Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

What is retroactive jealousy – When it might be OCD, and how to stop it

By Jenna Demmer

Jul 5, 20249 min read minute read

Reviewed byPatrick McGrath, PhD

There you are, scrolling your partner’s Instagram feed, looking at posts about pets and family holidays and graduations. You feel like you’re getting a closer glimpse into their life before you were a part of the picture. Then you see an image of your partner kissing someone else—and it feels like a gut punch. They broke up years ago, but it’s still excruciating.

Can this be a totally normal feeling when you care so much about another person? Definitely. And often it’s a fairly fleeting one. However, if your jealousy or insecurity about your partner’s romantic past hangs on and preoccupies your life, it could be something called retroactive jealousy, says Amalia Sirica, Licensed Therapist, LCSW, a therapist for NOCD, the leading provider of virtual therapy for OCD and related conditions. 

Here’s how to know if you could have retroactive jealousy, when it might be the sign of an underlying mental health issue, and how you can overcome the torment you feel. We brought in some top experts to help guide you through it all. 

So what exactly is retroactive jealousy?

“Retroactive jealousy focuses on one aspect of the person you’re in a relationship with—their past—rather than the relationship you currently have, and it becomes so magnified that it creates a lot of distress and hurt,” explains Kimberley Quinlan, LMFT, who specializes in OCD and anxiety disorders. Adds Sirica: “It’s almost like reliving the past in the present.”

Retroactive jealousy focuses on one aspect of the person you’re in a relationship with—their past—rather than the relationship you currently have, and it becomes so magnified that it creates a lot of distress and hurt.

Your thoughts and fears may be so consuming that they interfere with your daily life, and create significant trouble in your relationship. And, Sirica says, you might be completely aware that your feelings are irrational, since they’re about past relationships that aren’t a threat to your partnership, but you still can’t let them go.

Retroactive jealousy isn’t technically considered a mental health disorder by the DSM—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that clinicians use. But that doesn’t mean the condition is any easier to cope with. “I knew someone who had been married to his wife for more than 60 years, and he was still angry at her because, before they met, she had gone on one date and kissed the guy goodnight,” says Patrick McGrath, PhD, NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer.

And in some cases, retroactive jealousy can be tied to another mental health issue, such as an anxiety disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

OCD treatment you can afford

Use your insurance to work with a NOCD specialist.

How to know if it’s retroactive jealousy or just plain jealousy

“Everyone has a certain amount of jealousy. Say someone walks by and you’re like, ‘Oh, that person is hot. I hope my partner is  looking the other way so they don’t notice,’” says Tracie Ibrahim, LMFT, CST, Chief Compliance Officer of NOCD. “That’s completely normal. Retroactive jealousy is when you’re obsessed with specific details about your partner’s past experiences or relationships.”

Here are some common elements of retroactive jealousy:

  • Your thoughts and fears are so consuming that they interfere with your daily life
  • You do research or ask questions about your partner’s past to try to compare yourself to your partner’s exes in terms of looks, career success, and strength of the relationship
  • You could also try to avoid any information about your partner’s past relationships, because you might flip out if you learn the truth 
  • Your jealousy creates significant trouble in your relationship—like unnecessary arguments 
  • You try to control your partner’s relationship with their ex
  • You notice that your feelings are irrational, since it’s about past relationships that aren’t a threat to your current one, but you still obsess over them
  • You might feel frustrated with your emotions

“Meanwhile, with normal jealousy, you may also feel insecure and worry about your relationship—like comparing how you look in a bathing suit next to somebody else at the beach,” explains Ibrahim. “But the difference is that these feelings revolve around your current situation.” 

What causes retroactive jealousy?

Experts aren’t exactly sure, but they believe that there are a combination of factors that may contribute.

You have low self-esteem. You might feel like you can’t measure up to your partner’s previous relationships.

You have a fear betrayal or infidelity. You may be concerned that your partner will ultimately choose their former partner over you.

You have an anxiety disorder. Jealousy is common among people with anxiety, and attachment anxiety in particular. When it comes to retroactive jealousy, you might worry about your partner’s previous relationships and if they mean anything about yours. For example, do they treat you with as much love as they treated their former partner?

You have obsessive-compulsive tendencies. For example, you could fixate on your partner’s relationship history and constantly check their social media feeds. 

You are prone to negative emotions. If you experience negative emotions, then retroactive jealousy can creep in.

You are sensitive to rejection. OK, well who isn’t sensitive to rejection? But high rejection sensitivity can make you more likely to experience jealousy in relationships, especially if you’re concerned that your partner will leave you after comparing you to somebody else. 

You have a history of trauma or abuse. Both of these can make it hard to trust other people, including your partner.

You’re dealing with cultural or religious factors. For example, media portrayals of “perfect” relationships can create unrealistic expectations that fuel jealousy and self-doubt. And Ibrahim points out that your faith may have taught you that you need a partner who’s never had any sexual experiences. 

Your partner is still in contact with their ex. When your partner still talks to their ex, it’s easy to worry that they may not have left their romance behind them. 

