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Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you work through your retroactive jealousy. Simply click here to connect with one via BetterHelp.com.
Part of getting to know a romantic partner well is learning all about them, including their past experiences.
In addition to discovering their favorite foods, books, and music preferences, you’ll also learn about their most humiliating and most enjoyable moments.
You’ll no doubt laugh along with them when they tell you about how they hit a shed the first time they went skiing, but what happens when they talk about an amazing time they had with a past partner?
Do you feel happy to discover that they’ve had wonderful experiences with previous lovers?
Or do you feel a sudden wave of jealousy and anger when they tell you about it?
If it’s the latter, you’re likely dealing with some retroactive jealousy.
What is retroactive jealousy, exactly?
In simplest terms, retroactive jealousy is when someone feels envious or upset about their current partner’s romantic or sexual past.
For example, they might feel like their partner’s ex was better looking or more intelligent than them, and obsess over their feelings of inferiority in comparison. Or they might feel jealousy about an experience the two of them had that the two of you never will.
The person experiencing jealousy will often have difficulty breaking free from these intrusive thoughts. They may arise unexpectedly during mealtimes or before bed and spiral out of control.
Some specialists believe that retroactive jealousy may be a form of OCD. The thoughts come unbidden, creating a cascading emotional effect that often results in an uncomfortable discussion or confrontation with one’s partner.
So, where does it come from? Why do some people experience these kinds of thoughts while others don’t?
Generally, this type of obsessive thinking stems from a combination of envy and fear; envy over the things that your partner did with their ex, and fear that they’ll leave you.
Maybe you’ve experienced bad breakups before, so you’re hypervigilant. Or you have low self-esteem from past abuses and thus constantly compare yourself to others.
Wherever it stemmed from, this kind of jealousy can be incredibly damaging – both to your psyche and your relationship.
Below are some of the most common signs of retroactive jealousy, as well as some actions you can take to overcome it.
Common signs of retroactive jealousy:
Retroactive jealousy often follows specific patterns. Sometimes it’ll be triggered by an action, such as your partner’s ex texting them to say hello, or your partner mentioning that their ex liked a certain type of cuisine that you enjoy as well.
The next thing you know, you’re obsessing about all the things they may have done with this person.
- Negative, often spiraling thoughts and emotions about your partner’s past experiences
- Fixation on differences between you and their previous partner(s)
- Envy that they did X things with someone else rather than you
- Judgments about either your partner or their previous partner(s)
- Behavior that can sabotage the health of your relationship
Each of these can be potentially damaging to you and your relationship in general. When these behaviors show up together, they can create a cascading effect of misery for everyone involved.
You might become so obsessed with thoughts about these other people’s actions that you can’t focus on work or school. These intrusive thoughts – and the emotions associated with them – might keep you up at night or might cause you intense anxiety, anger, or depression.
From there, you might spiral into the dreaded “Land of Comparison,” confident that your partner is constantly measuring you against their previous conquests. This can wreak havoc on your self-esteem and pour into how you behave with your partner.
Maybe you’ll become less affectionate with them or less comfortable with intimacy. Hell, you might lose any interest in intimacy with them because you can’t stop thinking about (and possibly judging) their past actions.
This is a situation that can be devastating for everyone involved.
Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this kind of jealousy and move past it.
9 Steps To Overcome Retroactive Jealousy
1. Make a list.
Get that handy journal of yours and write down all the things you feel jealous about regarding your partner’s past experiences. And I mean everything. Write down all the details you’ve been told about their experience and how these details make you feel.
Be very descriptive about all of your reactions, from the thoughts that spring up unbidden to your emotional and physical responses. Do you get a tightness in your throat when thinking about it? Or do you feel like crying? Are you experiencing heart palpitations accompanied by anxiety? Or digestive issues?
Try to determine precisely how you’re feeling. Experiencing multiple emotions at one time can overshadow or obscure deeper reactions.
For example, you might feel a wave of disgust or judgment about something your partner experienced. Maybe they had a one-night stand with a musician or actor mere hours after meeting them. Your initial reaction might be disgust that they’d hop into bed with someone so quickly or judgment about both your partner and the person they “lowered themselves” with.
This can lead to behaviors we mentioned earlier, e.g., you not wanting to be intimate with them because now that you’re aware of their past, you feel like they’re “dirty” somehow.
