Ever been hit by a pang of jealousy when your partner brought up an ex in a conversation? Or when you scrolled through their Instagram and spotted an old photo of them all loved up? Do you also ever find yourself making comparisons to their exes, feeling inadequate after doing so? You may be experiencing retroactive jealousy.
While nobody wants to constantly think about their partner’s exes — especially if it’s something you fixate on and perhaps even feel threatened by — we also get that you can’t help feeling the way you feel. Well, that’s why we’re here, to help you overcome this. We speak to Dr Elaine Yeo, a senior psychologist to find out all about retroactive jealousy, and how you or your partner can learn to deal with it.
What is retroactive jealousy?
Dr Yeo defines retroactive jealousy as jealousy over a partner’s romantic and sexual history, even if the people involved are no longer in the picture.
This can include persistent and intrusive thoughts about a partner’s past or making comparisons with a partner’s ex(es). It can also mean doubting one’s partner, leading to compulsive behaviour such as checking their texts, social media, or whereabouts.
Retroactive jealousy can also involve ruminating on missing details, such as imagining an idealised version of a partner’s past, like one with exes who are perfect, attractive and successful.
What is the difference between normal jealousy and retroactive jealousy?
“Retroactive jealousy is specifically a fixation on (and feeling threatened by) a partner’s past, as opposed to feeling jealous about someone or something occurring in the present,” Dr Yeo shares.
“For example, you may feel jealous if your partner is currently in regular contact with their exes. In the case of retroactive jealousy, there is usually solid evidence that these exes are no longer part of your partner’s present life, yet you feel jealous about their very existence in your partner’s past.”
What are some situations where one may feel retroactive jealousy?
In essence, one may feel retroactive jealousy upon learning that your partner has a romantic and sexual history, whether directly from your partner or indirectly through friends, family or social media, Dr Yeo says.
Dr Yeo lists some possible reasons for retroactive jealousy:
Feelings of insecurity in one’s current relationship: The fear of losing your partner may lead to fixation on how the partner seemed more willing or able to do the things you’re seeking with someone in the past.
Past relational trauma: Such as a history of betrayal, rejection, abandonment or even attachment issues.
Low self-esteem: This, or the belief that one is good enough can lead to comparisons with a partner’s exes, such as thinking their ex is better looking or more successful than yourself.
Idealisation of one’s partner or relationships: In other words, the belief that one’s partner or relationship must be perfect. A history of multiple sexual partners, a past affair, or perhaps just the existence of a romantic and sexual past can be considered an unacceptable flaw.
How should I cope with feeling this way? How can I overcome this feeling?
Dr Yeo says to notice that you’ve feeling retroactive jealousy, then reflect on why it is coming up for you. Have you been cheated on in the past? Or maybe you have unhelpful beliefs about yourself or your partner and relationships? Discovering the roots of your jealousy can help you figure out what you need to move forward.
She also advises focusing on the present. Find ways to stay grounded in the present rather than the past, perhaps through mindfulness exercises. Focus on your present relationship by creating positive memories with your partner and working on deepening the trust and emotional intimacy between the two of you.
“Gain an understanding of your unhelpful beliefs and find ways to reframe them,” Dr Yeo recommends. “For example, if you believe you’re not good enough, think about where this thought came from. Have you internalised this message from past relational experiences — such as a history of abuse or neglect, receiving only criticism and no praise from parents, a history of bullying from peers, or a past romantic partner having an affair)? How true is this belief? Consider why your partner is no longer with their exes and has chosen to be with you, here and now.”
If you believe your romantic partner must always be a virgin before you, Dr Yeo suggests asking yourself these questions: Where does this belief come from? What does the existence of your partner’s sexual history mean to you — for instance, does it perhaps make you worry about your own sexual performance with your partner? How rational is this worry?
Additionally, she encourages you to resist the urge to compulsively check on your partner. Instead of giving in to your doubts and fears, occupy your mind with other active, pleasurable activities that you enjoy until the urge passes.
Lastly, communicate with your partner. If their behaviour is contributing to your insecurities about the relationship (such as them appearing more emotionally distant), express your feelings and collaborate with them in figuring out what changes might be needed.
If it’s too challenging and you feel you need additional support, seek professional help through individual or couples counselling.
If my partner is experiencing this, how should I help them cope with it or overcome it?
To help your partner deal with your retroactive jealousy, Dr Yeo has a few tactics:
Listen and validate their feelings of jealousy: The more understood your partner feels, the greater their sense of security in the relationship. Remind your partner of the reasons you chose to be with them, especially what you think makes them good enough for you.
Spend quality time: Spend quality time with them and create positive memories to help them focus more on the present.
Talk it out: If they share concerns about how your behaviour may be contributing to their insecurities in the relationship, listen, reflect and come up with a solution to the problem with them. Ask them what they think they need, and manage any frustration you may feel in the moment so as to avoid becoming defensive. If this seems too daunting and you feel you need additional support, seek professional help through individual or couples counselling.
Think about your own mental health: Remember that it is alright to walk away if you have tried every avenue that you can to support your partner. Sometimes, a person may not be willing, ready or able to change at this time. Hence, it is important for your own emotional and mental health to leave a relationship that is no longer healthy for you.
Text: Natalie-Elizabeth Tan/HerWorld