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Chances are you have some experience with jealousy, especially in romantic relationships. It’s pretty normal to occasionally feel insecure or worry your partner might develop an attraction to someone else.
But what about insecurity about who your partner’s been attracted to in the past? Turns out, there’s a name for that: retroactive jealousy. It refers to jealousy around your partner’s previous relationships.
“Interest in a partner’s past can range from curious to obsessive to avoidant,” says Emily Cook, a marriage and family therapist in Bethesda, Maryland.
Like ordinary jealousy, retroactive jealousy is fairly common. It doesn’t always create problems, but, Cook explains, it can sometimes become obsessive and show up in unhealthy or destructive ways.
The good news? You can work through these feelings. Here’s how.
A key first step of working through any difficult emotion is simply acknowledging it and accepting it. It might not feel very good, but jealousy is a normal, valid emotion.
If you’re having a hard time accepting your jealousy, Patrick Cheatham, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon, recommends asking yourself what your feelings of jealousy really mean to you.
“Do you think their past predicts something about your relationship, or makes you feel like you can’t trust them? Once you get a sense of what the jealousy means, you can start to face those fears,” Cheatham says.
Experiencing retroactive jealousy doesn’t make you a bad person, but it can lead to unwanted emotions. You might feel anxious, worried about the future, or stressed around your partner.
It’s important to name and address these feelings, too. If you pretend they don’t exist, they may get worse.
You love your partner and want your relationship to succeed. This desire may contribute, at least in part, to your feelings about their past.
But think about your own past. You probably have some ex-partners, too. How do you feel about them now?
Breakups typically happen for a reason. Even if you dated someone more conventionally attractive than your current partner or someone you had better sex with, something wasn’t quite right. So you moved on and chose to develop a relationship with your current partner.
Likewise, your partner is making the same choice to stay with you, whatever their past relationships meant to them.
Most people can’t resist the temptation to poke around their partner’s social media pages, looking for pictures and comments from past loves.
While it’s one thing to pay attention to current posts your partner makes, going back through months or even years of social media history is another. Yes, a lot of people do it, but that doesn’t make it healthy.
The problem is that people tend to show their best selves on social media. They post their favorite photos and share their successes. What you see is often more idealized than realistic.
If something about your partner’s current social media behavior concerns you, bring it up with them. Beyond that, it’s generally best to respect their past. And remember: It probably wasn’t as great as it looked on Facebook.
There’s no way around it: Open communication is essential when it comes to working through difficult feelings, including jealousy.
“Curiosity about past partners and experiences is very natural,” Cheatham says. “Discussing these things can be a good way for couples to get to know each other and understand each other’s approach to relationships.”
You might struggle to find the right way to express your feelings, especially if you don’t want them to think you’re shaming them for having a lot of partners.
Do this in a compassionate, respectful way by using “I” statements and focusing on your current feelings instead of their past experiences.
For example, you could say:
- “Sometimes I feel worried you’ll move on from me because I believe you could date anyone you wanted.”
- “I know you and [ex’s name] planned to get married. So even though I trust your feelings for me, sometimes I worry you’ll realize you’d rather be with them after all.”
Your partner may be able to address your feelings in a way that helps ease them. But even just voicing them may help you manage them more easily.
Sharing your feelings with your partner might help in the moment. But later on, doubt may pop up again.
Maybe you trust their feelings for you right now but worry about what might happen if their attractive, talented ex shows up one day and says, “Breaking up was a mistake. I want you back.”
You can never know what someone’s truly thinking. That’s why trust is so important in relationships. If you trust your partner, extend that trust to what they’re telling you now.
Jealous feelings that linger or provoke an emotional response can be tough to overcome alone, Cheatham says. It may help to talk to a professional who can help you sort through them.
Pinpointing what’s driving feelings of jealousy can help.
Maybe you wonder who your partner was before they met you, or you want to know what attracted them to you in the first place. Or maybe you feel jealous because you don’t have details.
Cook suggests some people resist hearing about previous partners because they either want to keep their own past private or they fear hearing about infidelity. But you might still wonder about these things, even if you’d rather not discuss them.
