• We all get jealous sometimes—but worrying obsessively over your significant other’s sexual and romantic history is known as retroactive jealousy, an unhealthy relationship habit.
  • Retroactive jealousy can be triggered if you have an anxious attachment style, bad experiences with past partners, or even childhood trauma.
  • Common signs of retroactive jealousy include difficulty trusting, snooping through personal possessions or electronics, and comparing oneself to a partner’s exes.
  • Coping with a partner’s retroactive jealousy can be challenging, but some key strategies include reminding them of their worth, taking their pain seriously, and ensuring that their jealousy does not lead to abuse.
  • If you aren’t able to resolve retroactive jealousy issues on your own, professional assistance from a marriage or couples counselor may provide relief and reconciliation.

We all get jealous occasionally—but retroactive jealousy can make someone start obsessing over their partner’s romantic past. Retroactive jealousy can be so intense that it can derail a person’s relationship, mental health, and ability to trust others. 

Although this type of relationship anxiety can warp someone’s views on their partner and their self-esteem, it can be managed effectively with mental health services. Over time, and with a partner’s support and patience, those with retroactive jealousy can learn to control their overthinking and jealous feelings and begin to more fully enjoy their relationship.

 Learn more about retroactive jealousy below.

What Is Retroactive Jealousy Caused by?

The most common causes of retroactive jealousy are:

However, the causes of retroactive jealousy can also be triggered by certain behaviors demonstrated by the partner of the afflicted individual, such as: 

  • Evasive/avoidant behaviors
  • Lying
  • Inconsistent behaviors
  • Avoidance of discussing past relationships
  • Difficulty discussing emotions and feelings

Is Retroactive Jealousy Toxic?

The word “toxic” is dependent on each person’s individual experiences and interpretations, but left unattended, retroactive jealousy can cause someone to act in ways that are extremely harmful, causing severe damage to their interpersonal relationships. Retroactive jealousy, left untreated, can cause significant intrapersonal and interpersonal damage due to its demanding, urgent nature of constant comparison and questioning. 

This constant cycle can cause someone to demonstrate irrational, irritable, and dysfunctional behavior patterns that are not healthy and can be potentially harmful if left unrecognized and untreated.

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What Is an Example of Retroactive Jealousy?

Retroactive jealousy in a relationship can appear as: 

  • Difficulty accepting love and affection from your current partner because they have had previous long-term relationships. 
  • Difficulty engaging in sexual intercourse and having fulfilling sexual intercourse with your partner due to fears that you are not “as good” as their previous partners and then using that as a means to deny sex. 

Typically, retroactive jealousy is used as a way to hold past relationships against a current partner, either intentionally or not. Retroactive jealousy can take many different forms and, again, is individualized to each specific person and their situation. 

Is Retroactive Jealousy a Form of Anxiety?

While it is not a specific form of anxiety, the activating mechanism of retroactive jealousy is anxiety-based. Retroactive jealousy is fueled by a fight or flight response that gets activated in the body; there is some specific environmental trigger that alerts the brain to potential (real or not) relationship danger.

This then forces/encourages the person to be in a state of hypervigilance as a way to assess and manage real and perceived threats to their relationship, which manifests as retroactive jealousy.

Is It Normal to Have Retroactive Jealousy?

Yes, it is normal to have retroactive jealousy to a certain extent. It’s normal to compare yourself to your partner’s past relationships, to have a general curiosity about them and their nature, and to want to know basic information about their past partners. 

It’s important to recognize that retroactive jealousy is harmful when:

  • It lasts for longer than approx. two weeks
  • It is present at the start of a new relationship
  • It’s something that you think about daily 

If you start to notice that you are experiencing difficulty focusing, concentrating, or being intimate physically and/or emotionally with your romantic partner, that’s a sign that your retroactive jealousy is starting to significantly increase and negatively impact your relationship.

How Do I Work with My Girlfriend to Get Over Retroactive Jealousy?

One of the best ways to discuss retroactive jealousy with a partner is to seek professional counseling—with individual counseling being a priority first. Next, the best thing to do is to begin to ask your partner to discuss their emotional experiences in a supportive, non-judgmental way. 

One of the cores of retroactive jealousy is insecurity, so allowing your partner to explore their insecurities respectfully can help them feel heard and can increase their feelings of emotional security. Next, finding ways to cope together can be helpful and maybe out of this conversation, you can develop a mindfulness routine such as meditation. 

What Is the Best Way to Overcome a Potentially Self-Inflicted Retroactive Jealousy Pattern?

You can start to overcome a self-inflicted retroactive jealousy pattern by first bringing awareness to it and allowing yourself to identify it as a pattern. Next, seek professional help and counseling services so that you can develop tools that will help you manage and overcome it.

One of the best ways to overcome this is to use some CBT techniques, such as:

  • Remind yourself to check the facts of the situation: Do you currently have a partner who loves you, supports you, and actively chooses to be with you daily? 
  • Does your partner value you and make you and your relationship a special priority?: If so, that is a key indicator that it is a healthy relationship and should be continued.

Will Retroactive Jealousy Ever Go Away?

While it can go away on its own, retroactive jealousy will linger and will last longer and more intensely if you do not seek professional counseling services. Due to its nature, it requires professional attention to help identify, challenge, and replace negative automatic thoughts about self and others. 

In other words, you need specific tools and techniques from a counselor to help you reframe negative thought patterns, because engaging in them is cyclical; they are not likely to go away on their own because they are repetitive.