Do you feel insanely jealous when your partner mentions an ex or past lover? Do you constantly wonder about what they did together and how it was better than anything you’ve ever done?
If so, then you may be struggling with retroactive jealousy. This can be a complicated emotion to deal with, but fortunately, there are ways to overcome it.
According to experts, here are helpful tips to get over retroactive jealousy in your relationship.
Michele Goldman, Psy.D.
Psychologist and Media Advisor, Hope for Depression Research Foundation
Retroactive jealousy is when someone becomes hyper-focused on their partner’s romantic history.
This might include:
- Ruminating about their partner’s exes
- Having negative thoughts about their partner’s past sexual relationships or emotional relationships
- Having bitterness about their partner’s past without provocation
Such can lead to obsessive thoughts or behaviors that increase fears and insecurities about the current relationship.
Retroactive jealousy can be harmful to the relationship, especially when it is not rooted in a realistic threat.
It can cause your partner to think they cannot trust you; it causes insecurity to build and can lead to breakdowns in communication and trust.
There are ways to navigate retroactive jealousy. Although it can be challenging, using multiple approaches or interventions to cope can be the best approach to working through these intense feelings of jealousy.
Accept and acknowledge your feelings
We first need to acknowledge that there is jealousy; don’t try to deny or hide how you feel.
These feelings are real, and the best way to start moving through them is by acknowledging they are present and then learning what triggers these feelings (sometimes there might not be a trigger, or it might be very difficult to identify).
Pinpoint the source of jealousy and address it directly
Try to uncover the source of what is prompting jealousy. Are you feeling:
- Insecure in yourself?
- Confused about your partner’s past?
- Kept in the dark about their previous relationships?
- Worried about a lack of commitment?
Identify what is at the root of your retroactive jealousy and then address it directly.
Share your feelings with your partner
It is okay to communicate with your partner about your feelings; while a part of us might want to hide our jealousy from them, working through retroactive jealousy without your partner might make it harder.
They might meet us with a lot of compassion and validation and even be able to discuss their own feelings of insecurities.
Ask questions or avoid questioning
If your partner does not talk much about their past and you feel that more information would be helpful, ask questions. This might decrease your thoughts of “running wild” or creating scenarios that never existed. It might help to reduce the fantasies made by jealousy.
If you are someone who gets more jealous when getting more information, avoid questioning your partner about their past.
Set boundaries regarding contact with exes
If your partner is in frequent contact with their ex, it is okay to have a conversation about determining the boundaries of that relationship.
Ask your partner to get on the same page about what constitutes healthy contact with an ex. There might be some negotiating:
- Listen to each other
- Hear each other’s concerns
- Work to identify boundaries that everyone is comfortable with
Avoid social media or block access to their exes
Social media can lead to the stalking of exes, spending hours looking at the past:
- Trips taken
- Memorable events
This can fuel retroactive jealousy; as a result, it may be best to set your social media accounts to block your partner’s exes. It might even be necessary for you to unfriend your own partner on social media, so you will not have easy access to their past posts, comments, pictures, etc.
Talk to your partner about how to increase trust in the relationship
There is usually some form of mistrust in the relationship with retroactive jealousy, even if it is not based on any real event.
Talk to each other about how to build a sense of trust. Make requests of your partner if there is something specific they might be able to do that would help to increase trust in the relationship.
Remember your own past relationships
Think about your own history and past relationships; consider your feelings for them now and why the relationships ended.
- Be the ground in remembering all relationships are not what they seem
- Reinforces that people can move on
- It is a healthy reminder that we can have feelings for one person despite having a history of previous romantic partners, etc.
Talk to a counselor or therapist
If none of the above suggestions help, or if the jealousy starts to increase anxiety or depression, it might be time to speak with a counselor or therapist.
Therapy might help with:
- Navigating our own belief system
- Processing past relationships or past relational trauma
- Improving our beliefs about self
- Reinforcing our own value
Reach out for help, especially if you see that jealousy is starting to affect your relationship with your partner negatively.
John F. Tholen, PhD
Retired Psychologist | Author, “Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind“
What is retroactive jealousy, and how can it hurt us?
The term “retroactive jealousy” refers to a pattern of obsessive preoccupation with—and concern about—the romantic relationships our partner had before becoming committed to us.
Jealousy is a normal human emotion. It can even be beneficial if it motivates us to try harder—to become a better relationship partner.
On the other hand, retroactive jealousy is an irrational pattern of behavior based on personal insecurity. It reflects an unreasonable need for control and is likely to cause our partner to:
- Feel mistrusted
- Introduce unnecessary conflict into the relationship
- Making us seem lacking in self-confidence
Why do we experience retroactive jealousy?