Openly admitting exactly what you’re curious about or why you’re curious allows you the opportunity to bring it up with your partner.
According to Cook, a lack of self-worth or limiting beliefs about yourself can fuel jealousy. You might fixate on how your partner’s exes look, what they do, or make other comparisons.
Remind yourself that they chose to date you for a reason. It’s entirely possible (and probable) that, no matter how attractive or accomplished an ex was, you’ve got something special they’ve never found in anyone else.
Taking a few moments to remind yourself of your own unique talents and attributes can also help boost your self-confidence. If you’re struggling to recognize your positive traits, talking to a counselor can help.
You think your partner is pretty great, and you’re afraid of losing them. Take a moment to consider what makes them great. Family, friends, and romantic partners can all contribute to personal discovery and change.
Relationships themselves are a learning process. Your partner may have grown a lot from their past relationships, no matter how they ended.
Practicing gratitude can help you appreciate your partner’s history and feel less threatened by past relationships. Without those relationships, they could have developed into someone entirely different — someone you might not have fallen for.
Relationships involve some level of uncertainty and risk. Yours might end, and you might not be able to prevent that. Accepting this possibility can feel scary, it’s true. But the alternative usually involves anxiety and doubt.
Constantly wondering what led to the downfall of their past relationships or worrying your partner might move on to someone else takes a lot of energy. This can keep you from enjoying your time together.
Focus on the things going well in your relationship instead. Do what you can to nurture them and increase togetherness. No one can predict the future, but fixating on the past usually won’t help your relationship succeed.
If you’re struggling to overcome jealousy around your partner’s past, talking to a therapist is a good option.
A therapist can be particularly help for jealousy that:
- doesn’t go away
- contributes to anxiety or depression
- affects your relationship or quality of life
- affects your trust or opinion of your partner
According to Cook, therapy can help shift your focus from your partner’s past to your own inner dialogue by focusing on:
- your narrative of the relationship
- your worthiness of love, trust, respect, and affection
- any limiting beliefs you have
Some people may also experience retroactive jealousy as a type of OCD. So far, there’s little scientific research exploring this emerging concept.
However, Zachary Stockill describes obsessive retroactive jealousy in his book “Overcoming Retroactive Jealousy: A Guide to Getting Over Your Partner’s Past and Finding Peace.”
With this in mind, it’s wise to seek professional support if you:
- have intrusive thoughts about your partner’s past
- think about their past so much it affects your daily life
- need to act out compulsions to relieve distress
If your partner is struggling with feelings of retroactive jealousy, keep in mind that while these emotions may be triggered by you, they likely aren’t about you, Cook says.
Here’s how you can help.
Offer compassion and open communication
“Be patient, kind, and honest,” Cook says. “Hang on to your integrity (I own my past/my choices) while making space for your partner’s distress (I understand you’re worried about my past/my choices).”
Honestly answering your partner’s questions may help relieve jealousy. You don’t have to go into explicit detail if it doesn’t feel appropriate, but avoid lying or twisting the truth.
Couples counseling may help if:
- their questions seem to reach a point of fixation or repetition
- you feel like you’re talking in circles
- answering seems to cause more distress
Support them in individual counseling or couples therapy
You might feel frustrated or confused by your partner’s feelings. You don’t intend to leave them, and you barely think about past relationships. They might recognize this on some level, but it may require help from a therapist to work through jealousy and accept it.
It can be hard to find the right way to encourage someone to see a therapist.
Try something like:
- “I’m worried about your fears because I don’t want them to affect our relationship, since I want to make it work. Could we talk to a counselor together?”
- “I’m concerned because you seem sad and worried around me lately. Do you think it might help to talk to a counselor about those feelings?”
A final note about retroactive jealousy from Cheatham: Avoid romanticizing it.
“A lot of narratives around being in love see jealousy as a sign someone really loves you. It’s really not. At best, it’s a relationship hiccup. At worst, it shows someone’s love might come with a sense of possessiveness and limitation.”
Having some curiosity about your partner’s past relationships is completely normal, but the way you handle these feelings can make a difference for you and your relationship. If you’re struggling with them, a therapist can always offer support.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.