Meanwhile, envy is the real underlying emotional response because you haven’t had a similar experience. This may be especially true if your partner has had more lovers than you have or if they have a track record of dating exceptionally attractive people. In contrast, your exes have been average-looking, regular people rather than models or celebrities.
Be detailed in your descriptions about your feelings, and include your behavior towards your partner during these episodes.
Do you get standoffish and cold if you feel a wave of jealousy and anxiety? Or do you get clingy and insist on constant reassurance? Are you finding passive-aggressive ways of punishing them? Or maybe you’re making snide comments here and there?
Once you’re aware of what you’re feeling and how you’re acting, you can curb those thoughts and behaviors.
2. Be very honest with yourself about what it is you’re jealous of.
This is where self-analysis is critical. To know oneself and understand one’s motivations is vital. This creates the foundation of the kind of person you want to be and the actions you need to take to be the best version of yourself.
When you look at the items on that list you wrote, what exactly do you feel jealous of?
If you’re jealous that your partner went on a trip to Italy with their ex, are you feeling that way because you’ve always wanted to go to Italy, and you’re envious that they’ve had that experience? Or because you’ve been dreaming about experiences you wanted to have with your partner, but they’ve already had all of that with someone else instead?
If your partner already had a child when you met, you might feel like you’ve been denied a great experience by having your first baby together. They already have one, so the experience of having a child together will be less magical, less “special” as a result. Instead of recognizing that a new baby is always a miraculous source of joy, you’ll convince yourself that your partner won’t feel the same way with your kid(s) together.
In situations like these, the response you’re feeling is the loss of a daydream. You’ve created a wonderful, imaginary scenario in which everything plays out the most wonderful way possible. Now that you know that scenario will never happen, you might feel an immense sense of loss.
You developed an intense attachment to that daydream and likely poured a great deal of emotion and hope into it. Losing that can hurt horribly.
That said, it’s important to remember that these daydreams aren’t real and that life never unfolds the way we imagine it will. It’s far healthier (and easier on the heart) to flow along with what life throws at us than to develop strong attachments to specific expectations.
If you can acknowledge that things will always be different than you imagined, you’ll be able to cultivate a lot more joy with what you do experience and adapt to any circumstance in which you may find yourself.
3. Try to avoid comparing yourself to other people.
Just because your partner was with other people before you doesn’t mean they’re consciously comparing you to past lovers – especially when intimacy is concerned.
Furthermore, simply because you’re different from their ex (or exes) doesn’t mean that your relationship is threatened in any way.
We’re drawn to people for various reasons and at different times of our life. This is because we’re all constantly changing and evolving, and what we find appealing at age 20 isn’t necessarily what we’ll be drawn to at 35.
Maybe your partner has smiled fondly when reminiscing about the fantastic time they had at Burning Man 15 years ago, and you felt a wave of insecurity. You might have heard tales of how they frolicked with scantily clad hippies and drummed at all-night dance parties and immediately felt like you couldn’t compete with the people they were intimate with then.
That description might be the polar opposite of your life together now. You may be more conservative in appearance, and your daily life revolves around wrangling toddlers and arranging bake sales. That doesn’t mean that you are “less than” the people your partner had fun with during that time. They might be with you specifically because you’re not like those people.
You’re not the same person you were 10 or 20 years ago, and neither is your partner. Both of your priorities and preferences are likely entirely different than they were back then.
Everyone has a wealth of wonderful traits about them. Your partner fell for you for numerous reasons, so you can bet that you’re more than a little spectacular in their eyes.
4. Communicate reasonably.
When communicating your insecurities, you’ll need to walk a middle ground between expressing some of your feelings but not requiring constant reassurance. There are few things as off-putting as someone who needs to be reassured daily that they’re as loved or considered as physically attractive as a past partner.
While it’s important to tell your partner how you feel, it’s just as important (if not more so) to be able to work through most of these issues on your own. This is where adults develop healthy coping mechanisms; by dealing with thoughts and emotions that are potentially uncomfortable.
If you find yourself in a position where uncontrollable thoughts haunt you, then it’s better to talk them through with a therapist than to lay them on your partner. An impartial counselor will help you get to the root of the issue without the introspective work affecting the relationship.
