What Is Retroactive Jealousy? (Hint: It Ruins Trust)

Retroactive jealousy in romantic relationships refers to a fixation on your partner's past. Garden variety jealousy refers to something going on in the moment. If you're irritated by someone flirting with your significant other right in front of you, this speaks to standard old jealousy. But retroactive jealousy comes in when we fixate and become bothered by your significant other's romantic history. Even though it's in the past, meaning there's nothing that can be done about it, it creates unpleasant feelings. You might feel insecure, threatened, and upset.

It's natural to be curious about the people your partner dated before you came onto the scene, but when we start to fixate on their pasts, then it's time to pause and note what's happening. Retroactive jealousy has a lot to do with comparison, and when you're in this headspace, those insecurities can make it feel like you don't measure up. You might start to worry that your partner's exes were more attractive, intelligent, successful, or sensual than you. You might start to worry that your partner looks back on his or her past with a little too much fondness.

Whatever false narrative is kicking up, know that this is rooted in jealousy and is therefore inaccurate. However, the negative feelings can certainly appear real, so it's worth looking at the root causes and exploring solutions. Rest assured, retroactive jealousy is very common, and there are ways to work through it.

How it can impact your relationship?

Retroactive jealousy can take a toll on your relationship, even if it's a fairly common sensation. Mental health counselor Monica Miner told PsychCentral, "Feeling jealous about your partner's past is a common experience for many people," Miner began. "When jealousy is intense, it can make you feel like you are losing control of your emotions and you may even act out in destructive ways."

Retroactive jealousy can manifest in various ways. It can involve doing deep dives online where you search for details about your partner's exes, even by creating fake accounts. It can show up when you question your partner excessively about their past. It can take more intense turns too, like when you try to monitor or control how much contact your partner has with their exes. It can also manifest through excessive snooping through your partner's private property: old albums, letters, and journals.

What makes retroactive jealousy so tough is that it can rob you of the joy of your current relationship. "It can really bring up a lot of pain for couples because for the partner with [retroactive jealousy], 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," psychologist Kate Balestrieri told Women's Health. This form of jealousy pulls you out of the present moment and into the past, a place where you have no control. You can't undo what happened, and that's a tough place to be.

Why retroactive jealousy crops up

There are a few different reasons why retroactive jealousy comes up in a relationship. If you're experiencing it, pause to note what happened in your past that might trigger this kind of anxiety. It can be rooted in fear of abandonment, insecurity, or low self-esteem. If you've dealt with infidelity in your own past relationships, it's understandable that you might be feeling some concern over a similar thing happening with your current significant other.

Retroactive jealousy is not a mental illness, but it is more prevalent in individuals who have anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This particular form is called "retroactive jealousy OCD" and can involve intrusive thoughts and repetitive actions, like looking up exes online. "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," Balestrieri explained.

Therapist Emily Simonian told Women's Health that people with different attachment styles and fear of abandonment can be more susceptible to it. "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," Simonian said. It can also be much more common in perfectionists and people who tend to idolize relationships in general.

How social media plays a part in it

The prevalence of social media plays a part in retroactive jealousy, simply because it's so easy now to find information about your partner's exes. It's easier to access your significant other's past and these digital archives can create more vivid pictures of their past.

Jacqui Gabb, professor of sociology and intimacy, told Women's Health that for many, retroactive jealousy has actually become more common because of the ability to dig up information on the internet. "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." With this awareness, it's crucial to treat social media carefully if you're dealing with retroactive jealousy. Avoid the urge to dig, as tempting as it may be. Remember too that things are rarely as perfect as they appear online.

What to do about it with your partner?

It can be helpful and healthy to speak about retroactive jealousy with your partner. Clinical psychologist Patrick Cheatham told HealthLine that an open discussion can lead to trust and closeness. "Curiosity about past partners and experiences is very natural," Cheatham explained. "Discussing these things can be a good way for couples to get to know each other and understand each other's approach to relationships."

As awkward as it may initially seem, bringing these feelings to our partner can give them the chance to explain things and hopefully, bring you some peace and clarity. "We tend to get in trouble when we try to fill in the blanks, which leads us to creating our own narrative," Simonian said. If you're honest and vulnerable, it can give your partner the chance to clear up any lingering concerns. Maybe they had a few questions themselves about your past, and an open conversation can bring more certainty for both of you. Plus, honest conversations often lead to enhanced closeness in relationships, so it might also be really good for your bond. Best of all, focus instead on creating your own happy memories with your partner. Pour your energy into your own life and your current relationship.

How to deal with retroactive jealousy yourself

While it's key to speak with your partner about retroactive jealousy, the sensation is also an opportunity to do some self-work. The first thing to do when these feelings crop up is notice them and accept them. Understanding that they might be emerging because of anxiety, attachment issues, or fear of abandonment deepens this self-acceptance.

Knowing that these feelings are grounded in anxiety or depression can also take the power away from the ruminations about your partner's exes. It has nothing to do with them or any kind of real threat; instead, it's rooted in fear of losing a relationship you want or fear of inadequacy. A therapist can be hugely helpful in teasing out these intrusive, negative thoughts.

It's also an opportunity to reframe your thinking about retroactive jealousy. Note everything you like about yourself; write these points down if that would make the list more real. That can help with feelings of insecurity. Know that you bring things to the relationship that your partner loves and appreciates. Also, reframe your thinking about your partner's past. Practice gratitude for all that your partner learned in his or her past in order to make themselves the person they are today. Lessons from previous relationships can certainly be a part of that.