Jealousy is a common human emotion we’ve all probably experienced at some point. It’s natural to feel a twinge of envy when your partner talks about an ex or when you come across old photos of your partner in a previous relationship. However, there’s a point where jealousy about someone’s past becomes obsessive and all-consuming, affecting people’s relationships and their quality of life.
In fact, there’s a name for this: retroactive jealousy. Let’s learn more about what retroactive jealousy is, why it may be a sign of a greater underlying issue, and how you can work to overcome these feelings with the help of a mental health professional.
What is retroactive jealousy?
Retroactive jealousy is an uncomfortable or distressing preoccupation with a partner’s past relationships. People with retroactive jealousy often experience intense anxiety, jealousy, and resentment about their partner’s past experiences, even if they occurred long before the current relationship began.
The condition is often associated with a fear of being inadequate or not measuring up to a partner’s previous partners and a fear of betrayal or infidelity. These thoughts and fears can be so consuming that they interfere with daily life and relationships, causing significant distress and relationship dysfunction lasting years—or even decades—without proper treatment. Sometimes, people experiencing retroactive jealousy are well aware that their feelings are irrational, becoming frustrated with their own emotions.
“I knew someone who’d been married to his wife for more than 60 years,” says NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Patrick McGrath. “He was still angry at her because, before they met, she had gone on one date and kissed the guy goodnight.”
Dr. McGrath explains that people with retroactive jealousy may engage in compulsive behaviors, such as repeatedly asking their partner about their past relationships or searching for information about them online. They may also engage in mental rituals, such as replaying past events or imagining scenarios in which their partner is unfaithful.
He adds that it’s essential to understand that retroactive jealousy is not just a passing feeling—it’s a condition that requires professional help to overcome. Fortunately, with the right treatment, people can learn to manage their jealousy and move past it, allowing them to enjoy healthy, fulfilling relationships without thoughts of the past constantly weighing them down.
What causes retroactive jealousy?
The exact cause of retroactive jealousy is not fully understood, but experts believe it to be a result of a combination of psychological, cultural, and social factors. Some psychological factors contributing to retroactive jealousy include low self-esteem, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. People with a history of trauma or abuse may also be more susceptible to developing retroactive jealousy.
Cultural and social factors can also play a role in the development of retroactive jealousy. Social and traditional media often portray unrealistic and idealized relationships, which can create unrealistic expectations, fuel jealousy, and lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
“Retroactive jealousy is often connected to sex and can start to interfere with someone’s performance,” explains Dr. McGrath. “Sometimes, people can be so distracted by all these other thoughts going on that it’s hard for them to get sufficiently aroused to have sex. OCD can seize on things like that as proof that they’re either not attracted to their partner anymore or that their inability to become aroused will lead to their partner not finding them attractive.”
Retroactive jealousy is often connected to sex and can start to interfere with someone’s performance.
Dr. McGrath adds that it’s important to remember that retroactive jealousy is not the result of a partner’s actions or behavior, but rather a manifestation of one’s own internal struggles and fears. In other words, what your partner is or isn’t doing isn’t the “cause” of your jealousy—and neither are you. Working together and supporting one another as you address these feelings can be crucial to overcoming them, and may be an opportunity for growth in your relationship.
Does retroactive jealousy mean I’m a bad partner?
Labeling retroactive jealousy bad or wrong isn’t helpful, and attempting to assign blame for these feelings cannot address their underlying cause. Retroactive jealousy is a common psychological phenomenon that affects many people, and does not reflect your character or ability to be a good partner.
While there is no reason to feel ashamed or guilty for feelings of retroactive jealousy, there are intentional, concrete steps you can take so these feelings don’t interfere with your ability to maintain a healthy relationship.
It is important to seek professional help if you are experiencing retroactive jealousy, as it may indicate serious underlying issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder. As we’ll discuss in a moment, a mental health provider trained in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP) can help you identify the root cause of your jealousy, identify whether it’s OCD, and work with you to manage and overcome it.
Are feelings of retroactive jealousy always a sign of OCD?
Retroactive jealousy is closely related to a broader OCD subtype called relationship OCD, or ROCD. People with ROCD may experience intrusive thoughts and worries that cause intense anxiety and distress about their relationship, fixating on doubts and uncertainties that others would likely shrug off as inconsequential. They may engage in compulsive behaviors such as seeking reassurance, constantly questioning their feelings, or checking their partner’s behaviors for signs of infidelity or other relationship problems.
Retroactive jealousy can be a sign of OCD, but it certainly isn’t always the case. While retroactive jealousy focuses specifically on a partner’s past romantic or sexual experiences, ROCD can manifest in many different ways. Some people with ROCD may obsess over whether they truly love their partner, while others may obsess over their partner’s flaws or whether they are compatible in the long term. In some cases, ROCD can lead people to avoid relationships altogether out of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
If ROCD involves feelings of retroactive jealousy, people experience intense anxiety, shame, and guilt related to their partner’s past. They may engage in compulsive behaviors related to these feelings specifically, checking their partner’s social media or repeatedly asking about their past relationships.
It is important to seek professional help if retroactive jealousy or any other potential symptoms of OCD are interfering with your life, as OCD can be debilitating if left untreated.
How can I deal with retroactive jealousy?
Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is a type of behavioral therapy that has been shown to be effective in treating every subtype of OCD, including ROCD. ERP therapy involves gradually exposing you to the situations that trigger obsessive thoughts, providing opportunities for you to interrupt the vicious cycle of OCD by resisting the urge to respond with compulsions.
If you’re struggling with retroactive jealousy, ERP therapy may be a part of your treatment experience. It involves exposing you to thoughts or images related to your partner’s past relationships or sexual experiences, then guiding you to resist getting angry at them or starting a discussion or argument with them. Over time, this helps you tolerate anxiety and uncertainty without relying on safety behaviors that only make your symptoms worse over time.
ERP therapy is typically conducted in a structured and supportive environment with a trained therapist. The therapist will work with the individual to develop a personalized treatment plan and provide guidance and support throughout the therapy process. While ERP therapy can be challenging and uncomfortable at times, it’s proven to be effective in helping people with any theme of OCD manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
You can start with personalized, face-to-face ERP therapy by learning more about NOCD’s evidence-based, accessible approach to treating OCD with ERP therapy. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training.