Examining Retroactive Jealousy – a specific type of jealousy in romantic relationships

Retroactive Jealousy - a 3 part series

On a recent Twitter poll, I asked which of three possible topics you wanted me to write about next. The majority of voters chose Retroactive Jealousy, so that’s what today’s blog post will be about.

To be honest, I’ve wanted to write about this topic since I started this blog but I’ve hesitated because I knew it would be a difficult subject for me to tackle.

It’s incredibly complicated, illogical, and most people have never even heard of it. It’s also something that I personally struggle with and it’s had a negative impact on all of my romantic relationships.

But, to hell with my own insecurities, I want to cater to my audience! ?

So, What is Retroactive Jealousy?

In simplest terms, Retroactive Jealousy is when you feel jealous about your partner’s past partners’.

You’ve probably wondered about who your bae was with before you – that’s totally normal! Everyone feels curious about their partner’s relationship or sexual history to a certain extent. But with retroactive jealousy, that “normal” curiosity gets twisted into something far more uncomfortable and obsessive.

If you’re suffering from Retroactive Jealousy, you might find yourself obsessively looking up your partner’s exes on social media. You’ll comb through their Instagram feed looking at all their photos and fixating on whether or not they were more attractive, smarter, or better in bed than you.

Really, you’re wondering whether or not your partner loved them more than you.

To a certain extent, this type of jealous behavior is fairly common.

Most people in a romantic relationship will, at some point, ask their S.O. about their prior relationships. They’ll probably even do a little Facebook stalking to see what the girl in question looked like (after all, they want to check out who their competition was, so to speak.) They might even feel a little stab of jealousy or insecurity if she was drop dead gorgeous.

But they’ll move on fairly quickly.

What does Retroactive Jealousy look like?

People with Retroactive Jealousy, however, will not move on that fast. They’ll start to ruminate over these thoughts – obsessively looking at social media posts and thinking about their partner’s past. They’ll spend a lot of time and energy on this until it starts to become an obsession. There’s even a specific form of OCD known as Retroactive Jealousy OCD, or RJ for short.

In OCD (and not “I need to have my highlighters organized all the time, I’m so OCD, hahaha,” but True OCD), obsessions are excessive thoughts that cause distress or uncomfortable emotions while compulsions are the behaviors used in reaction to the obsessive thoughts.

So, the obsessive part of RJ has already been covered – that’s the constant stream of “was she prettier than me, did he like her more, what did he like about her?” running through an RJ sufferers mind. But what about the compulsive part?

Well, for one, constantly looking up a lovers’ exes on social media is a compulsion – people with RJ think that they need to see these pictures in order to try and get some clarity on the situation. They think that if they can just find out a little more, it’ll somehow ease their discomfort.

The search for answers is what drives people with RJ to do these kinds of behaviors.

They think that if they can get the right information and just understand things better, the obsessive thoughts will dissipate. So, they’ll dig for the “truth.” They might start to ask their partner a variety of questions about their sexual history. Not just the typical “What’s your number?” type questions. Really specific, in depth questions.

“How many times did you sleep together?”

“What kind of sex did you have?”

“Did you use a condom?”

They’ll also probably ask similar types of questions about the relationship in general– questions about how it ended, why it ended, who ended things, if their partner was in love, if their partner was heartbroken etc. etc. etc.

Their partner may begin to feel as if they’re being interrogated.

They’ll feel like they’re being asked the same question in a hundred different ways. They’ll think it’s been resolved only to have additional questions thrown at them a day or two later. It’s exhausting – both for the person with RJ and for their partner.

So, it goes something like this:

  1. Partner A is having highly distressing thoughts about Partner B doing X,Y, or Z in a previous relationship.
  2. Partner A starts to ask Partner B about X, Y, and Z in a misguided attempt to quell these thoughts.
  3. Partner B answers the questions and provides reassurance, but instead of easing Partner A’s anxiety, the answers only cause more anxiety, which leads to more questions.

It becomes a never ending cycle fueled by the temporary relief provided.

Cycle of Retroactive Jealousy

The Complications of Retroactive Jealousy

It’s important to note that the relief felt here is temporary – Partner A is seeking validation and reassurance from Partner B. When they get it, the thoughts and obsessions cease – but only for a SHORT period of time.

So, when they inevitably return, Partner A will start to think that they need more answers and more reassurance.

Another important thing to note is that, often, Partner B will feel as if they’re being judged based on their past. Partner A will ask questions or attempt to clarify things in a way that makes them feel like they did something wrong.

The biggest issue, here, is a failure to properly communicate.

Partner A is, in a way, passing a moral judgement onto Partner B. But it’s not because they actually think Partner B did something bad or wrong, it’s because Partner A feels a high level of anxiety when thinking about Partner B’s past actions. They’ll think about Partner B doing these things with other people and it’ll start to cause distress, disgust, and an illogical sense of anger.

The fact that all of these thought patterns are illogical also comes into play. Partner A knows that what they’re feeling or thinking is not rational. That only makes them feel more insecure. Instead of facing their own insecurity, though, they’ll lash out at Partner B.

The real key, then, is insecurity.

All of these distressing and uncomfortable thoughts, all of this jealousy that Partner A feels is really stemming from fear and insecurity. For whatever reason, they’re afraid of not being good enough for their partner and eventually losing them.

It’s illogical, though, to feel afraid of losing a partner to someone from their past – that previous relationship ended for a reason, after all. But, obsessive thoughts, jealousy, and insecurity are not rooted in logic, they’re rooted in anxiety.

Complicated, right?


Hopefully, after reading more about this, it makes a little more sense to you. In my next blog post, I’ll discuss some coping strategies for dealing with Retroactive Jealousy.

Have any of you ever experienced this? Leave your thoughts or experiences in the comments below!

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30ish Lifestyle blogger, relationship "expert," and modern-day agony aunt.
Sometimes humorous, always honest.