No one likes to think about their partner being with anyone else. Neither do most people enjoy thinking about their partner’s past relationships, and all the baggage (or potential lingering feelings) that come with them.
While it’s normal to have a passing thought about your significant other’s past partner (and shudder for a second before moving on), some people have serious issues with what’s called “retrospective jealousy,” the practice of holding resentment toward your partner’s previous partners.
Are you a retroactive jealousy sufferer? You’re not alone and the unwanted thoughts you’re having can go away. Here’s how being envious of the past can hurt your relationship and what you can do to overcome retroactive jealousy.
What is retroactive jealousy?
Retroactive jealousy means having major insecurity over or anger about your partner’s romantic history – you ruminate on their past dalliances and have serious envy toward their exes. These negative thoughts could be about situations that actually happened in your partner’s past or your imagination running wild about your partner’s sexual or emotional past.
Of course, if there’s some shady behavior going on—say, your new partner has regular sleepovers with the person they used to date—then that’s an obvious reason for some suspicion.
But being generally envious (or bitter) about your partner’s past for no clear reason can ruin your relationship before it even has a chance to blossom. Working through retroactive jealousy can help you avoid what will often lead to a vicious cycle that will damage your own relationship.
While many people have a romantic past, and you may have one too, it can be all too easy to agonize over your partner’s previous relationships, your partner’s past sexual dalliances or just your partner’s exes in general. Especially if you don’t know a lot about your partner’s history, it can be tempting for your brain to fill in the gaps with jealous thoughts, which are basically just your own worries and insecurities.
Retroactive jealousy vs Regular jealousy
Retroactive or retrospective jealousy is different from regular old jealousy. If your partner is flirting with someone in front of you, no matter how harmless the situation is, and you start to feel upset, this is healthy jealousy. (It’s also totally WTF, but I digress.)
Retroactive jealousy, however, isn’t usually rooted in your current reality. When you have intrusive or obsessive thoughts about your boyfriend or girlfriend’s past (or their previous partner), your brain is usually making up stories to feed your own insecurities, assumptions and fears about your current romantic situation.
Because your envy of their sexual past isn’t tied to real events playing out right now, retroactive jealousy can be categorized with other mental health disorders, especially if you’re having intrusive thoughts and obsessing over your partner’s past.
Some people even experience retroactive jealousy OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) where they engage in repeated and obsessive behaviors, like checking their partner’s texts or social media accounts. (More on social media and OCD sufferers to come.) It’s important to overcome retroactive jealousy not just for your relationship’s sake but for your own mental health.
How retroactive jealousy can hurt your relationship
As you can imagine, retroactive jealousy can be toxic for a relationship. As you obsess over your partner’s past, your partner can feel accused for things that happened before they even met you—and that’s just the beginning.
Here are just a few ways that retroactive jealousy can seriously harm your relationship:
It makes your partner think that you don’t trust them.
If your partner feels like they need to continually explain themselves and apologize for their past, they’re going to feel a lack of trust in the relationship. At some point, you have to just let the past be the past and focus on the here and now.
Otherwise, you’ll never get a chance to build trust in your current relationship and your partner will always feel like they need to walk on eggshells around you instead of just being themselves.
It causes insecurity to fester.
At the heart of retroactive jealousy is your own self-esteem, or lack thereof. You feel jealous out of envy, which often stems from qualities you believe you lack when compared to your partner’s past sexual partners.
It can also develop from a worry that you’ll never live up to your partner’s sexual or romantic needs because of who they were with before you.
It takes the focus away from what you’re building together.
When you’re stuck in the past, you’re not building your relationship in the present. And if you’re not working toward something with your partner, then you won’t actually have a relationship at all. Focusing on the past doesn’t give you a chance to appreciate your partner, get to know them or allow your relationship to have a chance to evolve. Focus instead on your own experience with your partner!
It can come off as judgemental.
By fixating on your partner’s past, you’ve given a major signal that you’re evaluating everything they’re done and everything they will do. How can your partner feel comfortable doing anything in the present when you’re constantly judging their past?
Dealing with jealousy about your partner’s past relationships
Of course, getting over your retroactive jealousy is easier said than done. It takes a lot of mental health work to get past it.
The first step is trying to understand what’s at the root of your jealousy. Are you feeling insecure about where your relationship stands? (Have you defined the relationship yet or are you feeling strung along?) Is there a lot of mystery surrounding your partner’s past relationships? Or do you have specific questions about why your partner ended their past relationships, couldn’t commit, called off an engagement—whatever the situation was?