Once you’ve done the work and understand where your thoughts and behaviors were coming from, you can discuss the situation with your partner.
Just make sure that you have solid coping strategies in place – potentially including some cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) worksheets – so that the bulk of your healing strength comes from yourself.
Your partner is your partner, not a pillar for you to lean on every time you feel overwhelmed. Two pillars need to stand side by side equally to hold up a relationship. If one keeps tipping over and relying on the other for support, everything will falter.
If you’re the one dealing with these spiraling, jealous thoughts, then it’s your responsibility to heal them.
5. Recognize that there are likely alternate explanations to your assumptions.
When we assume things about other people and situations, we often create mental narratives that best fit our thoughts and emotions. These assumptions might not be the case at all but can trigger all manner of unwanted thoughts and feelings.
For example, sex is one area in which many people feel retroactive jealousy. Although some are comfortable hearing about their partner’s past sexual exploits, many prefer not to know because they don’t want to feel envy or to compare experiences.
That said, sometimes details just slip out. For example, you might be watching a film together, and a kinky sex scene comes up. You might make a joke about it, only to have your partner reply that they’ve been there, done that. They’re laughing about it, but your mind goes in a different direction completely.
“Oh, you did that with them but not with me?”
You might think that they don’t feel that you’re sexy enough to do X thing with; that they were more physically attracted to that other person, or they think you’re too boring for stuff like that. This may throw you into a self-loathing spiral.
Meanwhile, if you asked them flat out why you’ve never done that thing, they’d tell you that they tried it and they really weren’t into it, so they don’t want to repeat the experience. Or that they love and respect you a lot more than that other person and don’t want to “lower” you in that regard.
If you find that you’re assuming certain things about your partner’s past exploits, then ask them about it. Don’t be accusatory or overly emotional. Choose a time in which you’re both calm and relaxed, and confirm with them whether you can ask a question about X experience. Once you know the truth, those negative emotions will dissipate.
6. Avoid romanticizing their experiences.
Remember that thoughts are not facts. Just because you know some details about your partner’s prior experiences doesn’t mean you know the entire picture of what went down. In the same way people can develop attachments to hopeful daydreams, they can also get attached to the version of events swirling around in their own brains.
Just because you think that some things played out a certain way doesn’t mean they actually did.
You weren’t present when your partner experienced anything at all before they met you. As a result, you don’t have a firsthand account of what they did, saw, or felt. People tend to romanticize others’ experiences, imagining everything to have unfolded with fairytale-like magic and wonder. But life rarely unfolds like that, does it? Some of the things you’ve experienced that might have sounded amazing to others may have been extremely difficult at the moment.
One of the best ways to overcome retroactive jealousy is to stop assuming that your partner’s past experiences were as great as you thought they were. Again, remember that thoughts and assumptions aren’t facts.
Let’s say that you feel jealous about the fact that your partner and an ex-lover of theirs spent two weeks in Cancun together. If you’ve never been to Mexico but always wanted to, you’re likely feeling envy about other people having the opportunity that you haven’t. Similarly, you dislike that the person you love had a positive experience with someone other than you in that warm, beautiful locale.
Maybe you’re envisioning them having moonlit walks on the beach, dancing barefoot, sharing amazing food, and having mind-blowing sex. Your mind could spiral into all kinds of idyllic scenarios, raising 100 shades of jealousy, anxiety, and even despair… but that doesn’t mean that any of what you imagined actually took place.
What did your partner describe to you about their experience there? Was it anything more than “Yeah, I spent a couple of weeks in Mexico with ___”? Or did they go into detail about what they saw and did?
Focus on the facts, not your imaginings about them.
Sure, they might have had fun swimming in the ocean and eating their weight in avocados, but does that mean the trip wasn’t difficult as well? How much time were they wracked with explosive diarrhea and scratching horrific insect bites? Did they have to deal with their ex complaining the entire time? Or were they trodden over by puppy-sized cockroaches all night?
It’s easy to paint someone else’s life experiences as ideal and amazing, but that’s rarely the whole picture, is it? Think of every trip you’ve taken, every lover you’ve had. Were the things you experienced always spectacular? Or have you had to deal with issues ranging from lost luggage, robbery, and food poisoning to awkwardness or STIs?
Keep all of that in mind the next time your thoughts start spiraling into retroactive jealousy land, and the envy should neutralize.
