How to Overcome Retroactive Jealousy

Is retroactive jealousy a red flag?
on December 15, 2023
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

Whether we like to admit it or not, the big green monster of jealousy has likely raised its head at one point or another. 

Retroactive jealousy is a different beast altogether, where you allow feelings of jealousy over your partner’s past to contaminate your present relationship. This fixation on their romantic or sexual history, or fascination with your loved one’s ex, can lead to very intense emotions and even erratic behaviors. 

Before you start seeing those red flags in your reflection, it’s important to deal with these jealous patterns productively to save your relationship! 

Key Takeaways
  • Retroactive jealousy is when someone is experiencing extreme emotional distress or fixation on their partner’s ex, even if they aren’t present in their life currently.
  • This preoccupation with their partner’s past can lead to worrying behaviors and consistent disregard for their loved one’s boundaries — rooted in unfounded fears.
  • Retroactive jealousy is often triggered by deep-rooted insecurity, or fears of abandonment — heightened by the kind of access that social media grants us.
  • Jealousy is considered normal in a relationship, set off by emotional triggers, previous infidelity, or an anxious attachment style.
  • Signs of retroactive jealousy include stalking a partner’s socials, emotional outbursts, and repeated infiltration of privacy.
  • Retroactive jealousy can have a profound negative impact on relationships and should be effectively dealt with — ideally with professional help.

What is retroactive jealousy? 

Retroactive jealousy refers to a person’s distress about their partner’s past romantic relationships, even if there are no signs of anything going on. This can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with your partner’s exes, where you spend an unreasonable amount of time stalking their socials or going through your partner’s text messages or social media posts. 

While you may not find anything explicit, or uncover anything suspicious about your relationship, this isn’t just a harmless hobby and can lead to other toxic tendencies. 

Retroactive jealousy about your partner’s past relationships can corrupt the memories you’ve shared with your loved one, as the information you’ve gathered makes it feel like your own relationship isn’t special or unique. 

For example, old social media posts about your partner’s vacation with their previous partner can make your romantic holiday feel less special — as they’ve shared that kind of moment with someone else. 

Even though it’s completely normal for both you and your partner to have previous sexual experiences and sexual partners, this type of jealousy can make their history feel very present and somehow threatening. 

What is an example of retroactive jealousy?

There are many examples of retroactive jealousy, where intrusive thoughts start to dominate your relationship behaviors. 

Examples of retroactive jealousy behaviors can include looking through your partner’s phone for information on their past relationships or stalking their exes on social media platforms — with these activities inspiring excessive jealousy. 

Even though these relationships are in the past, this behavior makes it feel present and threatening.  

What is the root cause of retroactive jealousy? 

This type of jealousy can be sparked in different ways, including viewing old photos of your partner’s past partners, looking through old text messages, or information uncovered from asking your partner about their romantic history. 

Research shows that social media has a part to play in retroactive jealousy, with the persistence, association, and visibility of social media making it easier to access relationship threats, including ex-partners. 

According to these studies, retroactive jealousy was heightened through social media use, as it facilitated the monitoring of their partners. While some people turn to social media to mitigate jealousy, it often only worsens things as it can lead to obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and even more jealous feelings. 

This can expand to create a vicious cycle, where negative thoughts continuously haunt your relationship, corrupting your self-worth and contributing to low self-esteem. Even if your partner isn’t doing anything wrong, these unwanted thoughts can make it very difficult to sustain a healthy relationship — especially if you’re constantly fixated on their past experiences or previous relationships!

With social media as a common facilitator, research shows that these patterns can lead to Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or retroactive jealousy OCD. This form of obsessive-compulsive disorder can impact your current relationship, as well as your overall well-being and mental health. 

Is it normal to have retroactive jealousy?

Jealousy is normal in relationships, and in small doses, jealousy in a relationship can even be considered healthy! It’s normal to be curious about your partner’s past, as long as you don’t let it dominate your present relationship. 

Retroactive jealousy is particularly common in those who have an anxious attachment style, as their insecurities push them into these unhealthy patterns. If they’re harboring fears of abandonment, or worry that they’re not good enough for their partner, they are more likely to fall into these destructive patterns.

“When we are committed to our healing we can recognize easier what are our emotional triggers, such as fear or feelings of not being enough, and what is someone else's behavior,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

“Such as a partner who is consistently crossing relationship boundaries. It’s normal to have feelings of jealousy from time to time with a partner, but paying attention to why the pattern is occurring is key to knowing if this is healthy or harmful for your relationship.”

Does a partner's infidelity cause retroactive jealousy?

These negative thought patterns are particularly prevalent if your partner has been unfaithful in the past. 

Research shows if one partner is experiencing distrust, it can quickly spiral out of control. If you distrust your partner or are getting intrusive thoughts about infidelity, it can lead to feelings of jealousy as well as worrying behaviors or compulsions such as snooping through their belongings or even forms of psychological abuse. 

For example, even if you’ve forgiven your current partner for past infidelity, feelings of jealousy and distrust are likely to linger on — leading to compulsions around your partner’s sexual history out of fear that they might betray you again, especially with the same person. 

