Retroactive Jealousy: How to Manage it

Retroactive jealousy is an obsessional problem, it refers to people who have become fixated upon their partner’s romantic and sexual past. Retroactive jealousy sits under the umbrella of obsessive-compulsive disorders (RJ/OCD).

A great deal of information on Google stresses the importance of learning to block these ideas out, to retrain your mind so you can ignore your worries. This may prove to be an unhelpful approach. For most of us, it is better to get at the underlying dimensions of the problem rather than trying to pretend it isn’t there.

Commonly, people will identify that they have become caught up in an obsessive cycle before they recognise it as part of retroactive jealousy.

The sooner you can identify that you are in the grip of the obsessional thinking that characterises retroactive jealousy, the sooner you can start to limit the destructive consequences.

Four key points to remember about retroactive jealousy

  1. What we call retroactive jealousy relates not to our partners’ past lives, but to problems and issues that are part of our history, our own past.
  2. Retroactive jealousy is more to do with things that have happened to us than it is to do with our present relationship.
  3. Being able to recognise that you have become caught up in obsessional and intrusive thoughts and ideas is the first step in untangling the problem. It is part of starting to step back and develop perspective on your self.
  4. Retroactive jealousy can be worked on and addressed successfully and safely in therapy with me either face-to-face, or online.

A client story

‘I used to think that my RJ/OCD could never be fixed, that I’d never be able to change, but that’s not true. Because everything is changing all the time. I came to see that my RJ/OCD was driven by a desire for everything to stay the same. Just me and my partner, and no thoughts about her previous partners. Like I wanted to be in the ending of a fairy tale where the prince and princess live happily ever after.But real life isn’t a fairy tale, and it turns out that everything changes, including me, and just because I was compelled to wish for control then, doesn’t mean that I couldn’t change now. I just had to find a way to step back from that obsessive wish for control. The challenge was to give up on fairy tales and to let myself join in with life, with all its awkward facts.’

A partner’s story

‘I suddenly realised where I’d heard all these questions before. It was my dad. Being with my boyfriend when he’d been drinking was like being with my dad when I was small. My dad had a drink problem. In the end, my mum left him, that was much later. But when my dad had been drinking, he’d get paranoid and go on and on at my mum.
‘His thoughts would become random. He’d ask her about her old boyfriends. He’d become suspicious. Ask her what she’d been up to? He’d never believe anything she said. It was part of the soundtrack of my childhood. My dad’s parents split when he was small. He always blamed my grandmother, and when he drank, it would all come out of him.’

In the last couple of years, I have had more inquiries about retroactive jealousy than any other subject. Jealousy has always been a complicated emotion. A certain amount of possessiveness is healthy, it is part of what helps us form and strengthen our attachments. We could say it is part of something necessary about committing to a partner.

But for a lot of us, coming to terms with the fact that our partners have had relationships before us, becomes overpowering and difficult. We can’t let it go. We can’t stop worrying about it. It is out of this worry that retroactive jealousy develops.

Step 1, stop looking at your partner/s social media

There are lots of reasons, all of them individual and particular, for why retroactive jealousy comes to dominate so many people’s thinking. It probably doesn’t help that we live in a social media universe, so much of our lives and past experiences are shared. Now we can find out all kinds of things about our partner’s past relationships but that doesn’t mean we should.

The stories and details that people share at the start of relationships they often come to regret. Anxieties that we may have about our early attachments and experiences sometimes adhere to the details we learn about our new partner’s past. Before we know it, the old anxiety starts up, only now it becomes fixed on the idea that there is a problem with our new partner.

A client story

When lockdown began my girlfriend and I both ended up working from home together. I started using her laptop instead of mine. Very quickly I started to log on to her social media accounts and to try to find out things about her past. I became obsessed with an idea that she hadn’t told me the truth about her old boyfriend. I couldn’t let it go. The more I looked at her Facebook and Instagram pages the more I couldn’t stop myself looking more. It became an obsession. It got out of hand very quickly. I would ask her about him. She couldn’t understand why. Then I told her I had been looking through her internet history. We had a big argument, she felt I had betrayed her trust. The problem was I was no longer sure I could trust her. It was touch and go whether the relationship would survive. I started to see that I had a problem, and I got help. If I hadn’t I don’t think we would be together now. I learnt how to spot the signs that my thinking was becoming caught up in obsessive retroactive jealousy based ideas. Learning how to spot that changed everything. If I can do it, you can too.

