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Retroactive Jealousy: What It Is, Signs, and How to Get Over It

Ever heard of retroactive jealousy?

Even the most evolved of us tend to look at relationships in black and white.

We think that we’re the type of person who gets jealous or we’re not, and depending on which side we identify with, we might ignore any emotional experience that falls outside that category. 

I can say that I’m not a jealous person in general, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t ever experience jealousy. It might not be my default mode, but that doesn’t mean I get to skip this normal human experience. 

What Is Retroactive Jealousy?

Just as we all experience jealousy at some point in our lives, we likely have experienced retroactive jealousy, too.

While the term might be less familiar, the experience certainly isn’t. So, what is retroactive jealousy?

When we start dating someone new, we often float around in that infatuation or love bubble where everything they do is charming and adorable.

Their flaws get painted over as interesting quirks, and we tend to make more allowances at this juncture than we might at any other. This doesn’t sound like an ideal environment for jealousy to thrive, and yet it often does.

Retroactive jealousy is the experience of feeling jealous about a partner’s past. Most of us won’t enjoy hearing about an ex’s past exploits and lovers, but retroactive jealousy isn’t just a brief twinge of discomfort. It’s so much more than that. 

If we’re not careful, jealousy of the past can sabotage our relationship’s future. 

Signs You’ve Got Retroactive Jealousy

Why listen to me? I’m Crystal Jackson and I was a master’s level licensed therapist. I worked with couples and individuals and specialized in trauma recovery and empowerment. I now write content about relationships, self-improvement, and psychology. My work has been featured in large publications such as Elite Daily, Your Tango, Positively Positive, and Mamamia.

1. The Past is Off-Limits

We’ve all likely had the experience of a partner who refuses to hear anything about past lovers. It’s not just that they don’t want the dirty details.

They don’t want any details. Complaining about an ex is fine, within reason, but they don’t want to hear anything that we liked about that relationship no matter how inconsequential.

This is retroactive jealousy.

If you find yourself shutting down your partner’s attempts to share information about the past, you could be experiencing this form of jealousy. 

As adults, we’ve all got a past. That’s normal. What isn’t normal is refusing to acknowledge it. 

Jealousy isn’t the problem here. The problem is feeling so jealous about the past that we allow it to taint the relationship with our reactions.

If we shut down their sharing, they likely won’t be as open with us or feel as safe in the relationship.

If we allow the sharing but resent them for their lives long before we were ever a part of them, we’re equally likely to sabotage the relationship.

2. Comparison Is King

Another sign of retroactive jealousy is that we keep comparing ourselves to former partners. Sometimes, this happens as a favorable comparison. I had a former partner who would point out all the ways he was better than past ones.

While he had a point, I began to notice the ways he was hung up on proving himself as better, and in the end, he turned out so much worse.

It was a competition between him and past lovers, but he was the only one participating.

This isn’t the only way we’ll see retroactive jealousy rear its ugly head. It happens any time we do a little online reconnaissance mission to find out more about former partners. 

If you’ve looked up a former partner on social media, you might tell yourself it’s idle curiosity, but you’ve likely experienced retroactive jealousy. 

Comparison also happens when you keep competition alive in your head. If you’re constantly comparing yourself to the people in their past, this isn’t healthy.

The relationship is meant to be between the people involved — not the two people and everyone who’s ever dated them before. 

3. Doubt Becomes the Uncomfortable Third Wheel

If you find yourself harboring the suspicion that past partners were in some way superior to you, you’ve invited doubt to become the relationship third wheel.

Retroactive jealousy can look like doubting your partner’s feelings. Maybe it happens after they’ve shared a positive memory with an ex in passing, or it could occur simply after you’ve realized that there was a time when they didn’t completely hate the ex. 

When we start doubting a partner’s feelings for us because they have a past with other people, we’re putting retroactive jealousy in the driver’s seat. 

We’re allowing our discomfort with their past to dictate how we react in the present. Not only does this make partners feel uncomfortable, it can also make us take them for granted in the present. 

It’s different when partners give us a reason for our doubts.

