Key Takeaways

  • Retroactive jealousy is an unfounded obsession with your partner’s past romantic relationships or sexual history.
  • Everyone experiences jealousy once in a while. But chronic retroactive jealousy can take a toll on your well-being and your current relationship.
  • Fortunately, with some support, you can uncover the root of your retroactive jealousy and rebuild your connection with your current partner.

It’s rare that the first person we date becomes a lifelong partner. Many adults will have a series of romantic relationships from their teen years onward. So it’s likely that your current partner has dated and even loved other people before meeting you. 

These people may have played an important role in your partner’s life, so it’s normal to be curious about them. But sometimes, that curiosity can evolve into something more like an obsession. And this can take a toll on your current relationship.

If you have deep feelings of jealousy over your partner’s past relationships or sexual experiences that you can’t seem to let go of, you might be experiencing retroactive jealousy. Left unresolved, retroactive jealousy can fester and erode trust. 

Fortunately, with the right support, you can get to the root of those uncomfortable feelings and learn to foster a healthier emotional connection with your partner.

What is retroactive jealousy?

Retroactive jealousy isn’t about suspicions of active infidelity or other breaches of trust. Rather, it’s a fixation on your partner’s past relationships or sexual experiences that negatively impacts your current connection. Common signs of retroactive jealousy include:

  • Comparing yourself to your partner’s exes in ways that make you feel inadequate
  • Invasive behavior and violations of privacy, like checking your partner’s phone or email without permission
  • Questioning your partner’s commitment to you without any real evidence of wrongdoing
  • Arguments that can sometimes escalate to verbal or psychological abuse
  • Chronic suspicion and eroded trust
  • Distressing intrusive thoughts about your partner’s past connections
  • Strain on both your and your partner’s well-being and mental health

Jealousy of all kinds can negatively impact relationships and personal happiness. But if you or your partner are experiencing retroactive jealousy that won’t seem to dissipate, talking to a professional can help.

What causes retroactive jealousy?

While there isn’t a single known cause of retroactive jealousy, it often stems from a combination of factors like personal insecurities, comparison, a fear of inadequacy, and codependence within the relationship. These factors may pre-date the current relationship, often having roots in negative childhood experiences or past instances of  infidelity or betrayal. 

There’s also some evidence that suggests that social media may play a role in retroactive jealousy. In one 2018 study, researchers established a link between social media use and increased social comparison and relational uncertainty. 

The study also found that the availability of information on partners’ exes on social media encouraged people to “keep tabs” on those exes instead of having more direct communication about past relationships with their current partner. While social media is a part of everyday life for most of us, researchers suggest that spending too much time looking at “digital remnants” of your partner’s past may negatively impact your bond.

What can happen if retroactive jealousy isn’t controlled?

When it goes unaddressed, retroactive jealousy can erode the foundation of trust in your relationship and make it harder for you to communicate effectively. While not a mental health condition on its own, retroactive jealousy can be a symptom of one. It can lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and relationship strain. It can also cause intrusive thoughts and rumination that may be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

In many cases, people experiencing retroactive jealousy can recognize the negative impact of their feelings on their relationship. So if you’re struggling with retroactive jealousy, know that you aren’t alone. In working with a therapist, you can uncover the source of your jealousy and work toward healing your relationship with your partner.

How to overcome retroactive jealousy 

In addition to seeking professional help, there are some practical strategies for managing retroactive jealousy. So if you find yourself fixating on your partner’s past, give the following a try:

  1. Self-awareness: Start paying attention to when you’re more likely to experience retroactive jealousy. By increasing awareness around your triggers, you’ll have more ability to course correct and keep your insecurity at bay. 
  2. Communication: Everyone experiences jealousy from time to time. When you notice those feelings arising, practice discussing them with your partner without blaming them or making accusations. Let them know how you’re feeling and ask for what you need to feel more secure. 
  3. Cognitive reframing: One of the most challenging things about retroactive jealousy is that it is an unfounded experience. So when you find yourself fixating on your partner’s past, try challenging those irrational beliefs. Ask yourself if your suspicions are grounded in reality and look for ways to see the situation from a more constructive and realistic perspective..
  4. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is all about slowing down enough to notice what’s happening in your mind and body at a given moment, without judgment. When you feel triggered, anxious, or jealous, take a moment to slow down and take a few slow, deep breaths. Notice your thoughts and give yourself a few moments to process them without judgment.
  5. Building self-esteem: Retroactive jealousy can erode your self-esteem and cause you to negatively compare yourself to others. So make time to engage in activities that make you feel like your best self.

Find support for overcoming retroactive jealousy 

All of our romantic relationships have the potential to impact subsequent relationships after they end. And many people have moments when they feel insecure about a partner’s past. But if retroactive jealousy is negatively affecting your well-being and your current partnership, it might be time to consider speaking with a mental health professional. 

Rula can help you quickly find an in-network therapist who can provide a safe space to explore underlying issues and develop coping strategies. 

Whether you’re interested in individual or couples counseling (or both!), Rula can help connect you with the care you need. To learn more about we can connect you with a therapist who takes your insurance in as little as two days, check out our website

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