Retroactive jealousy: Meaning, triggers & causes


Jealousy in romantic relationships is common and natural. Once you’ve attracted a mate, you want to retain them. So, any indication that your partner may leave you for someone else is bound to trigger jealousy.

Another kind of jealousy is also common in relationships but doesn’t get talked about much. It’s when a person feels jealous of their partner’s previous romantic relationships.

Known as retroactive jealousy, it ranges from feeling uncomfortable about your partner’s prior relationships to obsessive thoughts and behaviors. Extreme retroactive jealousy has similar symptoms to Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior (OCD).

Retroactive jealousy: Thoughts and behaviors

When a person experiencing retroactive jealousy finds out about their partner’s past romantic relationship, they:

  • get upset and feel uncomfortable
  • play a mental movie of their partner getting intimate with their ex
  • incessantly quiz their partner about what happened
  • compare themselves to their partner’s ex and feel bad
  • obsessively dig into their partner’s social media to get more information

In extreme cases, they engage in violent and abusive behaviors toward their partner.

On the surface, this all looks pretty irrational. Why would your partner’s romantic past bother you so much? After all, it’s in the past. It’s not like their ex is coming back and threatening your current relationship.

Yet, countless people have experienced this irrational jealousy. For some, it happens occasionally, but for others, it doesn’t go away for years. When I was researching this topic, I came across a person who had experienced this jealousy for 50 years!

What triggers retroactive jealousy?

Retroactive jealousy is almost always triggered by information about your partner’s past romantic encounters. When two people in a romantic relationship get close, they share more personal things to increase intimacy and trust.

At some point, the topic of past relationships becomes inevitable. It is, however, a breeding ground for retroactive jealousy.

Sometimes, retroactive jealousy is obvious. People hear about their partner’s romantic past, and they immediately show discomfort and repulsion.

Other times, they may act like they don’t care, but the information is registered in their mind. This information then waits for the right moment in the future to trigger retroactive jealousy.

For instance, when a relationship is going through a bad phase or lacks intimacy, retroactive jealousy is likely to get triggered. The jealous partner’s mind is like:

“She doesn’t want to be intimate with me but easily gave herself to X in the past.”

They’ll then start comparing themselves to their partner’s ex, get upset at their current partner, name-call, argue, blame, and start a fight.

There are things that make retroactive jealousy worse, such as:

1. Low self-worth

Low self-worth can easily make you feel insecure about your partner’s ex, who’s not even a threat to your relationship anymore. Having said that, people with a decent level of self-worth can also experience retroactive jealousy.

2. Anxious attachment

People anxiously attached to their partners may be more likely to experience retroactive jealousy.

3. Past trauma

If you’ve been betrayed in a romantic relationship, you’re more likely to feel insecure in your current relationship at the slightest hint of a threat.

4. Not liking the ex

Interestingly, people feel more repulsed if their partner previously hooked up with someone they don’t like. They find it hard to believe that their partner lowered their standards and lose respect for them.

Mild retroactive jealousy can even be triggered by your partner mentioning a past crush. You’ll resist hearing about it and may ask them to not talk about it.

Of course, mild retroactive jealousy is not unhealthy and can even be cute. It shows that your partner loves and cares about you.

Some self-proclaimed saints declare that all forms of jealousy in a relationship are bad. They’re in denial. Jealousy in relationships is inevitable. What counts is how you manage these emotions.

You’re not a bad person for feeling jealousy or even retroactive jealousy in a relationship. You don’t have a ‘problem’. You need to understand what’s going on and take the right action.

What causes retroactive jealousy?

Why would information about your partner’s romantic past trigger a mental movie involving your partner and their ex?

This psychological phenomenon is similar to what happens in excessive anxiety or worry. If you’re on the verge of losing your job, for example, you’re likely to play a mental movie of how your family and friends might react.

This visualization of a negative future fuels our anxiety and prepares us for the upcoming threat.

This psychological mechanism also seems to operate in retroactive jealousy. The mental movies involving your partner and your ex are not really a threat of the past to the brain. They represent a future threat.

You’re anxious that your partner will behave in the same way again. After all, past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior. We’re wired to think like that.

This is why people judge their partners so negatively upon hearing about their romantic past. Their expectations of who they thought their partner was get violated. They’re like:

“I can no longer see him the same way.”

Needless to say, this has tremendous potential to ruin relationships. The insecurity doesn’t come from the fact that your partner was with someone else in the past. It comes from the fear that your partner may repeat this behavior.

Is this fear justified? I don’t know. That’s for you to figure out.

What if retroactive jealousy reveals an aspect of your partner’s personality you weren’t aware of?

What if all the fear and obsessive checking lead you to discover that your partner is cheating on you?

The point I’m trying to make is that retroactive jealousy, like any negative emotion, is a mental alarm signal. Even if you don’t become obsessive, it needs to be attended to.

It’s not always bad to end relationships out of retroactive jealousy. Maybe there are things you just can’t tolerate in your partner. And that’s okay.

At the same time, you can’t let retroactive jealousy go out of hand and turn abusive. You need to manage these emotions carefully. Retroactive jealousy could very well be a false alarm and often is.

How to get over retroactive jealousy

Retroactive jealousy is mostly a false alarm. Your mind is blowing things out of proportion because it desperately wants to secure your current relationship. Still, you need to pay attention to what your mind’s doing to choose the right course of action.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to dealing with retroactive jealousy:

1. Look at your current relationship

Is your current relationship great? If it is, you’re probably compatible and happy with your partner. You should do your best to protect the relationship and resolve your feelings of retroactive jealousy.

What’s the level of trust in your relationship? Is your partner fully committed to you?

If the answer is yes to both these questions, the relationship is worth continuing.

On the other hand, if your relationship is bad, then retroactive jealousy could be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back. It could be a good excuse to end the relationship.

2. Resolve your emotions

You’ve already taken a massive step by learning about retroactive jealousy. Now, you need to resolve your emotions.

Your job is to convince your mind that it’s sending you a false alarm using reason. The mind responds well to reason.

You need to give your mind good enough reasons why the retroactive jealousy emotions it’s sending you are really false alarms.

When your partner was with your ex, you were not in their life. You comparing yourself to their ex is irrational. The fact that your partner has now encountered both you and their ex but has chosen you over their ex shows they think you’re better than their ex.

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine if your partner got upset with your past romantic partners, how would you feel? Would you think it’s fair?

3. Revise your criteria

If your criterion for a partner is that they should’ve never been with anyone in the past, then why didn’t you clarify that when you entered the relationship?

Now is a good time to re-evaluate and come up with the traits you absolutely need in a relationship partner. While you’re at it, how realistic do you think it is to expect your partner not to have had a past relationship?

4. Avoid digging up the past

I think it’s a mistake to bring up past relationships in your conversations with your current partner. Sure, you’re trying to get close and share, but at what cost?

You should short-circuit any conversation involving exes. You shouldn’t reveal too many explicit details about your prior romantic encounters. If you do that, you’d be feeding those mental movies.

You may bring up your past lovers to show you’re desirable or to one-up your partner, but it’ll likely backfire.

Retroactive jealousy has the potential to destroy good relationships if not handled properly.