• 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.

The modern dating game is harder than ever and fraught with peril. We’re expected to roll with each bad date or mismatch while choosing from the ever-growing list of dating apps. Then we carefully (or not) swipe through cultivated pictures until we find and match with someone that we’re interested in. Fast forward past the introductions, first and following dates that lead to exclusivity, and then voila: We’ve made it onto greener pastures, with an exciting new partner to know and grow with. From here, it’s happily ever after, right? Not if you have retroactive jealousy. 

We all get jealous occasionally, but retroactive jealousy can make someone start obsessing over their partner’s past to the point that it ruins their relationship, mental health, and ability to trust. Though this type of relationship anxiety can warp someone’s views on their partner and self-esteem, it can be managed. Over time, and with a partner’s support and patience, those with retroactive jealousy can learn to control their jealous feelings and enjoy their relationship—without intrusive, uncomfortable thoughts. 

What Causes Retroactive Jealousy? 

Retroactive jealousy is thought to be associated with having an anxious attachment style. Attachment styles refer to how we feel and behave in our interpersonal relationships. Those with anxious attachment styles are more prone to worry about their partner walking out, cheating, lying, or otherwise being dishonest even without any evidence. While this might sound like irritating behavior, those with retroactive jealousy aren’t trying to stir the pot—which is why some researchers think it could actually be a specific form of OCD.  

Retroactive jealousy often has a trigger that may come from a difficult childhood, such as parental neglect or other traumatic experiences. Retroactive jealousy may also be caused by: 

Signs and Symptoms of Retroactive Jealousy

The signs of retroactive jealousy shouldn’t be confused with occasional jealousy, a previous fight, or anger over a partner’s dishonest behavior. While these events are commonplace and last only temporarily, retroactive jealousy can be a 24/7 ordeal. Those who are suffering may receive little respite—their minds may even create graphic imagery. These imaginary scenes often depict their loved one performing sexual acts with previous partners: These hellish movies can prevent them from eating, sleeping, or otherwise taking care of themselves. 

The following may be signs of retroactive jealousy: 

  • Being obsessed with comparing yourself to their exes
  • Snooping through your partner’s items or electronics without permission
  • Feeling unable to trust your partner, even without any basis for being suspicious
  • Worrying about your sexual performance vs. their previous partners
  • You’ve struggled with another form of relationship anxiety in the past 

How to Cope with a Partner’s Retroactive Jealousy

Those with retroactive jealousy are often painfully aware of its detrimental impact on their relationship and may be unable to stop without professional assistance. If your spouse or partner has retroactive jealousy, try to: 

  • Remind your significant other that there’s a reason you chose to be with them: Talk with them about how their thoughts and emotions aren’t based on the present moment. Though their focus may be on what happened before they met you, making the best out of the time you share together will always be what’s most important.
  • Never mock or laugh at the fears or suspicions your partner shares: While their imaginary fears or suspicions may not be based in reality, consider the difficulty of what they’re faced with and the pain that they’re in. Remember, they aren’t trying to cause tension.
  • Remain open, but don’t allow someone with retroactive jealousy to cross any lines. In the event that your situation escalates, you may need to protect yourself against verbal or emotional abuse. When the anxiety and panic sets in, those with retroactive jealousy can get caught up in their mentality, ruthlessly digging through social media accounts or personal belongings for evidence of foul play in the relationship. During this time, they may lash out when overwhelmed and push you to make a difficult decision, but you should never feel bad about leaving an unhealthy relationship. 

Finally, if you’re unable to resolve your differences on your own or would like additional support, you can prioritize your relationship via mental health services. For extreme cases of retroactive jealousy, specifically those rooted in an anxiety disorder, a psychiatrist’s help may be required to find adequate relief. For others, couples therapy or marriage counseling is often a great way for partners with retroactive jealousy to engage with their significant other with the help of a professional.