We all know what “regular” jealousy in a relationship looks like. The guy who demands his girlfriend text him every hour when she’s on a night out. The wife who secretly trails her husband wherever he goes like a private investigator, and so on.
These are extreme examples, but the reason for jealous behavior like this in people is a fairly straightforward fear of losing the one they love to someone else. While this fear is usually totally unfounded and irrational, it’s grounded in reality in the sense that their partner could theoretically fall in love with that handsome new work colleague, or have a fling with a random girl they met on Tinder.
Retroactive jealousy on the other hand is a condition in which people find themselves feeling jealous, angry and upset about people their partner once dated or had sex with in the past.
The “threat” posed from these ex-lovers are usually non-existent, as the people in question have long moved on, but the retroactive jealousy sufferer often becomes obsessed with them — unable to stop thinking about a particular relationship or sexual experience for months or even years.
Despite the fact that regular jealousy focuses on the present and retroactive jealousy focuses on the past, their symptoms are remarkably similar. Both forms of jealousy cause feelings of anger, fear, anxiety and paranoia. Both can make the sufferer do crazy things like snooping through their partner’s phone, or spending hours interrogating them. Both are very good at undermining a relationship and turning it from a perfect love match into yet another failed experiment.
And finally, both forms of jealousy can be very hard to shake. But here’s where I believe retroactive jealousy comes into its own. Retroactive jealousy can be harder to cure in my opinion simply because it’s fixated with the past rather than the present. It’s this very fact — that the sufferer knows how irrational they’re being in obsessing over events in the past — that makes it so difficult to eliminate.
Intellectually the retroactive jealousy sufferer knows everything’s in the past and therefore it’s crazy to feel anxious about it, but emotionally they’re unable to shake the feeling there’s something “wrong” with their partner’s past. This causes a vicious cycle in which the crazier the sufferer feels they’re being, the more it drives them crazy.
Unfortunately, platitudes such as “get over it” or “the past has made them who they are” mean little to someone under the thumb of retroactive jealousy. It’s all water off a duck’s back. If all they had to do was think “Okay, I’m not going to think about this anymore. It’s time to move on”, they’d have done it immediately after feeling jealous.
So, what can the sufferer of retroactive jealousy do to break the cycle?
The first thing to stress is that it’s virtually impossible to rid oneself of retroactive jealousy in a relationship simply by thinking about it. You can’t think your way out of the problem by thinking about the problem — the woman he used to date or the eight guys she had sex with in one month. This just makes you more anxious and you end up being anxious of anxiety itself.
If you suffer from retroactive jealousy what’s needed is a rewiring of the way you think about yourself, as very often this is the true root of the problem. As the old adage goes — it’s not the event itself that’s the problem, it’s how we react to it. The past is not the problem, it’s your interpretation of it that’s making it hard to cope with. And this interpretation is usually born out of a place of fear.
What’s needed therefore is a great deal of work on your own self confidence in order to lessen the fear that your partner may find someone “better” out there than you. This is because, at heart, retroactive jealousy is still an anxiety over losing a partner to someone in the present rather than the past. Have a think about what it is about yourself that you don’t like, that you fear your partner doesn’t like either and then get to work on it.
Unlike with regular jealousy there’s also often a strong judgmental aspect to the condition. It’s essential therefore to work on any judgmental issues you may be harboring also. What’s maybe keeping the jealousy alive in the mind is a feeling that your partner has done something they shouldn’t have done in the past.
Work on your self-confidence and judgment and try to refrain falling into a wormhole of overthinking about the nuts and bolts of the past “problem”, and pretty soon you should find your feelings of retroactive jealousy start to lift.