Have you ever looked up a partner’s ex’s Instagram out of curiosity? (Er, guilty.) And has that curiosity ever led you down a rabbit hole of digging for information and, perhaps, low-key cyberstalking them? Yeah, if you ended up landing on a photo from their high school graduation, you might have scrolled too far. Also, you may be experiencing retroactive jealousy.
Unlike the garden variety green-eyed monster, retroactive jealousy (RJ) describes an obsession or feelings of envy related to your partner’s past, typically around their previous romantic or sexual relationships, explains Kate Balestrieri, PhD, a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy.
Meet the experts: Kate Balestrieri, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, and founder of Modern Intimacy.
Jacqui Gabb, PhD, is a professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University, a public research university in Milton Keynes, England, and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired.
Emily Simonian, LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Washington, D.C. and head of clinical learning at Thriveworks.
It’s referred to as “retroactive” because it involves being jealous about something that already happened and can’t be changed, as opposed to envying someone or something happening in the here and now, Balestrieri adds.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Wow, am I the problem?”—pause for a second. It’s important to understand that feeling jealous is normal and not all forms of retroactive jealousy are explicitly harmful. Rather, it’s just an emotion to take note of (more on that later).
Ahead, discover what causes retroactive jealousy, what are some signs that you might have it, and what you can do if you find yourself ruminating over your partner’s exes.
What is retroactive jealousy?
Beyond being overly interested (and maybe even obsessed) and envious of a partner’s past relationships, retroactive jealousy often takes the shape of comparing yourself to their ex(es), says Balestrieri. So, for example, you might believe that a partner’s previous partner is smarter, better looking, or better in bed, when that may not be the case.
Retroactive jealousy may also manifest as being critical of the amount of romantic and sexual partners your significant other has had in the past. For example, someone with RJ might convince themselves that their S.O. had better sex with their past partner(s) than they’re having with them, Balestrieri says.
“It can really bring up a lot of pain for couples because for the partner with RJ, they are often fixated on understanding the details of their partner’s past relationships, wondering if their partner is thinking or fantasizing about their ex, or even comparing their current relationship with their past experiences,” she explains.
It’s also important to note that retroactive jealousy may be exacerbated by digital tools like social media, making it easier to fall into these negative thought patterns.
It used to be that you could take down a physical picture of your ex, get rid of the photo albums, burn the love letters, and any trace of your past relationship would be pretty much gone, explains Jacqui Gabb, PhD, a professor of sociology and intimacy at The Open University, a public research university in Milton Keynes, England, and Chief Relationships Officer at Paired. Now, your exes may reappear or linger through some sort of digital trace. “There’s almost an intensification of retroactive jealousy because there’s a greater capacity for exes to be present in your life through social media, even if you’re not close friends with them anymore.”
What’s the difference between retroactive jealousy and regular jealousy?
When thinking about the difference between RJ and regular ol’ J, you want to think of it in terms of an active threat versus an inactive one, says Emily Simonian, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Washington, D.C. and head of clinical learning at Thriveworks. Regular jealousy about something happening in the moment serves more of a purpose (i.e. safeguarding your relationship or taking action when your partner crosses a boundary), whereas, because it’s over a past occurrence, retroactive jealousy doesn’t really have anywhere to go. In other words, this form of jealousy is often unfounded.
Jealousy is about feeling insecure in the moment (for example, about the barista flirting with your S.O. at the coffee shop), while retroactive jealousy describes this desire to be better than people from your partner’s past, adds Balestrieri. The irony? “It’s usually someone who your partner is not in contact with anymore.”
Additionally, with regular jealousy, you’re often able to recognize it and then channel that energy elsewhere if there’s no real threat, whereas retroactive jealousy tends to linger.
A good sign that it’s just regular jealousy is if you can identify it, then stop and say, “Okay, this is silly. Let’s move on,” says Simonian. With RJ, on the other hand, you might find yourself thinking in circles, unable to pull yourself out of those feelings of jealousy.
Remember: While jealousy is a natural emotion, if it becomes something that you can’t shake and impairs your relationship with your S.O., then that’s when it shifts from something healthy to something potentially harmful.
What causes retroactive jealousy?
There are a few causes for retroactive jealousy, however, the two main ones are: feelings of insecurity (i.e. about your own looks or ability to please your partner compared to their exes) and having low self-esteem or low self-confidence.
If you have a history of betrayal (for example, a partner cheated on you in the past), abandonment, or attachment issues, you may also be at risk for RJ. Usually, folks with these backgrounds are looking for something to go wrong and searching for reasons why the relationship might not work because they’ve been hurt in the past, explains Simonian.