If they’re still in touch with their ex and have poor boundaries with that relationship, having doubts could be a natural extension of what’s happening.

Simply doubting them because they have a past that we’re uncomfortable with is jealousy, plain and simple. They aren’t doing anything in the present moment to justify the doubts we’re having. 

4. Obsessive Thoughts and Reactive Jealousy

Do you continue to think about their previous relationships? Is there an imaginary scoreboard where you have to constantly prove that you are better so that they look worse?

If your thoughts keep returning to the relationships they had before, this is a sign you’re experiencing retroactive jealousy. 

It’s tempting to do one of two things. We either idealize their past relationships and feel insecure as a result of our imaginings, or we refuse to consider that their former relationships held any good memories at all. 

The reality isn’t usually that clear cut.

It’s very likely that they once loved former partners and shared good times with them before the relationship changed into something that was no longer desirable. 

While it’s normal not to want to think about the object of our affection loving someone else, it’s not normal to obsess about that fact when they’re involved with us. 

Obsessive thoughts about the past can create retroactive jealousy obsessive compulsive disorder.

When it moves into compulsive thoughts that you can’t seem to control, it’s time to involve a mental health professional. 

How to Get Over Retroactive Jealousy

1. Grow Up

Retroactive jealousy can be a sign of immaturity. If you cannot accept any partner’s past, you might not be mature enough to be dating in the first place.

Do you have an internalized double standard where it’s okay that you’ve had past relationships but it’s not okay for them? 

It might be time to grow up and acknowledge that whatever happened before you were involved with them is actually none of your business.

We’ve all had moments of emotional immaturity.

While it might be embarrassing to remember and experience, it’s important to be self-aware enough to admit we’ve got some growing up to do.

Realizing that jealousy about the past isn’t mature, rational, or reasonable is a start.

2. Address Insecurities

Retroactive jealousy can stem from personal insecurities. Instead of asking what was so great about their ex, look at the thoughts that arise about yourself in this process.

Are you afraid you aren’t attractive enough, successful enough, or interesting enough? What comparisons are you making, and how might that connect to your self-esteem? 

If you can ignore the jealousy long enough to identify the insecurity in your thought process, you can begin to build your sense of security and self-worth. 

Clearly, the person you’re with has chosen you for some reason.

You can either decide to develop stronger self-esteem or accept that your low self-esteem could likely lead to the breakdown of your relationship if left unchecked.

3. Address Your Trust Issues

Sometimes, retroactive jealousy occurs because we’ve become hypervigilant after a betrayal or trauma.

If your ex cheated on you with a former lover, it’s natural that you might develop sensitivity about your current partner’s past relationships.

However, it doesn’t mean you should double down on your jealousy. It’s time to address your trust issues.

We all have them. They don’t all come out as jealousy either, but it is one of the more common reactions. 

It’s important to be able to distinguish between when someone is showing red flags that we shouldn’t trust them and when we have trust issues with no basis in reality. 

If we’re dating someone who is clear, consistent, and communicates with us about their feelings, it might be time to address our own trust issues rather than continuing to eye them with suspicion.

Our partners aren’t responsible for our past baggage. Are we making them prove themselves based on someone else’s actions? That’s hardly fair.

4. Stop Cyberstalking

In order to overcome retroactive jealousy, it’s time to quit cyberstalking our exes and their past. Don’t scroll through their past photos on a mission to uncover more about their past. Just ask them.

Don’t go looking for their exes on social media to see how you measure up. 

Resisting this temptation can help nip retroactive jealousy in the bud. Accept that some things simply aren’t your concern. 

You’re not going to feel better for diving into the past or peeking inside Pandora’s Box.

5. Openly Talk About Your Feelings

To help overcome retroactive jealousy, try talking to your partner about it.

It’s not a comfortable conversation, but it might be necessary. Talk to them about how jealous you’re feeling and the insecurities this triggers in you. 

Instead of making it their problem, admit that it’s yours and that you’re working on it. 

Just don’t do it in hopes that they’ll rush to reassure you. Instead, just be open about the fact that you can be jealous but you’re working on being more trusting.