Although it seems that our emotions and motivations result directly from the events and circumstances we encounter in life, they are instead reactions to our self-talk—the internal monologue that streams through our waking consciousness, interpreting our every experience.
Much of our self-image is formed during childhood when we are completely at the mercy of biology and the environment into which we are born.
Through no fault of our own, many of us are exposed to traumatic events or adverse circumstances that damage our self-concept. When confronted with a challenge as an adult, our attention may automatically focus on how we are undeserving, incapable, or inferior.
When our automatic thoughts are dysfunctional—causing distress without inspiring constructive action—and allowed to linger in the focus of our attention, they invade our self-talk.
It also causes us to become distressed—even though dysfunctional thoughts are almost always incomplete, unreasonable, or completely wrong.
When those dysfunctional thoughts elicit excessive fear that our relationship partner may reject or abandon us, we can become so preoccupied with the idea that we behave in a manner that can sabotage the relationship we hope to preserve.
So how can retroactive jealousy be managed?
Manage counterproductive urges
Managing our counterproductive urges is crucial to success in relationships and life. Because our romantic partners become so important to us, they acquire the power to elicit our most intense emotions.
Just as good relationships depend on our ability to refrain from aggression when we become angry, they can also depend on us on finding a strategy that permits us to resist the temptation to express retroactive jealousy.
Shift your attention to more balanced and reasonable alternatives
We can prevent unreasonable jealousy from damaging our relationship and, at the same time, gradually enhance our self-image by learning to identify and shift our attention to more balanced and reasonable (functional) alternative thoughts that:
- Inspire hope
- Motivate self-assertion
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychological treatment approach considered “evidence-based.” A review of 325 different research studies involving more than 9,000 subjects found CBT to effectively treat depression, anxiety, and related conditions.
CBT works because it is an efficient method of challenging our dysfunctional thoughts, and the most efficient form of CBT is the 4-step focused positivity strategy:
- Becoming mindful of our thoughts by recording and examining the ideas that occupy our minds when we experience retroactive jealousy
- Identifying the dysfunctional thoughts that have become the focus of our attention and are provoking our jealousy
- Constructing more reasonable, balanced, and functional alternatives that reassure, inspire hope, or motivate responsible self-assertion
- Systematically refocusing our attention away from the dysfunctional thoughts and toward the functional alternatives
Review your thoughts
Our best response to any negative emotion—including unreasonable jealousy—is to employ the closest thing we have to a “superpower,” our ability at any moment to shift the focus of our attention to a more functional thought.
When we find ourselves preoccupied with concern about our partner’s prior relationships, we are likely to benefit from reviewing thoughts such as:
- Nothing my partner or I did prior to our commitment to each other can reasonably be considered an offense against the other.
- Like everyone, my partner has a complicated past that helped shape them into the person I want to be with now.
- Forcing someone to justify or defend past relationship behavior can only drive a wedge between us and make me look foolish.
- My obsession with my partner’s prior relationships reflects a problem of mine that is my responsibility to manage.
- What my partner did before their commitment to our relationship isn’t my problem. Life is hard, and mistakes are inevitable, but I’m still a child of [God, Allah, Jehovah, fate, destiny, chaos, etc.] and deserving of some compassion and forgiveness.
- I may be able to find some success and happiness if I persist in just trying to do the next right thing.
- By systematically challenging the dysfunctional thoughts that underlie my retroactive jealousy, I will eventually learn to have more trust.
- By rejecting unreasonable jealousy, I’ll enhance my relationship and self-confidence.
Mental Health Expert and Founder, Openhouse
Retroactive jealousy and being jealous about a partner’s past can be quite common, but if it is not appropriately managed, it can escalate into a situation that is damaging to both you and the relationships around you—particularly if it transitions into obsessive-compulsive disorder and obsessive and intrusive thoughts.
However, understanding the drivers of retroactive jealousy can help you understand the problem at hand is not always the other person or their past. Sometimes, the challenge is you and how you handle anxiety in your relationship.
Understand yourself better
Retroactive jealously is more often about you than them.
It may feel like retroactive jealousy is about the other person and the potential threat they hold to you, your safety, or the wellbeing of your relationship.
But a game-changer with retroactive jealously is understanding that the response is actually rooted in your personal history, lived experience, and what has gone through—rather than your partner’s past.
By better understanding ourselves, we can work out why we don’t feel comfortable with our partner’s past and which part of it seems to threaten us and our future with that person.