How to cope with retroactive jealousy

If your present relationship is causing a lot of distress, then here are some strategies to try:

  • Grounding techniques to regain composure, such as meditation. 
  • Focusing on facts instead of fears. Remind yourself that your partner has chosen to be with you, not their ex.
  • Stress relief strategies, like exercising, talking with friends, or soaking in the tub.
  • Joining a support group for others with relationship anxiety.
  • Talking with a therapist. Ibrahim says that general talk therapy can help you pinpoint why you’re insecure, and why your partner’s past is so important to you.
  • Relationship counseling might also strengthen your bond with your partner. “For example, if you’re not comfortable with the fact that your partner was in a relationship with someone else two years ago, they can’t do anything about that,” says Sirica. But you can learn to accept the past and move forward with the help of a trained therapist.”

Perhaps the most important point, according to Ibrahim, is to “try to keep your focus on the present, not the past.” Build a stronger bond with your partner by spending time with them and creating great, fulfilling memories. 

It’s important, she says, to cultivate trust—and for that to happen what you don’t do is just as important as what you do. Here are a few behaviors to steer clear of if you want to overcome retroactive jealousy:

  • Avoid asking questions about your partner’s past relationships.
  • Don’t snoop.
  • Don’t research their past partners. There’s a connection between social media and retroactive jealousy, so if you come across triggering posts, remind yourself that social media tends to paint a glamorized and often inaccurate portrait of relationships. Remind yourself that everyone has past experiences that can’t be changed. 
  • Try not to compare your relationship to your partner’s past relationships.

Retroactive jealousy and OCD

As we mentioned before, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can dovetail with retroactive jealousy—specifically a subtype of OCD called relationship OCD, or ROCD, says Sirica. If you have ROCD, you may suffer from intrusive thoughts and worries that cause intense anxiety and distress about your relationship—making you fixate on doubts and uncertainties that others might shrug off. (That’s the obsessive part of OCD.) Then you might spiral into compulsions such as:

  • Seeking reassurance from your partner—to confirm they love you, or that you’re as good as their exes
  • Ruminating about your partner’s past
  • Constantly reassuring yourself that your partner loves you more than their past partners
  • Searching online for information about your partner’s past relationships
  • Repeatedly asking about your partner’s romantic past
  • Mentally replaying previous events about your partner’s prior relationships
  • Imagining scenarios where your partner might be unfaithful

Compulsions make you feel better in the short-term, but in the long run they do the opposite—they teach you that your fears and obsessions have merit and lead to yet more obsessions and compulsions. This fuels the OCD cycle.

Case in point: “When you seek reassurance, your partner may have a natural response to want to reassure you, and what happens is that they inadvertantly give you more information to be jealous about,” says Sirica. “For example, they might tell you about a nice vacation they took with their ex. and you might feel frustrated that you haven’t had an experience like that together. Your partner’s hands are tied.”

Get your life back from OCD

How to beat retroactive jealousy in OCD

If you think you might have OCD, or have already been diagnosed with it, then what you should know is that standard talk therapy won’t work, and can often do more harm than good. That’s because it often asks you to look for certainty and understanding—which can be helpful for someone without OCD, but when you have the condition it can actually contribute to OCD compulsions. For example, you may ruminate on your worries, try to reassure yourself, or repeatedly check your true feelings for your partner.

The most effective treatment for OCD is a type of therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP). With ERP, a specially-trained therapist will have you slowly face your fears—starting with the least distressing ones and working your way toward the more difficult ones—and show you how to resist your urge to do compulsions. 

In the case of retroactive jealousy, ERP might expose you to thoughts or images related to your partner’s past relationships or sexual experiences, then give you tools on how to keep from getting angry, or starting a big discussion about it with them. Eventually, this helps you tolerate your uncertainty and is proven to help you be able to manage your OCD and symptoms and improve your quality of life. 

Ibrahim recalls a patient who ended four different relationships because he couldn’t tolerate partner’s past sexual experiences. In their sessions, he identified what questions were obsessive and compulsive, and which were related to his values. For instance, he learned that he could ask potential partners to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease (a values question), but that he should avoid asking compulsive ones like how many people they’d had sex with. “The goal was to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing about his partner’s sexual past, no matter how urgent and gross it felt, until it passed,” she says.

There were still times when he did compulsions, like looking nonstop at social media. And when that happened, Ibrahim encouraged him to lean into the discomfort. He sat with the possibility that his partner’s ex-boyfriend may in fact have been more attractive than him, without doing additional compulsions—like self-reassurance—to try to feel better. 

“With the help of ERP, he learned to resist the compulsions he used to do that would eventually tear his relationships apart—and is now able to have successful ones,” says Ibrahim.

You can do the same. No matter how much of a wedge retroactive jealousy has driven into your relationships, you can learn to manage it. 

It’s worth repeating that not everyone with jealousy has a mental health disorder. But if you have one—or think you might—don’t hesitate to seek help from a qualified therapist.

We specialize in treating OCD

Reach out to us. We're here to help.