Anonymous client

Retroactive jealousy fuels an obsessive search for the truth about a partner’s past.

Retroactive jealousy feeds obsessional worries. It can easily become a destructive and negative cycle.

  • It is possible to learn to spot the signs that you are caught up in obsessive thinking and to break the cycle before it gets out of control.
  • The more we learn to spot the signs of this the more we can start to take back control and start to enjoy our relationships.

Step 2, consider that this may be more about your own problems than it is any indicator of problems in your relationship.

What does retroactive jealousy mean?

In retroactive jealousy, at the beginning of a new relationship, one partner is jealous of their partner’s past relationships and previous love affairs. 

Right from the start of a new relationship, there is an insecurity about the relationships the partner has previously had.

A client story

‘Even as I meet a new person I am jealous of the people they have known before me.  I start to have intrusive thoughts, it interferes with my mental health.  I can’t help myself.  When they start to speak about their friends or previous partners I can feel it start up.  The sense of worry and then jealous feelings.  I really struggle to keep them to myself.’’

How to work with Retroactive Jealousy

  • Remember; Developing a healthier mindset takes practice

In my work and research I have come to understand that; people who experience this kind of corrosive and destructive retroactive jealousy, are often battling with fears and insecurities about themselves, not other people.

They are battling with feelings that tend to relate to their own earlier experiences rather than being to do with a new relationship.  It is important that we work on overcoming retroactive jealousy.

retroactive Jealousy couple


Step 3, find a confidential and impartial person that you can discuss this with.


Retroactive jealousy and projecting insecurity

One way of understanding the experience of retroactive jealousy is; that the individual is projecting fears and experiences from their own previous experiences onto new relationships. 

In the past, the person may have been overwhelmed by experiences of insecurity or may have experienced a traumatic degree of insecurity involving the feeling that they were being overlooked in favour of another person.

  • It may be that the person who suffers from retroactive jealousy grew up in an environment where they were the second child. 
  • They may have had the experience that mother or father preferred another sibling to them.
  • They may have had a depressed mother.
  • They may have felt that they were never wanted.

Powerful unresolved feelings from childhood

Intrusive and obsessional patterns of thought, feelings and behaviour are draining and exhausting. They are like sinking into quicksand, the more you struggle, the further you sink. They are exhausting. They can create relentless pressure on the mind of the person suffering from them, and have a negative impact on the people close to them.

People in the grip of obsessional worries and anxieties become caught up in endless repetitions, negative ideas, and rituals. Some of the repetitions, such as rituals of handwashing, end up being painful and can cause secondary problems like skin irritations.

These obsessions take up time and energy and get in the way of being able to enjoy life.

How do obsessional problems develop?

At some point in the past, an idea takes hold of a person, perhaps an idea that if they can behave in a particular way, then some kind of awful consequence will be averted. An obsessional idea is a kind of personal superstition.

When this idea is repeated often enough, it can jump from being a thought or a worry to being an action. Suddenly the magical superstition is turned into a behaviour like washing your hands or checking the doors are locked, or repeating certain words or phrases to yourself over and over again. Only now, a shift occurs, and the action and behaviour become the focus, not the original underlying worry. Parents might wonder why their children have developed some odd habit, some strange behaviour, and often the underlying worry, the original nucleus of the obsession, is overlooked and forgotten. Often, this is what has happened in RJ/OCD. The original anxiety has become eclipsed and forgotten as the sufferer focuses and worries about the story of their partners’ love life.

People who experience retroactive jealousy may have grown up with the experience that mother or father weren’t particularly interested in them; that their parents seemed to have a better time without them.

Some people who experience retroactive jealousy may have had depressed mothers or mothers who were always more interested in other people’s children than they were in their own. 

There are obviously variations on these themes but they all have in common that they provoked overwhelming insecurities and jealousies that could not be dealt with or properly acknowledged at the time.