Rational analysis can also help you work out whether retroactive jealousy has any logical and reasonable foundations or whether it is being used as a vehicle for anxiety that you are feeling about other areas of your relationship.
What emotion is driving jealousy?
Self-awareness can also help you dig deeper to ascertain what emotion is underlying the jealousy. Much like an iceberg—with jealously, there are often emotions below the surface that can’t be seen but are driving a jealous reaction.
For example, while it might feel like you have a valid right to be judgmental, concerned, or fearful over your partner’s behavior before they were with you, this concern is often misplaced and will often be driven from a place of fear.
This fear is a primal response driven by our reptilian brain that looks for danger in situations. Understanding that there is often underlying fear when we are jealous and discussing what you are fearful of can help you better manage the situation.
Know your attachment style
Your attachment style often exacerbates retroactive jealousy. An attachment style is how we connect with others in social and intimate relationships.
These mainly show up in a romantic sense, and multiple studies have established a strong relationship between jealousy and those with an anxious attachment style.
These studies show that those with an anxious attachment style often use jealously to attempt to elicit a response from their partner.
They are hoping that their partner will re-commit their love, care, and understanding to them in the face of conflict, which is what someone with an anxious attachment style needs more of than the average person.
Understanding your attachment style can help you manage your retroactive jealously. By understanding that in the moments you feel jealous, you may just need stability, love, care, and connection from yourself and your partner, rather than deep diving into their past again.
Liza Gold, LCSW
Practice Owner and Psychotherapist, Gold Therapy NYC
Retroactive jealousy occurs when we develop feelings of jealousy toward a romantic partner’s previous romantic or sexual relationships. Boy, can that feel uncomfortable!
Even though you’re in an exciting, new (or loving, committed) relationship, you can’t stop thinking about your partner’s previous relationships and what those partners have that you might lack.
You may find yourself:
- Negatively comparing yourself to what you imagine they are like
- Spending time on social media looking at their posts
- Struggling to trust your partner
You know this is an exercise in futility, but you can’t seem to find a way out of it.
The good news? You can. There are ways to overcome retroactive jealousy; to free yourself from these painful ruminations and enjoy the present with your partner, unencumbered by fruitless jealousy.
If you find yourself stuck in this uncomfortable pattern, try these strategies:
Take some much-needed time to self-reflect
Usually, retroactive jealousy is about you, not about your partner’s previous relationships.
Insecurity and fears around relationships often drive these uncomfortable feelings, so get honest with yourself by asking the following:
- “What am I feeling insecure about in this relationship?”
- “Where am I lacking self-worth or confidence?”
- “Do I have any fears around abandonment or vulnerability?”
Once you have a sense of what’s driving your retroactive jealousy, you’re better equipped to deal with the issue proactively.
Instead of focusing on your partner’s past relationships, begin to think about how you can heal your own wounds. That process can take place with your partner’s support, friends’ support, or professional support (i.e., psychotherapy).
No more social media stalking
It’s tempting to stalk your partner’s exes on social media, but this can quickly become an all-consuming obsession.
Try taking a clean break (block them, cough, cough!). The more time you spend looking at their social media accounts, the more likely you are to fill in the blanks about their lives with unfavorable comparisons to yours, and the worse you’ll feel about yourself.
Let your partner know what you’ve been thinking about
Vulnerability in relationships enhances feelings of trust and intimacy. Let your partner know what you’ve been thinking about. Give them a chance to remind you why they’re no longer with their ex-partners and why they’ve chosen amazing you.
Holistic Health and Wellness Coach | Founder, VP Exclusive
Eliminate jealous feelings forever
Retroactive jealousy rears its ugly head in protection of our hearts. Our unconscious programming from the past tells us certain situations are dangerous because our unconscious programming records “Fight, Flight, or Fantastic” based on emotions from similar situations in the past.
When we enter a situation that triggers those memories, the jealousy bug starts to rear its head.
“Danger!” your subconscious tells you. “Be warned! We remember when something like this happened in the past, and it didn’t feel good. Don’t let that happen again!” and we listen.
We start to snoop. Our Spidey-senses go on high alert.
Suddenly, we notice everything, and everything could mean something— we’re just not sure yet what. Anxiety sets in. We imagine the worst. And don’t worry, we have proof that the danger in this situation is real.
Jealousy stems from the fear of loss. You either feel:
- You’re going to lose something
- Get cheated on
- Get left behind
- Or suffer some other form of loss or neglect
Understand that all trauma related to jealousy will fade
To eliminate these feelings forever, the first thing to understand is that you can never lose something that is not yours. And you never own a person. As you grow to understand this, all trauma related to jealousy—past and present, will fade.
