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6 Reasons You Experience Retroactive Jealousy


Staff member
Mar 19, 2024
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Listen to a podcast about this here!

Many people struggle with retroactive jealousy, which is when you are jealous of a partner’s past romantic or sexual partners. Some of the most common manifestations of this including looking your partner’s ex-partners up on social media, comparing yourself or internally “competing” constantly with an ex (even in this case to a dead partner), constantly asking your partner about their prior relationship and what was better/worse in that relationship versus yours, and even snooping through your partner’s emails/texts to find old correspondence with their ex. What are some reasons people experience retroactive jealousy?

  1. Low self-esteem. If you feel that you are not attractive or lovable, you likely do not understand why their partner is with you. You may rationalize that the only reason they stay with you is because you are a provider (read about the workhorse mentality here), or because you are stable, or because you take care of all of their basic needs (read about women who play this role here). You assume that your partner’s previous partners were more appealing to them or more of a turn-on, so you become obsessed with “proving” that this is the case, in order to protect yourself. After all, if you “know” that your partner really loves someone else more, you protect yourself from being blindsided if this actually turns out to be the case and they leave you.
  2. You have preoccupied attachment. When you grew up in a home where your emotional needs were not consistently met, you learn that romantic partners are not trustworthy. Read about how attachment panic manifests in controlling and jealous behaviors here. If you have this attachment style, you are constantly anxious that your partner doesn’t really love you and doesn’t prioritize you, and since you are drawn to avoidant partners, they in fact are not as reassuring as others may be. You therefore take their avoidant style (listen to how this manifests in men and women) to mean that you just aren’t “enough” for them, and become obsessed with the idea that they acted differently in their prior relationship, and that the ex-partner somehow elicited the sexual or romantic feelings that you can’t fully obtain from your partner now. (Note: you may also have fearful avoidant attachment, although this is a less common style.)
  3. Sadness about your own sexual/romantic past. Many men who consider themselves late bloomers struggle with retrospective jealousy. They do not feel like they had enough experience, either in terms of number of partners or variety/intensity of experiences, and they become jealous of their partner’s ex, who they perceive as more attractive or sexually successful than them.
  4. Unadmitted dissatisfaction with the relationship. It feels risky to people with low self-esteem to admit that they actually aren’t happy in their relationship, because they are unsure that they could ever get a different partner who is a better fit for them. If you aren’t fully satisfied in your relationship, you may project your own unadmitted dissatisfaction onto your partner, saying they aren’t really into you… when in fact, you really aren’t into them! Also, telling yourself that your partner did more romantic/sexual things with someone else means that there is hope for change, because in theory you can “hack” your partner by becoming more like their ex. Admitting that whatever your relationship is currently like is the best it will get can be scary and upsetting if you’re not actually happy.
  5. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). People who struggle with OCD in other areas often struggle with relationship OCD as well, where they constantly question if the relationship they are in is “right” or if they are truly compatible with their partner. Retroactive jealousy often plays into this as well, where you get intrusive thoughts about whether your partner really loves their ex more than you. Intrusive thoughts of any kind can be a symptom of OCD, and can be treated by therapy, especially exposure therapy with response prevention.
  6. Your partner is actually in love with their ex, or uses them against you. In some cases, the ex was really “the one who got away” for your partner, and they make ongoing, wistful comments about this. (Note that talking about exes in general is normal and healthy, but heaping praise on an ex repeatedly is not.) Also, in dramatic, conflictual relationships, your partner may actually use their ex as a comparison point during fights, saying things like, “X treated me better than you do… I bet he would want to get back with me.” In the first five points, you need to look inward, but in this last case, you need to look at your partner’s behavior objectively. They may be facilitating or even creating jealousy, whether purposefully or not, because of their own sadness about their prior relationship ending, or to create drama with you.

If retroactive jealousy is something that you struggle with, therapy can help you figure out why and how to move forward. Individual therapy is preferable to couples, because this is usually an issue that you need to figure out on your own, rather than involving your partner and making them listen to all of your thoughts and feelings about their ex every week. However, if your partner brings up their ex repeatedly, as per point #6, couples counseling is the way to go. And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, They Are Usually An Ex For Good Reason!
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