Retroactive Jealousy (Examples Included)

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We’ve all seen that episode in a sitcom where a person’s ex comes into town, and their partner gets a little jealous. Hijinks ensue, the audience laughs, and everything is resolved by the end of the episode. In real life, retroactive jealousy isn’t always funny.

If you have ever felt jealous of your partner’s exes, or your partner is jealous of your exes, keep reading. Retroactive jealousy can be associated with certain mental disorders if it affects your life, but it can also be treated. Don’t let jealousy ruin a great relationship. Understand where retroactive jealousy comes from and how you can eliminate it. 

What Is Retroactive Jealousy? 

Retroactive jealousy is the feeling of jealousy directed at a partner’s exes or past relationships. This jealousy may just be an uncomfortable feeling, or it can result in intrusive thoughts or destructive behaviors. A person feeling retroactive jealousy may grow distrustful of their partner, regardless of their partner’s actions.

What Does Retroactive Jealousy Look Like?

Everyone can feel a twinge of awkwardness when hearing about a partner’s dating or intimate life before them, but retroactive jealousy is more than just an isolated, funny feeling. Retroactive jealousy can lead to an array of different feelings and behaviors, including: 

  • Going through a partner’s text messages with past relationships
  • Thinking about a partner’s past over and over again
  • Comparing yourself to a partner’s exes
  • Closely following your partner’s exes on social media 
  • Feeling distrustful of your partner
  • Checking up on your partner’s location
  • Making assumptions about your partner’s feelings for their exes
  • Feeling paranoid 
  • Doubting your partner’s love for you

Is Retroactive Jealousy Normal?

As human beings, we naturally want to compare ourselves to others. We compare ourselves to our friends, family members, or strangers online. Why wouldn’t we feel compelled to compare ourselves to people we have something in common with? Retroactive jealousy is normal, but destructive behaviors as a result are not.

When you start feeling a twinge of jealousy, pay attention to your reaction. Do you remind yourself that you are the person your partner chose to be with, or do you allow yourself to ruminate further on your partner’s past? The more you react to these feelings with unhealthy behaviors, the less “normal” the jealousy becomes. 

Is Retroactive Jealousy a Mental Illness?

Mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, or PTSD may contribute to feelings of retroactive jealousy and reduce your ability to process them in healthy ways. Most likely, however, your feelings are not the sign of a larger mental illness. Only in extreme cases, where someone is hurting themselves or others due to retroactive jealousy, can these feelings be a sign of a serious mental health condition: retroactive jealousy OCD.

Is Retroactive Jealousy a Form of OCD?

The most extreme cases of retroactive jealousy develop into retroactive jealousy OCD. Like “typical” OCD, retroactive jealousy OCD involves repetitive, unhealthy behaviors. Instead of flicking on a light switch 100 times or counting things over and over, the repetitive behaviors in retroactive jealousy OCD are typically intrusive thoughts about a partner’s ex. 

In some cases, these repetitive behaviors take place despite the person’s desire to stop. They feel out of control. Without intervention, these repetitive behaviors may include:  

  • Checking a partner’s phone or location
  • Snooping a partner’s social media or DMs
  • Checking an ex’s social media or location 
  • Calling a partner to check in on them 
  • Asking repeatedly and excessively for validation

Intervention will take place sooner if the partner can openly express any discomfort they have with being checked in on repeatedly. If the person with retroactive jealousy OCD recognizes their unhealthy behaviors, they should seek help immediately.

Why People Have Retroactive Jealousy

We might naturally feel a little jealousy, but what causes a person to “take things too far” and display symptoms of retroactive jealousy or retroactive jealousy OCD? The answer isn’t so simple. 

On a Reddit post about retroactive jealousy, users share their experiences and why they developed these feelings. You can read the whole post here


On the post about retroactive jealousy, one user said, “I had [it] really bad when I didn’t feel confident in myself. They were really intrusive and I always made it a point to remind my girlfriend (now wife) that they weren’t her fault and asked for patience with me because as gross as the thoughts were in my head, I can only imagine how hard it was for her to be forced to think of past relationships that she no longer wanted to think of and I was sorta forcing her hand by either making her explain herself or deal with my piss poor attitude.”

Retroactive jealousy may be the result of feeling insecure or down about yourself. Feeling more secure in yourself naturally leads to feeling more secure in your relationship. 

Changes In Your Relationship

When a user asked the OP on the Reddit post when his retroactive jealousy started, he responded that it gradually developed after their children were born and their sex life changed. “I know that for a fact that lack of sex has played a huge part in this for me. I have a high sex drive and after our youngest was born hers just went away. I have probably let that frustration build up and started to act resentful for it. I feel like I really need to just accept my situation, work to communicate better and realize that if I wanna get past these feelings I have to accept the sh*t that is out of my control.”

Having a baby, moving, distance, or changing jobs can drastically change how a couple interacts with each other. If you are anticipating changes or have recently been through them, consider talking to your partner about going to a counselor or relationship therapist. 

Past Relationship Trauma 

The fear of being compared to an ex or being left for an ex could come from past experiences! When one user argued that feelings of retroactive jealousy were caused by an external trigger, another said, “It can also be an internal trigger. Not external.” If you are feeling jealous of your partner’s past relationships, take some time to journal about your experiences. Have you experienced a partner leaving you for an ex in the past? How would you compare the way you view your exes to the way your partner views theirs? These differences may illuminate why you are feeling uncomfortable. 

How Long Does Retroactive Jealousy Last?  

Retroactive jealousy lasts as long as you let it! Without intervention, the paranoid or jealous feelings surrounding your partner’s exes can continue until it causes irreparable damage to your relationship. Prevent this by seeking help. There is no shame in feeling retroactive jealousy, as it may be the result of anxiety or situations outside of your control. Plus, taking the time to improve yourself and your relationship shows commitment to your partner. 

Can’t Get Over Retroactive Jealousy? Here’s What to Do.

Retroactive jealousy can be treated. You have already read some suggestions on how to overcome symptoms of retroactive jealousy (journaling, couple’s counseling,) but there are multiple ways to approach these experiences. 

Have a conversation with your partner. First and foremost, be honest with your partner. Let them know that these thoughts are affecting you but you are trying to eliminate them and move forward. Let your partner know what they can do to try to reduce these intrusive thoughts, but understand that they have boundaries, too. Your feelings of jealousy should not force your partner to change their life or schedule. 

Talk to friends and family. Retroactive jealousy is normal, so it’s likely a friend or family member has experienced it in their relationships. Talk to these people in your life and hear their experiences. You may discover that you are not alone, and your relationship will work out just like it did for the people in your life. 
Seek mental health counseling. A therapist can help you work through feelings of jealousy or process past traumas that may have caused these feelings. They may also determine if you need to attend a couple’s counseling or should pursue treatment for retroactive jealousy OCD.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, November). Retroactive Jealousy (Examples Included). Retrieved from

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