People are in our lives to complement our lives. You have married a person, committed to a person, birthed a person, hired a person, or whatever the relationship maybe—you still do not own that person.
The greater the illusion of control you feel you or your partner needs to have in the relationship, the tougher the relationship will be because you will fear loss.
Know this: If a person is going to cheat, they’re going to do so regardless of your jealousy, attempt to control them, or other situations. There is very little you can do to stop them except to become the best person you can be for yourself.
Whether you’ve been:
- Cheated on
- Left behind
- Neglected in the past
It’s likely left a big wound in your heart.
You have to heal jealousy within yourself
Until that wound is healed, you will carry these fear of loss feelings to every relationship. You could find the perfect person, but there will likely be triggers.
You may also attract the same type of person who triggers these feelings because the misalignment will repeatedly happen until you do heal it.
Start by asking yourself, “How did I attract this type of person in the first place?”
The hardest truth to face is that you actually attracted a person who hurts you. And you likely didn’t stop at one person. You probably have had multiple people in your life that hurt you because that is what you’re attracting.
That’s a program running in your unconscious thinking. Jealousy is your attempt to control the outer situation so that you don’t hurt internally.
But the internal hurt already exists. The external factors are merely triggers. To eliminate jealousy from your life, you have to heal it within yourself.
Learn to accept and love everything about acceptance
The recognition of jealousy inside you offers the opportunity to find true acceptance. When you learn to love and accept everything about yourself, you consciously and unconsciously attract a person who feels the same way.
Conscious thinking does not fix unconscious programming, but it affects it.
Complete healing can only occur on a subconscious level. Step 1, think about what your life was like between the ages of 0 to 7 years.
- What memories do you have?
- Who did you love?
- What was your world like?
- What changed? When? Why?
Many of these questions can be answered and healed through different healing modalities.
To clear it, begin asking yourself:
- How are you attracting them in the first place?
- What are you afraid of?
- What triggers your jealousy?
Whatever you discover:
Give that to yourself.
When you give it to yourself, and you give it with love, joy, honor, gratitude, and appreciation, when you really begin to enjoy the “you” you were born to be, then you can realize you don’t need anything from another person.
You are whole, and you can now enter a relationship whole—where you need nothing from that person but companionship. Now you can enjoy them, and you both bring joy to the relationship.
You are each happy and whole, together and alone.
Avoid looking in your past or rearview mirror
The best and simplest way to get over retroactive jealousy is to understand that looking in your past or rearview mirror will cause you to crash.
You will not be able to move forward by looking in your rearview.
If you must look in the rearview, do it sparingly and do it with purpose and intention:
- Look in the rearview if you want to see what you did in the past and what you can do differently now.
- Do it if you want to see what the other person did back then to identify the red flags or stop signs and stay away from them on your new journey.
Azmaira Maker, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist | Founding Director, Aspiring Families
Teach yourself to choose empathy over confrontation
One of the best ways to shoot down feelings of retroactive jealousy is to teach yourself to be more empathetic.
This way, you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and try to understand how you would feel if you were in the same situation.
In exploring and understanding a different perspective, you can tell yourself how futile it would be to embrace confrontation when being receptive to the other’s accomplishments is clearly the path forward.
However, we need to remember that this exercise should be deliberate, conscious, and honest to yield results.
Medical Reviewer and Addiction Advocate, OK Rehab
Retroactive jealousy is when someone is jealous about their partner’s past, whether it be in romantic or sexual terms.
For example, they may be jealous when their partner discusses past relationships, sexual encounters, or even crushes.
It goes without saying that it is natural to experience jealousy when your partner is reminiscing about a life that you were not a part of, but healthy jealousy is usually fleeting.
However, retroactive jealousy can be extremely damaging as it can:
- Destroy your self-esteem in the relationship
- Cause you to become controlling due to fear that your partner doesn’t love you as much as your previous partners
What are the signs of retroactive jealousy?
If you frequently find yourself dwelling on your partner’s sexual and/or romantic history, you are likely to be experiencing retroactive jealousy.
However, some key signs include:
- Interrogating your partner about their romantic and/or sexual history
- Imagining your partner with other people
- Checking your partner’s phone to see if they are still in contact with their ex-partners
- Refusing to listen when your partner mentions their ex
Do not be too hard on yourself
If you are experiencing retroactive jealousy, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself. The feelings you are experiencing are difficult to manage, and they do not indicate that you are weak.
Try to remind yourself that jealousy does not have to be a key part of your relationship and that the romanticization of jealousy in the media does not reflect its reality.
