scary, it can ultimately strengthen your relationship.
What To Do if Your Partner Shows Signs of Retroactive Jealousy
You may find yourself in a relationship where your partner has retroactive jealousy toward you. You can help your partner feel more comfortable, confident and reassured with your relationship by:
- Talking with your partner about their feelings regarding your relationship and past experiences
- Nurturing your relationship by making new memories together
- Creating experiences you can share
Sometimes retroactive jealousy may lead you to leave the relationship. Your partner may not be open or ready to get help on their issues and continues to engage in problematic behaviors. When the situation interferes with your or your family’s life, it might be time to say goodbye. If the jealousy results in dangerous or abusive circumstances, then make a safety plan to leave the relationship safely.
The Nobu app can provide answers and support if you or someone you know has questions about retroactive jealousy. You can access free mental health support, including articles, and learn coping skills, journaling prompts and goal setting. You can also connect to a mental health professional and begin online therapy sessions. The app is available for download on the App Store and Google Play store.
Take Control Of Your Mental Health
- Frampton, J. R., & Fox, J. “Social Media’s Role in Romantic Partners’ Retroactive Jealousy: Social Comparison, Uncertainty, and Information Seeking.” Social Media + Society, September 18, 2018. Accessed November 9, 2022.
- National Library of Medicine. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” Medline Plus, February 23, 2021. Accessed November 9, 2022.