At its extreme retroactive jealousy can provoke very disturbing paranoid feelings.  Problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder can develop out of these unresolved issues.

retroactive jealousy walking away

Traumatic experiences and retroactive jealousy

It may be that there were traumatic experiences early in life which fundamentally changed the state of security the individual experienced and grew up in.

This may have meant that the individual was left longing for something they could not have; predictable love and care.

In later life, these kinds of fears and insecurities get projected into love relations and become the basis for retroactive jealousy.  It can become the basis for obsessive thoughts, for unwanted thoughts out of which a vicious cycle develops.

Furthermore, this kind of destructive retroactive jealousy can undermine the relationships you have with your children.  If you experience retroactive jealousy you may experience it in all relationships.

In retroactive jealousy we see these difficult feelings being projected onto the new people that are met.  As that happens the jealousy corrodes the confidence in the new relationship.  Feelings like; anger, envy, jealousy and insecurity have a destructive effect on the relationship.

The thinking that develops from retroactive jealousy is unhelpful to a long-term relationship.

How to manage retroactive jealousy

It may be helpful to work on these issues confidentially in psychotherapy.  Otherwise, they may prove too much for the individual to manage by themselves and they will continue to ruin the chance of having enjoyable relationships.

These kinds of insecurities need to be got hold of and managed so that they cease to exert a destructive influence on the present.

In psychotherapy, an attempt can be made to create a safe space in which the retroactive jealous feelings can be made sense of.  In the confidential therapy setting, it may be possible to understand more about the root and origin of these powerful feelings. 

  • To grasp where they have come from
  • What they originally relate to

Doing this may mean that the individual becomes less threatened and dominated by feelings of retroactive jealousy.   

In psychotherapy, we try to contain these kinds of destructive feelings.  We use the word ‘contain’ to mean that something is being thought about and managed, that we are learning to deal with it ourselves rather than projecting it elsewhere.  Not to mean that it is being repressed.

  • When we are able to contain a destructive and difficult feeling like retroactive jealousy we limit the feeling’s capacity to run amok at the slightest provocation.
  • By containing our feelings we become able to recognise what the feelings relate to and keep them to ourselves.
  • We become able to see that the feelings we are having do not in fact refer to the present, but that they refer to past instances in our lives.
  • As we recognise this we limit their capacity to exert a potentially destructive influence.

Be careful around alcohol and drugs

It may be the case that people who suffer from these kinds of retroactive jealous feelings should be careful around drink and drugs.  Alcohol and recreational drugs both tend to diminish our capacity to retain conscious control and to make sense of things.  Alcohol and drugs can encourage these kinds of destructive and threatening projections to occur very quickly.  The mind becomes less stable and more prone to irrational thoughts.

Maintaining emotional stability is likely to be helpful and may help you limit the grip of the jealous feelings.

Step 4, remember that developing new and better emotional and psychological habits takes time and patience.

How to manage retroactive jealousy?

  • It might be helpful to use a combination of psychotherapy and improved self-care,
  • limit consumption of alcohol and drugs,
  • Try to remember that the feelings of retroactive jealousy may relate to insecurities in your early years and not to what is happening now.
  • It may be helpful to keep a journal, a record of how your emotions change over a period of time.  It is something that you can reflect on by yourself or with a psychotherapist or counsellor.

We may not be able to undo the traumatic experience of early years, but through psychotherapy we can learn to understand more about them, to understand that the strong jealous feelings we experience may relate to past events rather than the present, and so limit their capacity to undermine our present relationships.

By containing the negative experience we take responsibility for it and by doing so we can start to live more constructively in the present.

Contact Me

I have twenty years of experience of working with people, many of whom have struggled to manage retroactive jealousy. These are people who have needed to address their experience of intrusive thoughts, thoughts that interfere with their mental health around these subjects.

Giving yourself the chance to speak in a confidential setting may prove helpful, it may be the beginning of starting to work out how to do something that may make you feel better about yourself.

It may give you the chance to develop new and important insights into yourself.  This in turn may help you to develop greater confidence and emotional stability.

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.

Mobile: +447980 750376