7. Recognize that the past is the past. You’re here now.
Unless your partner has just hatched out of a maturation pod and is a virginal slate for you to have your way with, they’re going to have a past.
Furthermore, the older you are when you get together, the more of a history you’re going to have to make peace with.
Your partner will undoubtedly have loved other people and been loved in return. That’s hardly a bad thing, and it’s a good idea to do some self-analysis if you feel a great deal of envy about your partner experiencing love with people other than you.
In addition to loving other people, they’ve also had sex with other people. This is hardly bad unless their experiences have been unpleasant for them. If they’ve had more positive dalliances than negative ones, then that’s great: they’ve been able to cultivate a healthy sex drive and positive association with their sexuality.
As a bonus, their past sexual experiences help them do that thing you like in bed. Would you want to give that up for the sake of a clean slate? You’d have to teach them from scratch, creating an uncomfortable power dynamic.
Everything your partner has experienced thus far has influenced who they are now, and that just happens to be the person you’ve fallen for.
Additionally, you might want to keep in mind that you are the culmination of all your past experiences too. And your partner is with you because of who you are, not despite.
If your partner still wanted to be with any of their former lovers, they wouldn’t be with you right now, would they? This person chose YOU. Not them.
The two of you have chosen one another for a gazillion different reasons, and you’re here, together, today.
8. Focus on creating new memories.
The best and most effective way to combat (and eventually completely overcome) retroactive jealousy is to focus your time and energy on creating new memories with your partner.
Schedule some time for the two of you to sit down together and write down a bunch of things you’d like to experience as a couple. Write down everything you both want, what’s on your bucket list, what you’ve always dreamed of experiencing, etc. Then create a Venn diagram that encompasses all of these.
You’ll find that you have an extensive list of things that the two of you are eager to do together, as well as some other fun things that you can support one another doing.
For example, you both might want to spend some time at a gorgeous resort in Costa Rica or Thailand because neither of you has ever been there before. Make a solid plan to determine what you’ll need to make that dream a reality, and start putting that plan into action!
While that’s unfolding, choose some more minor things that the two of you want to do and support one another in experiencing. If you’re eager to create a garden but your partner is “meh” about plants (but loves carpentry), see if they want to get involved by helping you build raised beds. Do they want to learn archery, but you don’t like weapons? Volunteer to help create targets they can use to practice with.
Be spontaneous with one another so you can write your own story together. Surprise your lover with breakfast in bed, or show up at their work with their favorite takeout lunch. Play games together, go on a road trip somewhere ridiculous or create scavenger hunts for each other.
Imagine these adventures and experiences like pages in a binder. Everything you do together will add to that binder and will soon fill up far more of it than the leaves created with their past lovers. Let go of your attachments to what they’ve done before, and pour all your energy into this person who’s with you right now.
It’s up to you to decide whether you want to fixate on the ashes and dust of the past or to write some new chapters with the one you love.
9. Get a great therapist.
If you’ve put a ton of time and effort into self-work, but you feel like you just can’t let go of these thought spirals, then there’s no shame in getting professional help.
Retroactive jealousy can be an intense form of OCD, like hoarding, obsessive thoughts about contamination, and eating disorders. As a result, some people honestly can’t just “get over” this kind of jealousy without the guidance of a trained professional.
If this is the case, search for a therapist with a great deal of experience with obsessive-compulsive disorders, and talk with them about what you’re dealing with. They’ll be able to help support you and guide you in a non-judgmental way.
Furthermore, they’ll be able to offer some great advice on how to communicate your difficulties to your partner without causing potential long-term harm in your relationship.
It is possible to work with a therapist virtually over video or phone to get the help and support you need. For this, we recommend the service from BetterHelp.com. You can connect with an experienced therapist from wherever you happen to be in the world.
Click here to learn more or to arrange your first session.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Jealousy is part of human nature, and just because you’re plagued with obsessive, intrusive thoughts doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person. You’re not pathetic, nor should anyone tell you to just “get over yourself.” Intrusive thoughts can affect many aspects of day-to-day life and should be addressed in a patient, compassionate way.
With the help of a good therapist, you can learn various techniques that can help you process information in a productive, healthy manner. This way, you can learn to let go of retroactive jealousy and move forward in your life alongside the one you love.
You can do this.
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