Defining what’s at the heart of your jealousy can give you a clearer roadmap toward working through it. When an unwanted thought pops up about your partner’s past and you’re feeling jealous, develop a plan for getting through it.
Maybe you drink a glass of water or go for a walk. You might even consider trying cognitive behavioral therapy to help you change your thought, feeling and behavior patterns so that you don’t develop retroactive jealousy OCD. Retroactive jealousy OCD sufferers find they can’t keep playing these mental movies in their heads. But when you can identify that you’re indeed experiencing retroactive jealousy (and have the tools to acknowledge and overcome the feeling), you’ll soon be able to break the negative thought patterns.
Here are some more tips on overcoming retroactive jealousy:
Ask questions about your partner’s past
If your partner doesn’t talk much about past relationships and you’re relying on hearsay or gossip for your information, put a stop to that now. Ask your partner what you need to know about their past so you can make it less mysterious in your own mind.
Set boundaries about what you’re comfortable with when it comes to contact with exes
If you’re worried about how their exes play a role in their life currently, ask your partner to be on the same page about what constitutes safe contact with exes for you. This also includes talking about your exes—do you actually want to hear about them or not? Set clear boundaries now so that you’re both comfortable.
Share your fears and insecurities
Be open with your partner about how you’re feeling. If you’re worried that your partner will break your heart after they shattered their previous partner’s, say so. If you’re scared that they’re still pining for the one that got away, ask if that’s really true.
Frame your fears and insecurities in a non-blaming way. These worries are more about you than your partner. Be sure to stress this so you’re not coming off as accusing your partner of something they aren’t actually doing.
Don’t read your partner’s past social media activity
A major sign of retroactive jealousy OCD is constantly checking social media for clues or ammunition to feed your jealousy. Don’t scroll down your partner’s Facebook page to see what their ex wrote on their wall way back when they dated.
Don’t look at all the tagged photos from their trip to Europe to determine if they were happier with their ex. Whatever you find won’t make you feel better.
Stop social media stalking their exes
Nothing good ever comes from keeping tabs on your partner’s exes. At best, you’ll accidently like one of their photos from two years ago and feel completely mortified. At worst, you’ll feel more insecure, more conflicted and more emotional by constantly looking at their feed.
Playing the comparison game never feels good, even when you think you’re superior to them.
How to talk to your partner and overcome retroactive jealousy
When it comes to having a talk about your feelings or recurring thoughts about your partner’s past, first pick a neutral time when your partner isn’t distracted or overly stressed in general. (For instance, when you’re stuck in traffic is not a great time to have a talk.)
Be calm, vulnerable and open about your feelings. Maybe jealousy has always been a tough thing for you that you’re trying to overcome. Maybe you haven’t had many romantic relationships and the idea of your partner having a storied past scares you. Sexual experience can be scary if you don’t have it. Speak with compassion and understanding. If things get heated, take a break and see if you can find common ground. Remember, your partner isn’t on trial here—they didn’t do anything to hurt you simply by having past relationships.
While you don’t need to apologize for your retrospective jealousy, it’s worth reminding your partner that your negative feelings are a you thing, not a them thing. Let them know that it’s your job to overcome jealousy and move past their past. Naturally, you can let them help you by asking for what you need for support—for instance, if their ex still wants to talk to them on the phone every night and you’re not okay with that, start with setting those healthy boundaries.
In time, your partner’s past will become one more reason to love them and feel close with them. Their story led them on a path toward you, after all. When you can reframe the past as a learning experience and can talk with them about how they’ve grown as a person, and a partner, the past can be far less threatening.
Making trust the cornerstone of your relationship
Retroactive jealousy is so damaging because it prevents true trust from forming in your relationship. Trust is the cornerstone of any healthy bond. Without it, you can’t have a truly authentic union.
If you don’t fully trust each other, you and your partner will always have doubts about each other’s commitment, love and genuineness. Second-guessing your partner’s every move is definitely not what you’d consider hashtag relationship goals. Overcoming retroactive jealousy can open up a door toward real trust and respect.
While it’s normal to have tiny hints of uncertainty here and there, there’s a big difference between healthy skepticism, especially at the beginning of a new relationship, and serious apprehension. Don’t let retroactive jealousy overtake what’s rightfully yours. To help your relationship have a brighter future, try to keep the past where it belongs—in your proverbial rearview mirror.