People who are more inclined to idealize their partner and want a “perfect” relationship may also experience retroactive jealousy. Meaning, someone who can’t accept that their S.O. is flawed may fall into a cycle of obsessing over their partner’s past, says Gabb. Á la Hannah Montana, nobody’s perfect, not even your S.O., but that’s okay because you can work on it.
Everyone goes through blips in their self-confidence every now and then. Watch as six celebrities discuss body positivity:
What are some common signs of retroactive jealousy?
If you’re wondering if you are currently experiencing RJ, or have experienced it in the past, here are some key signs to look out for, according to relationship experts:
1. You find yourself ruminating about your partner’s past.
POV: You and your S.O. are going through your couple photos on their phone, reminiscing about all the beautiful sunsets and romantic dinners you have experienced together when all of a sudden they get this notification: “Hey, here’s a memory from five years ago with your ex.”
While it’s normal to feel a pang of jealousy in the moment, if afterwards you find yourself ruminating about their ex and imagining how much happier they probably were with them (which, BTW, is not true—they’re an ex for a reason), then you might be falling into a cycle of retroactive jealousy.
Also, having intrusive thoughts and even dreams about your S.O.’s previous relationships and sexual experiences is a pretty clear sign of retroactive jealousy, says Balestrieri.
2. You digitally stalk their ex.
Another all-too-common scenario: You’re on a casual Instagram scroll when you see a vaguely familiar name comment on your partner’s friend’s post. Before you know it, you find yourself lurking on your S.O.’s ex’s profile trying to dig up all the information you can.
You might search for information to make comparisons to that person with the goal of feeling better about yourself. It may be that you feel the need to know everything about this person to ensure they’re not a threat, so that you feel safe in yourself and your relationship, says Gabb.
3. You compare your past with your S.O.’s past.
If you find yourself comparing your relationship and sexual history to your partner’s and telling yourself a story that you’re not as experienced as them, then you might be experiencing retroactive jealousy, says Simonian. This is another way to feed existing insecurities that you’re not “good enough” (which, BTW, you are), and find an excuse to dig deeper into how their life was before you came into the picture.
4. You try to control their relationship with their ex.
While most manifestations of retroactive jealousy are seemingly harmless, Gabb shares that retroactive jealousy becomes a major red flag when the partner with RJ attempts to control their S.O.’s relationship with their ex. Some examples include demanding they delete social media posts or even their account to limit their ex’s access to them. Some partners might go as far as banning their S.O. from ever speaking to past partners.
This is problematic because there are various reasons why someone might want to maintain a relationship with their ex. Perhaps they co-parent a child together, so they can’t simply eject this ex from their life because they’re a part of their child’s life, explains Gabb.
Is retroactive jealousy a mental health disorder?
Short answer: no.
While retroactive jealousy may have roots in an overarching diagnosis of disorders, such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety, RJ itself isn’t a mental health disorder, explains Balestrieri. “It may be that an individual’s OCD or anxiety takes the shape and form of relationship obsessions because that’s one of the more common areas where obsessions can take shape.”
Additionally, those who struggle with mental health conditions like OCD, anxiety, or depression might be more at risk of experiencing retroactive jealousy than those who don’t struggle with these disorders, says Simonian. Retroactive jealousy has to do with one’s inability to manage their emotions and thoughts and even control impulses, which are underlying symptoms of many mental health conditions, Simonian adds.
Retroactive jealousy may also be the result of an attachment wound, says Balestrieri. “It may be how somebody compensates for abandonment fears and ideas that they’ll never be good enough for a relationship because of past relational trauma.”
How can I manage my retroactive jealousy?
If you find yourself experiencing retroactive jealousy, firstly, you’re not alone, and luckily there are healthy ways to manage it or even break the cycle. Here are some expert-approved tips for managing RJ:
1. Notice it.
The first step is noticing that you’re experiencing retroactive jealousy and being honest with yourself about why those feelings are coming up, says Gabb.
Is it because you’ve been cheated on in the past? Or maybe you’re feeling insecure in your relationship and need some reassurance from your partner? Once you discover the root of this jealousy, it’ll be easier to figure out what you need to move forward.
2. Stay present.
You want to stay in the present moment as much as possible, says Simonian. “I know it’s easier said than done, but because retroactive jealousy pulls you into the past, staying grounded in the present and reminding yourself that that was then, and this is now, will be extremely helpful.”
If you find yourself being pulled into a cycle of RJ, pause and do whatever you need to ground yourself in the present, whether that’s distracting yourself, meditating, or calling a trusted friend to talk it out, Simonian adds.
