Dealing with Retroactive Jealousy in a Relationship


In romantic relationships it is quite natural for partners to be mildly possessive about each other and jealous of other objects of attention. In fact, taken in small doses jealousy helps partners to appreciate each other and not to take the other person for granted. However, when the jealousy is directed against someone from the past, it may be far more difficult to explain or cope with it. Here are a few tips on dealing with retroactive jealousy when it seems endanger your relationship.

When you are jealous of your partner’s past

There are many situations where you may find yourself consumed by retroactive jealousy and obsess about your partner’s past relationships. For instance you may not be able to stop dwelling over the fact that your partner’s ex had a better paying job than you do, or fantasizing if he/she was better in bed with your partner than you are. If such obsessions are allowed a free run, they are not only likely to result in significant psychological issues for you but may even result in ruining your relationship. Worst of all, when you give way to retroactive jealousy, you are starting a vicious circle. When you come upon a high school class photograph where your partner is standing together with a former sweetheart, you obsess whether the two have still a thing going on. On accusing your partner, he/she will either be hurt at your lack of trust or idly start wondering if he/she should get back in touch with her/him on the sly.  By accusing your partner of something he/she has not even done, you will only be making him/her unnecessarily defensive or secretive and thus lead him/her into actions which further make you jealous and suspicious.  

The first step to solve retroactive jealousy is to acknowledge that this is not a problem that is being caused by your partner, nor are his/her previous partners responsible for your negative emotions. Instead you need to recognize and acknowledge that the site of the real conflict is within you and it is your own sense of insecurity which you are projecting onto your partner that lies at the root of retroactive jealousy.

Unfortunately overcoming retroactive jealousy is far more difficult that simply admitting that you have a problem. The first thing you can do of course is to hold back. The problem with jealousy is that even when you know it is wrong to feel this way, the emotion is often too strong to control and leads you to say or do things which you regret later. Even so, the next time when you feel being overcome by jealousy of your partner’s ex make every effort to restrain yourself– don’t say anything, roll your eyes or even give your partner the silent treatment. Act as normally as possible and even fake an understanding or trusting nature.

In a relationship, feelings of jealousy usually originate from the perception that your partner is paying more attention to someone or something and that you are the rightful claimant to that attention. In retroactive jealousy though, the object of obsession is usually a person from your partner’s past. In order to check your negative feelings, observe the situations that trigger it off, like an office lunch where you know his ex will be present or an upcoming school function where your partner’s kids’ mom/dad is expected to attend. Ask yourself what exactly are you worried about these scenarios – that he/she will be spending more time away from you or the possibility of bonding with an ex – and then consider in a cool and logical way whether your fears are warranted and if your partner has given any proof in words or behavior to feel so distrustful. If not, then tell yourself that there is nothing to feel jealous of and if yes, then you know what issues need to be addressed in your relationship.

In cases of retroactive jealousy, it is usually a partner’s ex or his/her past which lead to feelings of jealousy. You may feel that your girlfriend’s former boyfriend has it all – looks, money, a Harvard law degree and even a luxury yacht which you can only dream of now. On the other hand your boyfriend’s ex who can bake, cook, organize charity dinners, have a roaring private practice and still manage to look like Megan Fox, can drive you to the depths of misery and self-pity. However always remember that you can only see a part of their entire lives. You are not privy to many facets of their existence which may not be as flawless as you imagine them to be. Also look around and get to know people who have not been so lucky – who are perhaps struggling with ill-health, loss and misfortune but who refuse to let themselves be assailed with doubts all the time. Finally make an effort to enhance yourself. Instead of worrying whether your partner prefers an ex to you, look for constructive and enjoyable ways to occupy your own time. Joining a course or learning a language will not only divert your mind from obsessing over your partner’s ex or past but more importantly give a big boost to your sense of self-worth and thus reduce scope of retroactive jealousy.

When your partner suffers from retroactive jealousy

Dealing with a partner who suffers from retroactive jealousy is often worse than someone who is merely possessive; this is because in case of the former, the object of contention is your past life and you may not even have a clue what your partner is upset at. If possible, try and avoid trigger factors which you know lead to jealous outburst from your partner. For instance if your partner gets bugged by your ex’s phone calls, suggest that they mail you beforehand; likewise throw away old possessions of your ex which your partner can interpret as evidence of your continuing attachment. However make only those adjustments in your behavior which you know you can keep, like being reachable by cell phone if you visiting your child at your ex’s place. If you happen to break promises agreed between the two of you, your partner may get more jealous.

If your partner’s retroactive jealousy springs from insecurity, look for ways that will make you both feel more secure in the relationship. These can be small symbolic gestures like wearing a scarf given by your boyfriend as an anniversary present or making it a point to call your wife every time you leave town on work. Don’t feel as though you are giving in to your partner’s whims since in reality a relationship is safe only as long as the partners feel secure in it.

At the same time, take steps to build your partner’s confidence. Look for ways to let your partner know how much you love him or her and why you wouldn’t want to be with anyone else. This is particularly helpful when your partner’s jealousy arises from feelings of real or perceived inadequacy. Be sure to give lots of compliments to your partner and talk about the great future you are looking forward to share with each other.

In most cases of retroactive jealousy though, the negative emotions take the form of an OCD with the affected person becoming obsessed about his/her partner’s past. In such extreme cases, your reassurances and loving expressions may have little effect and the more you try to assuage your partner’s insecurity, the more he/she may keep demanding from you. Such obsessions are difficult to get over without the intervention of a professional – so if you find that your partner’s retroactive jealousy is on the verge of ruining your relationship or worse pushing you on the edge of a nervous breakdown, encourage him/her to see a therapist, failing which you may have to re-evaluate your priorities in your personal life.