If you can’t talk to your partner about your feelings, should they even be your partner to begin with? 

Recommended read: 9 Relationship Red Flags You Should Never Ignore

6. Focus on the Relationship You’re In

Another way to overcome retroactive jealousy is to stop focusing on the past and redirect your attention to the present. Put away the comparisons.

Stop imagining scenarios that will only hurt your own feelings. Instead, focus on your current relationship. Don’t take it for granted.

If you focus on nurturing your current relationship every time you’re tempted to obsess about their past romantic history, you may find that you create a stronger foundation.

You’ll be more attuned to your current partner, and with practice, you’re likely to forget all about retroactive jealousy as you enjoy your stronger, healthier relationship in real time. 

If I’m making that sound easy, it’s not. It’s a choice. We can choose to obsess about something we can’t control, or we can elect to be fully present in the relationship we’re in. 

We can choose to show love and appreciation to our partners rather than jealousy, insecurity, and obsession.

7. Know Your Triggers

It’s important to be self-aware enough to know our own triggers. I have to admit that while I’m not typically a jealous person, I’ve had my own run-in with retroactive jealousy.

For a long time, I really didn’t care about a partner’s past. I accepted it, and I was fine with it.

But as the relationship began to break down and I began to accept that he no longer saw me as a part of his future, I had my first encounter with jealousy about the past. 

I would evaluate his earlier relationships and wonder why he could so easily choose them but wouldn’t choose me. I knew all the things that had made those relationships unhealthy.

I knew that I was comparatively healthier and a more desirable and secure long-term partner. So, why not me? And why them? It was a rabbit hole I fell into and kept falling. It didn’t make sense.

Of course, I was asking the wrong questions. He didn’t see me as being a part of his future, and it had nothing to do with his previous choices or my worthiness as a life partner.

It had everything to do with his feelings and his journey. I was making it personal because it was deeply personal to me, but the reality is that I was drawing conclusions that simply weren’t rational.

On paper, I was the best choice. But the heart wants what it wants — and doesn’t want what it doesn’t.

Knowing our triggers is important. I wanted to be chosen, and my jealousy kicked in when I felt like I wasn’t.

I needed to work on my insecurities and my past trauma rather than worrying about what anyone else was doing, thinking, or feeling. 

We all have triggers and being aware of them can help us respond rather than react to them. 

8. Seek Professional Help

One of the best possible ways to overcome retroactive jealousy is to involve the help of a mental health professional.

While therapy isn’t always affordable or accessible, it can be an important part of creating healthier, safer relationships.

Discarding the stigma and asking for help is one of the bravest things we’ll ever do.

You can try online therapy platforms like BetterHelp or TalkSpace.

Don’t expect that you can just quit retroactive jealousy cold turkey. There’s a reason you’re experiencing it. 

Are you ready to get to the bottom of your jealousy, and if not, are you willing to pay the price if the price is losing the relationship? 

There’s nothing noble or admirable about refusing help and insisting on going it alone when a professional could guide you through the process.

You might even be able to get your partner to go with you to a couples’ session to help you work through the jealousy that’s overtaken your thoughts.

Value your relationship enough to do what it takes to save it — even if the therapeutic process makes you uncomfortable.

Retroactive Jealousy — In Conclusion

Every partner we have is allowed to have a past that’s none of our business. We are not owed an explanation or entitled to hear all the dirty details of their experiences before us.

It’s normal to feel jealous when we hear about the person we love once loving someone else, but that doesn’t give us the license to interrogate our partners, stalk their past partners, or obsess about what might have been. 

Retroactive jealousy might be understandable, but it’s a real problem.

The first step to overcoming it is to admit that you have it and that it’s not okay. Instead of making it your partner’s problem, it’s time to take responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings.

It’s not their job to reassure you. It’s your job to feel secure in yourself and in your relationship. 

You can overcome retroactive jealousy. It won’t be easy.

Ask yourself this: Is the relationship worth it? Do you see this relationship as being compatible, healthy, and likely to last?

If it is, it might be time to get out of your own way if you don’t want to sabotage a good thing.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

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