FYI, if you do find yourself falling into this cycle, there’s no need to beat yourself up about it. Simply acknowledge your emotions and be gentle with yourself as you work to redirect that energy elsewhere.
3. Talk to your partner about it.
While you don’t necessarily need to wear it all on your sleeve and tell your S.O., “I’m jealous” (although you definitely could, just saying), it might be helpful to have a conversation with them about why you’re feeling this way, says Simonian. This will create an opportunity for you to ask them questions to get the information you’ve maybe been afraid to inquire about or have been searching for online.
Not only does this build good communication habits by helping you be more open with your partner, but you’re also not leaving things up to your imagination. “We tend to get in trouble when we try to fill in the blanks, which leads us to creating our own narrative,” says Simonian.
Rather than telling yourself a story about what you think happened, which will only intensify those jealous feelings, get direct information from your partner. More likely than not, they will answer your questions.
4. Know what you need and ask for it.
After you’ve sussed out the root cause of the jealous feelings, it might be helpful to ask for what you need from your S.O.
Sometimes retroactive jealousy bubbles up because you need more affection or affirmation from an intimate partner in order to feel secure in the relationship, explains Simonian.
An effective way to ask for what you need is by making a direct request rather than complaining, Simonian suggests. Instead of saying, “You never show me affection,” try, “I like hearing you say ‘I love you,’ and I was wondering if you could do that more?”
What should I do if my partner shows signs of retroactive jealousy?
So what if you’re not the one with RJ, but your partner is? The experts share tips for what to do in that instance, too:
1. Reassure them.
Often, feelings of retroactive jealousy arise because the person with RJ feels insecure in the relationship and needs reassurance from their partner.
So as their partner, are there ways that you can be more reassuring? Can you offer them what they need to feel more confident in themselves and in your ‘ship?
This might look like saying, “Hey, that’s in the past. I’m really into you right now,” says Simonian. It might also involve affirming your S.O. through their love language, so they feel emotionally safe, which, in turn, eradicates any perceived threats.
If, perhaps, you have been unfaithful in the past, this might look like acknowledging that infidelity and assuring your partner that it won’t happen again.
Everyone just wants to feel loved, so if you’re in a serious partnership, it’s important to point out your S.O.’s value and let them know how much you cherish your relationship, affirms Gabb.
2. Meet them halfway.
If you still have a relationship with your ex, and you know your partner feels threatened by them, can you meet them halfway?
For example, perhaps you don’t feel comfortable deleting old photos, but you can at least archive them so while you can still see them, they won’t pop up spontaneously on your S.O.’s social media feeds, says Gabb.
If you and your partner are going to an event where your ex might be present, which may be triggering for them, can you prepare them for that encounter and talk them through what to do if they run into each other?
There’s a reason why that relationship ended, so it’s really about being open about the qualities of the relationship you’re currently in and showing your S.O. why they are the person you choose to be with, Gabb adds.
3. Be patient.
While you might feel offended if your partner starts asking invasive questions about your past, the worst thing you can do is get upset, explains Simonian. “The more you shut down and the more defensive you get, the worse the pattern is going to become and the more they’re going to pull away, which is an unhelpful situation to be in.”
While it’s important to maintain your own boundaries, and you shouldn’t feel responsible for making your partner’s feelings of jealousy go away, it will be beneficial for you both if you’re present with your partner in their feelings of retroactive jealousy, says Balestrieri.
If you believe that your S.O. quizzing you about your past is crossing a boundary, simply remind them why you’re in a relationship with them and not your ex.
Moreover, if your partner appears to have a difficult time regulating their emotions (a symptom of RJ), it might be helpful to assist them through co-regulation techniques. “Co-regulation is another word for interactive regulation,” explains Balestrieri. “We usually do this nonverbally through a smile, gentle eyes, or an arm on the back—anything that helps the nervous system calm down.”
4. Create new memories.
Many times when people experience retroactive jealousy, it’s because they believe their partner felt more fulfilled and had more meaningful memories with a past partner. So as a couple, it might be helpful to create new memories and rituals that are unique to this relationship, says Balestrieri.
So if you and your ex would always go to the same Italian restaurant for your dates because they had the best chicken parm, maybe try out a new restaurant with your new boo (which, I’ll say it, might have even better chicken parm).
While somewhat of a roadblock, retroactive jealousy doesn’t have to completely taint your relationship. In fact, as long as you and your S.O. are on the same page, it can be an experience that can lead to some really vulnerable conversations that will only strengthen your bond.
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