How to Overcome Retroactive Jealousy

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Retroactive jealousy refers to the distress or perceived threat a person feels about their partner's past romantic relationships. This can occur even if their partner is no longer in contact with their exes and the ex-partners have moved on, and they are not interfering with the current relationship.

A small amount of jealousy in a relationship is normal when a partner feels there is a threat to the relationship. But jealousy can be problematic when it becomes a pattern of obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors.

Read on to learn more about what triggers retroactive jealousy and how to overcome it in your relationship.

Couple in a fight where the woman is jealous

EmirMemedovski / Getty Images

What Is Retroactive Jealousy?

Romantic jealousy occurs when a partner perceives a threat to their relationship by a third party. With retroactive jealousy, this perceived threat is the partner's former relationships or romantic history, even though the perceived threat is not realistic. The jealousy persists even if the partner is not in contact with their former partners and the former partners are not actively interfering with the relationship.

Normal Jealousy vs. Retroactive Jealousy

Curiosity about a partner's past relationships is normal. A 2018 study found that participants generally believed it was normal to have photos and other evidence of past relationships on social media. While not everyone thinks this is normal, looking at these digital remnants of a partner's past relationships is common.

For some people in the study, viewing photos and posts of and about their partner's past partners and relationships sparked feelings of retroactive jealousy. While the actual person may pose no threat to the current relationship, this evidence that their partner was with someone else before can feel threatening to the "specialness" of their relationship.

Its obsessive nature sets problematic retroactive jealousy apart from the typical feelings of jealousy experienced by many people in relationships. Typical feelings of jealousy are momentary and pass without causing harm to the relationship. Retroactive jealousy, however, can become an excessive fixation on the partner's sexual and romantic past, causing distress to themselves and potentially the relationship.

Causes and Signs

Behaviors associated with retroactive jealousy include:

  • A fixation (often extreme) on a partner's romantic and sexual history, to the point that it is pervasive or obsessive
  • Obsessively asking their partner about their past
  • Frequent reassurance-seeking about the current relationship
  • Intrusive behaviors such as tracking their partner's exes on social media
  • Suspicion of the partner without valid evidence

Retroactive jealousy rarely has to do with the partner or their history but rather with the person experiencing these thought patterns.

The exact cause of a person's retroactive jealousy may not be known, but factors that may contribute to it include:

Retroactive Jealousy and OCD

In its most serious form, retroactive jealousy can mimic OCD. Like OCD, retroactive jealousy can involve obsessive thoughts and/or compulsions that interfere with a person's ability to function in and out of areas related to the relationship.

Obsessive thoughts about their partner's past can become all-consuming. They will ruminate for long periods about the specifics of their partner's past relationships, picturing their partner with exes or trying to figure out where, when, or how they had sex.

In an attempt to relieve the anxiety from these obsessive thoughts, a person might engage in unhealthy compulsive behaviors, such as:

  • Checking their partner's texts, browser history, and other private communication on social media
  • Following their partner to work or other places
  • Trying to "trick" their partner into confessing wrongdoing or starting fights

Retroactive jealousy that mimics or develops into OCD should be treated by a mental health professional through counseling.

What If Your Partner Has Retroactive Jealousy?

First and foremost, both of you need to recognize that retroactive jealousy is their issue, not yours. It has nothing to do with anything you are doing or have done in your past. Without this recognition, little is going to help.

Seeking help and making changes is their responsibility, but if maintaining the relationship is something you both want, you may want to consider couple's therapy. You must also know your boundaries, communicate them clearly to your partner, and insist they be respected.

Coping With Retroactive Jealousy

Managing retroactive jealousy depends on the extent of the problem.

With milder manifestations, the person may find it helpful to do activities such as:

  • Self-reflection exercises like journaling or meditation
  • Refraining from engaging in things that lead to feeling jealous, such as social media searches
  • Talking to others or joining a support group
  • Working on lowering stress levels
  • Accepting that everyone has past experiences and that the past can't be changed
  • Practicing reframing (such as recognizing that social media posts reflect the highlights and isn't an accurate portrayal of a person or a relationship)

Professional help can be beneficial for anyone with retroactive jealousy, but particularly for those who find jealousy is interfering with their functioning, relationship, or mental health. A mental health professional can help you look for the underlying issues and find ways to address them.

Treatments for retroactive jealousy can share features of treatment approaches to OCD. These may include:

  • Medication: Medications used to treat mental health disorders such as OCD may be prescribed, particularly if there is more than one mental health condition at play.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A therapist helps the person identify problematic thoughts and behaviors and change them into healthy, productive ones.
  • Exposure and response prevention (ERP): A form of CBT in which a person is exposed to their fear in increments of increasing intensity and is supported in not neutralizing their anxiety with compulsions.
  • Relationship counseling: Partners work together with a counselor to foster open, honest communication, understand their emotions, and strengthen the relationship
  • Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): ACT doesn't try to stop intrusive thoughts—it tries to help someone accept the distressing thoughts without judgment or reaction. For example, instead of the person thinking, "My partner is going to leave me and go back to their ex," and responding with compulsive behaviors such as reassurance-seeking, the person acknowledges, "I am having an intrusive thought that my partner will leave me."

If Your Jealous Partner Becomes Abusive

If you feel you are in immediate danger, call 911. If you need support and resources for yourself or loved one, call, text, or chat with trained staff at the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.

Summary

When a person experiences retroactive jealousy, they feel threatened by their partner's past romantic and sexual history, even if those past partners are no longer in the picture or impacting the relationship.

Retroactive jealousy can involve obsessive, intrusive, and persistent thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors. People with retroactive jealousy may feel consumed by their fixation on their partner's past relationships. As a result, they may engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as checking their partner's text messages or physically following them.

A Word From Verywell

It's natural to experience some jealousy when in a romantic relationship. But if your jealousy over your partner's past relationships impacts your mental health or interferes with your relationship, discuss this with a mental health professional. They can help you figure out where these feelings are coming from and how to help.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is retroactive jealousy a mental health condition?

    Retroactive jealousy is not a diagnosable mental health condition. However, severe retroactive jealousy can mimic OCD, which is a mental health condition.

  • Should you tell your partner you are struggling with retroactive jealousy?

    Open communication is important in a relationship, and your partner may be willing to help you in various ways. However, it's important to recognize that jealousy is your issue, not theirs. If you are frequently seeking reassurance, blaming them for your jealousy, or other unhealthy behaviors, you need to get help, with or without your partner.

  • Can retroactive jealousy be cured?

    Finding the underlying reason for the jealousy and learning healthier ways to handle the distress it causes can go a long way in decreasing the impact of retroactive jealousy on your relationship and your life.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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