These feelings of retroactive jealousy are even more difficult to overcome in these cases, as there is more legitimacy to your fears. 

“When a couple is healing from an affair when jealousy and trust seem to be not improving at all, and the relationship with the affair partner has truly stopped, what is key to look at are the reasons the affair occurred in the first place,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

“Retroactive jealousy might be popping up because those pre-affair behaviors still exist for both partners and the betrayed partner when feeling that pain goes back to revisit old areas of hurt. When the pre-affair behaviors are active, such as not sharing emotions or active addictions, it can be nearly impossible to rebuild deep trust and retroactive jealousy feelings can continue to be a painful present for both partners.”

Signs of retroactive jealousy

Social media stalking: With social media, it’s easier than ever to learn more about your partner’s romantic history. While everyone is curious about their significant other’s ex, getting into the habit of stalking their social media accounts is a very dark rabbit hole. If you become obsessed with your partner’s past, it’s easy to justify unhealthy behavior — like creating a fake account to stalk them without them or your loved one knowing.
Comparison: No matter how happy you are in your relationship, if you’re exposing yourself to your partner’s past — it’s tough not to get caught up in it. If you find yourself constantly comparing yourself to your partner’s exes, it’s a sign that you could be experiencing retroactive jealousy.
Emotional outbursts: When you get caught up in the cycle of retroactive jealousy, it can be a very emotional experience. These patterns often lead to emotional outbursts, where you find yourself accusing your partner of infidelity, or being very reactive to small shifts in energy in your relationship.
Fixating on their romantic history: Everyone has a past, and while it’s normal to enquire about your partner’s history — this should only go so far. If you find yourself fixating on their past relationships, or constantly enquiring about their feelings for their exes, this is a big indicator that you’re experiencing retroactive jealousy.
Infiltrating privacy: If you’re dealing with retroactive jealousy, it can drive you to cross boundaries in your relationship. For example, you could justify looking through their phone or rooting through their drawers!

How can retroactive jealousy impact your relationship? 

If you’re experiencing extreme feelings of retroactive jealousy, it can negatively impact your relationship in various ways. 

The point about retroactive jealousy is that it’s centered on the past, and has nothing to do with present interference from your loved one’s exes. While it would be justified to react negatively to an ex's present involvement in your relationship, spending time focusing on the past can lead to many negative consequences. 

If you’re dedicating your energy to your partner’s past, it can become almost impossible to focus on your future together. Especially if you’re allowing these insights to affect your self-esteem, and making you question the validity and strength of your relationships. All of these emotions build and build and build — detracting focus from what’s important to you in the first place. 

While your greatest fear might be abandonment, the consequences of retroactive jealousy might see this fear realized. As your jealousy grows, it can drive your partner away. 

On the other side of this, if your partner is the one experiencing these jealous emotions, it can be difficult to understand these insecurities. Therefore, you back away from this relationship — especially if you’re being accused of infidelity or misbehavior when this is not the case. 

How to deal with retroactive jealousy

Self-reflection: If you’re experiencing these intense emotions, it’s important to take a step back and evaluate why you may be feeling this way. It can be helpful to practice journaling, to try and locate where these feelings of jealousy are coming from — are they rooted in past experiences, or is your partner making you feel insecure in some way?
Open communication: When you’re experiencing feelings of distrust, it can seem impossible to just chat with your partner, but this is always the best course of action. By opting for open and honest communication, it’s easier to dispel any irrational thoughts or fears that retroactive jealousy can conjure up.
Building your bond: If you feel threatened by your partner’s memories with someone else, it’s important to look ahead to the future. Instead of dwelling on the past, take the time to build intimacy with your partner — strengthening your bond and creating new memories together.
Couples therapy: While these steps can help, if you’re struggling to overcome these emotions — it's legitimate to seek help. Especially if you’re dealing with other mental health conditions, such as OCD, couples therapy can help you deal with these emotions more proactively. Depending on your circumstances, or chosen mental health professional, therapy modes such as cognitive behavioral therapy can help you work through these emotions.
Accepting the possibility of a break up: While retroactive jealousy can be dealt with, in some cases, it’s important to know when to call it quits. If you know yourself that you won’t be able to get over these intense feelings of jealousy — it’s fairer for you both to go your separate ways.

Does retroactive jealousy ever go away?

While retroactive jealousy can fade over time, it will only fully go away if you deal with these emotions head-on — ideally with professional help. 

Due to its destructive nature, you need to deal with the causes and consequences of these jealous feelings and work through these emotions with your partner. Even though some jealousy in a relationship can be healthy, as it can show your care for your loved one, it should never be allowed to linger on and disrupt your bond. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What’s the difference between normal jealousy and retroactive jealousy?

    While retroactive jealousy is about the past, and doesn’t have links to the present moment — normal jealousy is usually taking place in the current time. For example, while retroactive jealousy means digging into your partner’s romantic history, normal jealousy pertains to people who are in your life currently — and who you feel might corrupt your relationship.
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