You can love your partner without being extremely jealous about their past. Some minor techniques you can adopt are:
- Communicating with your partner when you feel jealous
- Discussing your past as a way of reminding yourself that you both have history
- Reminding yourself that your partner chose to be with you and no one else
Go to therapy
However, if you’re still struggling after this, I strongly advise going to therapy.
I help clients deal with retroactive jealousy, and for weeks or months, the majority of them grow in confidence. They are able to experience the fleeting jealousy that is seen in healthy relationships rather than the damaging jealousy they have previously been experiencing.
What should I do if my partner experiences retroactive jealousy?
This is a problematic situation as it can feel like your partner is trying to control you.
- Acknowledge that they are struggling and reassure them that you chose them for a reason.
- Then, explain how it makes you feel when they display these feelings of jealousy—does it make you angry, bitter, embarrassed, frustrated?
- Finally, encourage your partner to seek help for this jealousy if it continues to impact your relationship negatively.
Retroactive jealousy can be abusive as it often involves a sense of control.
For example, the partner experiencing jealousy may try to stop their partner from going out to prevent them from meeting new people, or they may want them to remove their ex-partner off social media to prevent them from reaching out to them.
However, some people experience this jealousy and do not resort to abusive behaviors.
Counselor and Adventure Lead, The Ohana Addiction Treatment Center
Retroactive jealousy refers to jealousy regarding your partner’s past relationships. A person who experiences retroactive jealousy might obsess over their partner’s exes or sexual history.
They feel worried or uneasy when they think about their partner’s sexual history. The person might stalk their partner’s exes online. This type of jealousy can take a toll on both partners—causing serious problems in the relationship.
Here are some tips for getting over retroactive jealousy:
Try to understand it
Where is the jealousy really coming from? Retroactive jealousy can be caused by many things, from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to trauma.
Often it comes from the person’s insecurities. Once you understand where it is coming from, then you can begin to work on dealing with the underlying issue.
Talk to your partner about how you are feeling
Do you feel that you won’t measure up to their ex? Or is it because they are still talking to their ex? If so, speak to them about it.
Let your partner know how you feel about this. Voicing your concerns about your partner’s past relationships might help your partner address your feelings in a way that helps you move forward.
It might be good to see a therapist or mental health counselor to work through retroactive jealousy, especially if the thoughts about your partner’s past are intrusive and affect your daily life.
Or if the feelings are causing compulsive behaviors, such as stalking your significant other’s exes online.
Discuss it with your partner
Jealousy is a natural part of any relationship. What is unusual is if it occurs regularly. It is toxic for any relationship because it makes partners doubt your trust.
Many partners, in my experience, suffer from retroactive jealousy, and the only way to overcome this is to discuss it with your partner. After all, communication is crucial.
Talk to your companion so that they are aware of any insecurities, worries, or other concerns you may have. Learn how to communicate because jealousy is one of the leading causes of breakups.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can practicing mindfulness help reduce retroactive jealousy?
Yes, mindfulness can be an effective way to reduce retroactive jealousy. Mindfulness involves being fully present at the moment and being aware of your thoughts and feelings without judging them.
Focusing on the present can break the cycle of negative thoughts and ruminations about your partner’s past. Meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindfulness-based therapy can help cultivate mindfulness and manage jealousy.
Are there common misconceptions about retroactive jealousy?
A common misconception about retroactive jealousy is that it’s the same as normal jealousy; it’s not. This isn’t the case. Retroactive jealousy refers specifically to a partner’s past, while normal jealousy refers to current or potential threats to the relationship.
Also, you might mistakenly believe that retroactive jealousy is simply a sign of betrayal, but it’s often rooted in personal insecurities and fears rather than a partner’s actions.
How can I distinguish between normal curiosity about a partner’s past and retroactive jealousy?
Normal curiosity about a partner’s past is a natural part of getting to know each other. It doesn’t usually lead to obsessive thoughts, anxiety, or stress.
Retroactive jealousy, on the other hand, involves intrusive thoughts and negative feelings about your partner’s past, even if the relationship isn’t currently at risk.
If your thoughts about your partner’s past are causing you significant distress or affecting the quality of your relationship, you’re more likely to be suffering from retroactive jealousy.
Can doing activities together with my partner help reduce retroactive jealousy?
Doing activities with your partner can help reduce retroactive jealousy by strengthening your bond and creating new, positive memories.
Investing your energy in activities you both enjoy creates a sense of belonging and teamwork that can alleviate negative feelings related to your partner’s past and foster a stronger connection in your current relationship.
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