In a romantic relationship, it’s normal to feel occasional jealousy. Most likely you’ve experienced the green-eyed monster at times when you’ve felt insecure about yourself—maybe while watching the bartender flirt a little too obviously with your partner, or when your spouse brings home yet another story about their charming “work wife.” But what if you’re experiencing jealousy around your partner’s past—their former partners and their sex life before you got together? That’s known as retroactive jealousy, and it’s every bit as damaging to your current relationship.
“The term ‘retroactive jealousy’ has been used to describe jealousy, resentment, or frustration regarding a partner’s past romantic or sexual experiences,” Sarah Melancon, a sociologist and sexologist, told Lifehacker. “It is a form of jealousy that is not based in the present, but in a partner’s real or imagined past experiences before the relationship even existed.”
Why does it happen? Melancon notes that if we’ve had reason to be distrustful in the past—particularly if we have a history of trauma—we tend to carry those wounds with us into future relationships. “If you’ve been lied to, cheated on, or betrayed in some way, it makes perfect sense your insecurities may become focused on your partner’s past and fears about the present,” she said.
Even if you’ve never been cheated on, if past trauma has given you a fear of abandonment, that can make you hyper-focus on the possible reasons your partner may leave—which may cause you to over-emphasize your partner’s past instead of understanding that it is in the past for a reason.
Retroactive jealousy is as common as “regular” jealousy, and it can drive a wedge between you and your partner, manifesting as obsessive monitoring and other destructive patterns. Below are the common signs of retroactive jealousy, and how to combat them.
Signs you’re experiencing retroactive jealousy
You constantly compare yourself to their past partners. If you find yourself trapped in the comparison game with your partner’s ex, then you might be experiencing retroactive jealousy. “You may compare on any number of bases—appearance, education, job, family background, etc.,” Melancon said. “No matter what you’re comparing yourself to, however, you always measure up short.”
You become angry or upset when hearing about positive experiences in past relationships. Did you recently see old social media photos of your partner enjoying a great vacation or adopting a pet together with their ex and feel a rush of jealousy? If so, that’s a clear example of retroactive jealousy.
“Being in an adult relationship means understanding your partner has most likely been happy with others in the past. But retroactive jealousy can make it difficult to accept this reality,” Melancon explained. “This may lead your partner to stop sharing about their past, which can damage the sense of intimacy in your relationship.”
You feel like you have to compete with their previous sex partners. According to Melancon, sexual insecurity can become a particular issue if your partner has had sex with more people than you, had more adventurous sex than you, or has particularly attractive exes, but it could be triggered even if their sex life was comparable to your own.
“This may feel like pressure to engage in certain acts, have sex at a certain frequency, or have a certain appearance,” Melancon said. “This can interfere with sexual intimacy, because rather than true connection, sex can become a performance.”
You snoop through their personal items, computer, or phone. Your retroactive jealousy may build to such a degree that it feels like you must do something about it, Melancon said. “Often these behaviors are not conscious or calculated, but rather, impulsive or reactive. Breaching your partner’s trust is a dangerous road, because no matter how many times you search, it will never satisfy your fear-brain and can destroy your partner’s trust in you.”
This might also include Internet “stalking” your partner’s exes on social media to monitor how they interact with your partner or gauge their impressions of their former relationship.
How to curb your retroactive jealousy
Unless there is clear evidence your partner has been untrustworthy in the past, Melacon recommends giving them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their former flames. “This is equally for you and them, because (with practice) you can save yourself a lot of heartache,” she said.
Instead of stewing over perceived threats to your happiness, turn your questions inward, she advised. Ask yourself what you want out of your relationship, whether you’re getting it, and how you want to feel about your partner versus how you actually feel.
During acute flareups of retroactive jealousy, it’s imperative to take care of your nervous system that’s likely gone haywire, Melancon said. Taking a hot bath or using a heating pad on your back can help relax your adrenal glands; while mind-body practices like meditation, yoga, or tai chi can calm your racing thoughts. Journaling or talking with a friend, relative, or therapist can help you gain perspective. Crying or engaging in physical activity can help you blow off steam.
How to talk to your partner about your retroactive jealousy
As awkward as it might be, Melancon recommends being honest with your partner about your feelings so you can work through them together. “Working as a team can help you build trust and strengthen the relationship, which may also help improve your jealousy over time,” she advised.
Equally important is taking responsibility for your emotions and reactions, and understanding how those affect your partner. Instead of accusing your partner of unfaithful thoughts for liking an ex’s Instagram post, talk with them about how seeing that made you feel. Express your own self-doubts rather than lobbing accusations.
“Defensiveness tends to lead to fights, which aren’t necessarily bad, but can complicate the issue,” Melancon said. “Rather, sharing your experience and owning your issues can help you talk about it together more peacefully.”
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