Once you’re in your twenties and thirties (and beyond), it stands to reason that anyone you get into a relationship with will have had a handful of exes in their past. Generally speaking, this is a good thing. The lessons they learned from their time with their former partners made them the right person for you in the present. However, not everyone sees it like that. If the fact that you’re not the first and only love in your partner’s life is something you just can’t handle, you may be experiencing retroactive jealousy. Needless to say, this needs to be addressed ASAP.
What is retroactive jealousy?
Have you ever felt yourself go green with envy because of an experience your partner had with an ex? Does the very idea of your partner having been with other people before you send you into a rage? These things have no bearing on your current relationship, but that makes no difference. That’s exactly what retroactive jealousy is all about.
“Retroactive jealousy is when someone experiences anxiety or distress due to thoughts and worries about a partner’s past relationships. It can manifest in intrusive thoughts often rooted in insecurity and irrational beliefs,” licensed clinical social worker Jeanette Lorandini, LCSW, tells Bolde. “Feelings of anger, envy, and possessiveness can accompany these thoughts. Retroactive jealousy can cause distress in a relationship and lead to mistrust, low self-esteem, and negative thinking. It is important to understand that retroactive jealousy is not necessarily indicative of one’s partner being unfaithful — it is a reaction to thoughts or feelings related to their past relationships.”
How it manifests in relationships
There are a variety of different ways this emotion can show up in your relationship, but all of them are troubling in their own way.
- You constantly question your partner about their exes. You want to know every detail about who they were with before you. What were they like? Why did they break up? Did they love their ex more than they love you? Your questioning can become obsessive and even inappropriate, but you can’t let it go.
- You avoid any and all mention of their previous relationships. On the flip side, you may not want to know anything about their exes. If you experience retroactive jealousy, you might ban all mention of them. If your partner happens to say their name or bring up something about that relationship, you immediately shut off or flip out on them.
- You read their texts or monitor their phone calls. You’re so jealous of your partner’s ex that you’re terrified they’ll leave you for that person. To make sure they’re not planning to dump you, you look through their phone to see who they’re talking to and what they’re up to. This is a complete violation of their right to privacy, but that doesn’t stop you.
- You get angry when they want to go out with their friends. If they want to go out one weekend, you pout or start a fight. You worry that your partner will run into one of their exes there and they’ll hit it off again. This is extremely unlikely, but that doesn’t stop you from losing your cool.
- You accuse them of being unfaithful or of wanting to be back with previous partners. They broke up with their ex months or even years before you met. However, you’re still sure they’d go back to them given half a chance. You accuse them of cheating with their ex behind your back even though there’s zero proof of that happening.
- You try to control who they talk to and where they go. Because you’re so terrified that they’re going to ditch you for a former lover, you basically forbid them from going anywhere or doing anything without you. You isolate them from their friends and stay glued to their side 24/7. This is not okay.
How it can destroy otherwise healthy relationships
It goes without saying that slinging baseless accusations, controlling your partner’s actions, and stonewalling or shouting at them when one of their ex’s names comes up is going to have a negative effect on the relationship. What could have started as a healthy, happy, fulfilling connection can soon turn toxic and abusive.
“Retroactive jealousy can cause a lot of stress and insecurity in relationships. It can lead to feelings of mistrust that can damage the relationship over time, as well as make it difficult for couples to communicate openly about their pasts,” Lorandini explains. “Additionally, retroactive jealousy can lead to controlling behaviors in relationships, which can become detrimental if not addressed. Furthermore, someone experiencing retroactive jealousy can become preoccupied with their partner’s past, leading them to neglect their own needs and wants in the relationship.”
How to deal with it if you or your partner experience retroactive jealousy
- Figure out why you’re struggling so much. You have exes too, so why are your partner’s such a big deal? A little self-reflection can help you figure out the root cause of your feelings. “People often turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as avoidance or aggression, when they’re feeling jealous, which only makes the problem worse,” says licensed social worker Candace Kotkin-De Carvalho, LSW, LCADC, CCS, CCTP. “Instead, focus on understanding why you are feeling jealous and take steps to address those underlying issues. Does it stem from a lack of self-esteem or past experiences? Do you feel neglected or insecure in your relationship?”
- Talk to your partner about what’s going on in your head. Communication is key, you know that. Now’s not the time to clam up or shut your partner out. You must be vulnerable by letting them know why you’re behaving the way you are. From there, you can make a plan to get things back on track. “Work together to build trust, and strive for a relationship based on understanding and respect. It shows them that you are willing to talk about the issue. Ask questions about their past relationships if you need additional reassurance, but in a respectful and understanding way,” Kotkin-De Carvalho says.
- Spend some time on self-care. Your relationship is not the be-all and end-all in your life. You’re still a whole, complete person on your own. It’s important to focus on yourself to make sure you’re fulfilled before going all-in on a relationship. Kotkin-De Carvalho suggests finding hobbies or activities that bring you peace, such as yoga or meditation, or even journaling. Getting adequate rest is also important. “It can be helpful to actively try and put yourself in a better frame of mind by focusing on the present moment and remembering that the past is over and done with,” she adds. “You can practice positive self-talk to try and counter any negative thoughts or feelings you may be having. Remember that you are in control of how you react to the situation and nobody else can do this for you.”