Retroactive jealousy means feeling threatened by your partner’s past relationships or experiences.
Jealousy occurs when someone or something else is perceived as a threat to your relationship. It could happen when an overly-flirtatious bartender holds your partner’s attention, for example, or when an attractive co-worker asks your partner for one-on-one time.
This type of jealousy usually occurs as the event happens. When you’re feeling threatened by your partner’s past, however, that’s known as retroactive jealousy.
Retroactive jealousy tends to be unfounded, and while it’s not a formal mental health diagnosis, sometimes it can be a symptom of one.
Retroactive jealousy is a form of jealousy, with many of the same causes. It may arise when you feel your partner still values or treasures something in their past and that affection could take their love away from you.
A 2017 systematic review of 230 studies on romantic jealousy found this emotion was often rooted in:
- low self-esteem
- insecure attachment styles
- past experiences of infidelity, even if with other partners
- substance use
- health challenges associated with hormonal fluctuations
- brain injury
- chronic medical conditions (like Parkinson’s disease)
Sporadic retroactive jealousy is possible when you find out your partner hasn’t let go of memories of the past.
For example, keeping photos or souvenirs of a past relationship around the house or comparing the current relationship to previous ones.
When retroactive jealousy is persistent and severe enough to negatively impact important areas of your life, it may be a symptom of an underlying mental health disorder, such as:
Not everyone who experiences retroactive jealousy lives with a mental health disorder. Only a professional can accurately diagnose a condition.
Retroactive jealousy and OCD: Is there a link?
Retroactive jealousy may in rare cases fit the criteria for obsessional jealousy, a type of emotional and mental fixation linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
Referred to as “retroactive jealousy OCD,” this presentation of obsessive-compulsive disorder can involve intrusive thoughts (obsessions) about your partner’s past relationships, followed by repetitive rituals (compulsions) like continually checking the social media of your partner’s ex.
Monica Miner, a licensed mental health counselor in Palm Springs, Florida, indicates retroactive jealousy will often involve tactics to gain information about the partner’s past, such as:
- constant questioning about past relationships
- conducting Internet searches on exes
- following past partners on social media or creating fake accounts to view their content
- investigating old high school or college days via friends or academic records
- going over private property like albums, souvenir boxes, or letters
Social media and retroactive jealousy
The use of social networking sites as tools to find out more about your partner’s past is common.
According to a 2018 interview-based study, researchers found online social networks may encourage retroactive jealousy through comparison, allowing partners to fact-check past relationship details and access digital relationship remnants.
Other signs of retroactive jealousy
In addition to information gathering, a partner experiencing retroactive jealousy may:
- make sarcastic or degrading comments about your exes or relationships
- comment on how exes were more attractive or more accomplished
- use “you wish I were them” statements
- imagine scenarios where you choose your ex over them
- snoop through your phone or browsers
- accuse you of remaining in contact or cheating with your ex, whether true or not
“Feeling jealous about your partner’s past is a common experience for many people,” explains Miner. “When jealousy is intense, it can make you feel like you are losing control of your emotions and you may even act out in destructive ways.”
Is retroactive jealousy ever justified?
Retroactive jealousy is jealousy of the past without existing interference from an ex.
It’s not the same as jealousy because a partner is currently crossing relationship boundaries through communication, contact, or admission of lingering feelings.
When you feel jealousy toward a partner’s ex due to present behaviors, it’s no longer considered retroactive jealousy.
Yes, you and your partner may overcome any type of jealousy, including retroactive. These tips may help you stop retroactive jealousy if you find yourself feeling jealous of your partner’s past:
Miner recommends taking a step back when you find yourself experiencing retroactive jealousy, to see where those feelings and unwanted thoughts are really coming from.
You can start by using a grounding technique to help re-center yourself in the moment, followed by writing your thoughts and emotions, and focusing on the facts instead of your fears.
Often, in a healthy relationship, you may find retroactive jealousy isn’t justified and what you’re feeling is about you, not your partner’s past. Introspection may help you determine what inner fears or doubts are fueling retrospective jealousy.
Sometimes, communication is key in managing unwanted thoughts about your partner’s past relationships.
Maybe you found a picture of your partner’s ex in their desk, for example. While this might seem like a sign they’re holding onto that relationship, maybe your partner isn’t aware the picture was lumped in with other papers.
Practicing assertive communication with your partner may help clear up any misunderstandings or doubts you may have about their stance on past partnerships.
Reflecting on your current relationship
When you’re down on yourself, it can feel easy to compare your negatives to a partner’s ex’s positives.
If you feel as though you don’t hold a candle to your partner’s ex, it can be helpful to remember you’re the one currently in a relationship with them. They’ve chosen you, not their ex.
You may find it useful to keep a journal where you can list all the positive aspects of your relationship and why you and your partner make a strong team.
Steering clear of social media
Social media is a platform where people, including exes, showcase their best lives. It can be an unrealistic outlet for comparison.
Setting limits on your social media time or blocking your partner’s exes’ accounts may help you avoid seeing glamorous glimpses into their lives.
Retroactive jealousy tends to be about the person feeling it.
Trust challenges, childhood experiences, or growing apart from your partner may fuel retroactive jealousy.
Living with some mental health conditions may also play a role in how you feel:
A mental health professional may help you explore the possible reasons for retroactive jealousy, your relationship health status, and how you can overcome feeling insecure about your partner’s past.
You can help support your partner’s effort to overcome retroactive jealousy by:
You can gently ask your partner why they feel concerned about your past, offering an opportunity for open communication.
Openly talking about how they feel may help them uncover some of the causes of retroactive jealousy, or may reveal what they’re really worried about. It’s also an opportunity to validate and reaffirm your commitment and love.
By making new memories together, you can help solidify the bond you share, while creating unique experiences.
Taking recreational classes, learning new skills, traveling, and doing projects together can all help set your relationship apart — for the better.
Knowing when to say goodbye
Not all partners are willing to seek professional help or work on their feelings of retroactive jealousy.
When retroactive jealousy from a partner starts to negatively impact your daily life and emotions, it may be time to reevaluate your relationship.
Retroactive jealousy means you feel threatened by your partner’s past relationships.
Feeling jealous about your partner’s past may manifest as information-seeking behaviors like social media searching, but may also come up as constant comparisons, sarcasm, or snooping.
While not every relationship can survive retroactive jealousy, open communication, relationship building, and professional guidance may help.